Obituary: Earl Kim

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THE MUSIC of the Korean-American composer Earl Kim deserves to be better known than it is - the musical establishment often seems nonplussed by styles that fall between the two stools of the ultra-modern and the comfortably conservative, neither extremist enough for one nor conventional enough for the other.

But the real cause of Kim's neglect may be something much more banal: he published his music himself, and without the machinery of a commercial publisher behind it, it has so far failed to make much of an impact outside specialist circles. One has only to look at the careers of some sample British composers, equals in stature, to see what a difference a publisher can make: Sir Michael Tippett, prosperous under the wing of the commercially alert Schotts, is known the world over; Robert Simpson and Edmund Rubbra, stabled at the inefficient Lengnicks, remained localised enthusiasms until latterly, when the CD gave them a hand up.

Kim's studies were undertaken initially at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1939-40, where his first important teacher was none other than Arnold Schoenberg. After a hiatus for war service (he was a captain in the US Army Air Force Intelligence), he moved on to UC Berkeley, where his mentors were Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch. He took his BA in 1950, and the first of his MAs in 1952 - the second came from Harvard in 1967.

The move to the east coast had been occasioned in 1952 by his appointment as a lecturer, and later associate professor, at Princeton, New Jersey, where he was to stay until 1967. That year he was appointed to a chair at Harvard, taking up the prestigious James Edward Ditson professorship in 1971, which he held until his retirement in 1990. He enjoyed the position of composer in residence at several important musical centres: Princeton, Marlboro, Dartmouth, Tanglewood and Aspen.

Kim was passionate about politics as well as about music. He was co-founder and, for three years from 1981, president of "Musicians Against Nuclear Arms" (something else he had in common with Robert Simpson). In the year of his retirement he turned down an invitation from the National Endowment of the Arts (the US equivalent of the Arts Council), in protest against "all forms of censorship of the arts", as he explained in a letter to The New York Times.

But, if it ever gets a hearing, it is the music that Kim will be remembered by. In spite of his determined political stances, he was not a man for the grand gesture, and his works tend to be small-scale, compact, unemphatic, precisely judged, of an almost Webernian elegance. The music is thinly scored, letting each note in the texture tell, often by allowing silence to set the stage for him. His style was essentially lyrical, marrying modernist terseness to tonal harmony and a fondness of melody that his more purist avant-garde colleagues didn't dare espouse.

He was drawn particularly to the voice, setting a range of poets, from Apollinaire, Baudelaire and Chekhov through Rilke and Rimbaud to Verlaine. But above all he was attracted to the enigmatic, gestural world of Beckett, on whom he leaned for a generous series of works for voice (usually soprano) and chamber ensemble, often using unconventional combinations of instruments. David Tsang described Kim's music as being "concerned with stripping away non-essentials in a single-minded pursuit of the essentials so that no barrier may obstruct a direct reflection of innermost feelings" - small wonder he felt at home with Beckett.

In this, too, there was some reflection of his Oriental heritage: for a 10-year period, apparently unconsciously, his music adopted a basic underlying tempo that is characteristic of Korean court music. And in one part of his music-theatre piece Exercises en Route he attempted to translate the image of the Japanese rock garden into sound.

One of Kim's few moments in the limelight came in 1979, when Itzhak Perlman commissioned a violin concerto, premiered it in Avery Fisher Hall in New York and recorded it for EMI. Perlman had chosen his composer well, though this was only Kim's second work for full orchestra: between the angular outer sections of the concerto lies a rapt, lyrical slow movement of heart- warming, understated beauty which demonstrates that Kim really understood how to write for the violin. Small wonder that the Twelve Caprices for solo violin that he subsequently wrote for Perlman have gone on to enter the violin literature.

Earl Kim, composer and teacher: born Dinuba, California 6 January 1920; married 1947 Nora Philipsborn, 1956 Miriam Kagan, 1977 Martha Potter (two daughters); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 19 November 1998.