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INTERVIEW: A Connecticut performance artist looks to rituals to help the community heal from COVID-19

Livia Sa
Courtesy of Jin Hi Kim
Jin Hi Kim with the komungo, a Korean instrument.

Artists are influenced by the times they live in. Needless to say, we’re in the midst of an extraordinary moment right now.  

Jin-Hi Kim has taken this moment and combined it with a traditional Korean ritual to create a multimedia piece that will debut this Friday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

She is a composer, a Korean music specialist, and an innovator. She is a Guggenheim Composer Fellow and has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Jin-Hi Kim lives in Connecticut and teaches at Wesleyan University. She spoke with WSHU's Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser about her latest work, A Ritual for COVID-19, which she will perform at a gala for WPKN community radio at the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport on Friday at 8 p.m.

Tom Kuser: Your latest work, which is called A Ritual for Covid-19. What sparked the idea for this piece?

Jin Hi Kim: Right. Since we had the pandemic-COVID lockdown, which was March 2020, I’ve been collecting over 300 photo images around the world — it’s horrific images, it’s people’s basically deaths. And maybe in America we don’t see much of how to deal with these dead bodies but in India and Peru and places like that they couldn’t control this enormous number of bodies per day, like a thousand people. It’s really shocking images.

Then I decided to create a multimedia piece. It’s called Ritual for COVID-19. This piece juxtaposes the ancient practice of the musical performance through the ritual aspect and also American advanced high art technology. I’m dealing with this shamanistic Korean ritual. The shaman would do some special ritual to heal the community’s pain when you deal with this type of massive death. And she would use a long white cloth. The white cloth has knots in it. So then she releases all the knots. These knots symbolizing the pain, grief, trauma and anxiety, all that. She helps that.

So I have inspiration by this tradition, performing my piece with community participants. And also the collected images will be in the live performance, it will be processed though the audio signal from my instrument, electric komungo. And also it’s kind of a theatrical performance. Because I’ve got music and the Bijou video projection and also the audience participants. They are not performing any dance but they are holding this 25-yard white cloth on stage and I will release all the knots while I’m singing and also I’m playing the drums.

When I release all the knots, this unfolded cloth becomes another screen and I project the dead bodies and wishing that their spirits will take a peaceful journey. We lost over 4.25 million people around the world. This is an enormous number of deaths and it’s not an ordinary death. So we should recognize it and my intention was to do something as an artist in honor of all the deaths.

Tom: We wanted to feature some sound from your piece that you posted on your website. But our producer realized it really doesn’t work without the visual component that you just described. And you can’t just separate the pieces and get the full impact and the full feeling you’re going for.

Jin Hi: That’s right. You know in the West when you talk about music you think only sound. But actually in non-Western tradition music is a multi-discipline performance. They’ve got the visual aspect, the costume, the ritualistic performance and even food is associated. So the music integrates so many things. So I tried to take this Asian tradition back to contemporary society, in contemporary time, doing multi-media performance is not something about just technology involved, but it’s something about how the music actually functioned in the past. Music is a therapeutic performance. So through all these things, this grand form of preforming art, the audience will participate in the performance and they will also get healed, somehow psychological healing through this performance.

Tom:  You were born in Inchon, South Korea, not long after the Korean fighting ended. You grew up in a nation that was recovering from difficulty and devastation. Did you feel that sense of emergence from loss and did it inform your studies as a musician?

Jin Hi: This Is a very very deep question. I have to say a little bit more personal history here. When I started traditional music, Korean music was despised by society because society looked up to Western classical music basically. So as a young person learning traditional music I had incredible pain and anxiety over how to deal with this material. The music doesn’t function so well in the society or I did have pride about learning this older music. And as an artist I was an activist. So I figured I had to do something about it and I’m going to write a new piece.

That new piece will make some balance in a way that both Western and Korean esthetic and the musical instrument itself. I’m going to combine them together and put them into equal position. Equality. That was my main desire and that’s why I came to America to study Western music. I’m not doing cross cultural work because it sounds interesting. I have a very political reason actually because since I was young I had this pain.

Composer Jin Hi Kim with a komungo instrument
VOA - L. Shavelson
Wikimedia Commons
Composer Jin Hi Kim with a komungo instrument

Tom:  You’re known for introducing the komungo to American audiences — the instrument, the komungo. Could you paint a picture for us of what a komungo is? And then tell us why you decided to plug it in, make it electric.

Jin Hi: Right! The komungo is 4th century. It’s six feet long and has 16 frets. If you can imagine a guitar has very small frets, but my instrument has really tall frets, the tallest one is about 1 inch — very tall frets. The instrument was designed for meditation purposes. Traditionally, the male Confusion scholars performed this instrument for their own meditation in their living rooms. It was not really for the public sometimes. So the instrument has that history.

I came to America in 1980; I think now it’s four decades. I have to reflect where I am but also the contemporary time. I play a 4th century instrument; however I live in the 21st century. And also I don’t live in Korea any longer. I have to deal with the American Society. It’s a very, very contemporary and multicultural society. And do I plugged in. The instrument is now called the electric Komungo. It’s the only one in the world. I have a computer laptop and an interface and a media console all plugged into this instrument. I didn’t make this piece to amplify this instrument. I designed this instrument to make multimedia interactive performance. It’s a quite a complicated instrument. And I feel very good that I can actually reflect where I am and also who I am. I am representing a duality. Between Korean ancient roots and contemporary American society. New culture.

Jin Hi Kim will perform her multimedia piece at a gala for WPKN community radio at the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport on Friday at 8 p.m.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.