Student Profile: Sung-Kyu Kim
"Composing is all about making decisions," says Sung-Kyu Kim '07. "You have a hundred different ways to get there, but you have to choose one."
With 12 notes of every possible octave on every instrument, all the chord combinations of every mode, and all the varieties of rhythm and tempo to choose from, there are actually thousands of ways to get there, maybe hundreds of thousands. But imagine if the composer's palette expanded beyond the agreed—to bounds of Western music. What if they included every sound in the natural world: a slamming door, waves lapping, or feet padding across a floor?
What if you could manipulate those sounds on a computer, shift their pitch, speed them up or slow them down? What if you could make a human voice sound like a snare drum? Or make a snare drum sound like an explosion? How much more difficult would it be for a composer to decide what comes next?
"With harmony and melody, you know what sounds good. When you try to make music out of natural sounds, it's hard to find points of agreement," Kim says. "To make it sound good to everyone's ear-it's a lot harder. But it's more fun."
Kim considers himself, first and foremost, a composer. But being a music synthesis major has changed the way he looks at writing music.
"As a composer, I tend to get into one specific style. But music synthesis makes me realize there are other ways to go," he says. "It expands my creativity a lot—to take any sound and turn it into music, and not only deal with chords and melody."
Kim enjoys the challenge of using natural sounds in his compositions, mixing them with live instruments, and computer-generated effects to create music that is a blend of electronica and his favorite traditional genres, jazz and Latin music.
He also enjoys the interplay of music, mathematics, and computer science that comprises the music synthesis major. A native of Seoul, South Korea, Kim attended high school in Philadelphia before spending two years studying architecture at Syracuse University. He did well there, but his heart wasn't in it.
"I always wanted to become a musician. My parents wanted me to be an architect. At least I tried," he says.
While some students struggle with science-based aspects of music synthesis coursework, Kim finds it stimulating. "I really like a lot of mathematics. And there is a lot in common, mathematically and musically. Composing is all about balance. Architecture is all about balance," he says. "All art is about organizing, so that everything balances. The only difference is that, in music, you have time existing."
In addition to expanding his creativity and improving his math skills, music synthesis coursework also is teaching Kim professional discipline. His favorite course, Synthesis in Composition and Orchestration for Commercial Production, emphasized composing for the specific needs of clients—and doing so on a realistic, professional timetable. Some of the projects included composing techno music for a racing video game and smooth jazz for an automobile commercial. Each assignment had to be composed, recorded, and professionally presented in just two weeks.
Art and Commerce
"Before that class, I always felt like I had tons of time to compose. I really learned to work fast. In real life, if you want to make a living, you have to be able to do that," he says.
He also learned how to listen to clients, understand what they are asking for, and create music that suits their needs.
"Before, if someone said to me, 'I want the music to be blue,' I would say 'What?' But now I understand how to do that."
Composing for commercial clients takes some getting used to. Often the composer must suppress his own personal taste to fulfill the client's wishes. In the end, though, commercial work makes Kim a better composer-and it pays the bills.
"While fulfilling their requests, I still want to make the music joyful to listen to. First I think about meeting their needs. Then, I think about putting my ideas into the music wherever it's possible. Someone, somewhere will hear [the musicality of] it, and enjoy it," he says.
Kim's dream job is to compose music for animation. A recovering cartoon junky, he admits he "used to be a freak" when it comes to animation. Enrolling at Berklee put an end to that, if only because homework left no time for television.
His interest in composing for animation, though, stems more from the creativity of the medium than from endless hours watching Japanese anime and reruns of the Simpsons. Music for mainstream film is more formulaic, conforming to existing conventions, he says. But cartoon music allows for greater creativity.
"Animation is the area that can give me the most freedom in composition," he says.
Given creative freedom, technological know-how, and all the sounds in nature to draw from, Kim's music can go anywhere his imagination takes him—as long as it sounds good.
Sung-Kyu's Top Musical Influences
- Maria Schneider
- Ivan Lins
- Nitin Sawhney
- Sun-Chul Lee
- Keun-Hong Kim