Hyung-ki Joo

Composer, Pianist, Creator and Educator

Author

About

Hyung-ki Joo’s initial wish to become a musician was born out of a desire to compose. Today, musicians and orchestras that include the New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony and Chicago Symphony perform his compositions and arrangements worldwide, often with Joo as soloist or conductor.

His teachers have included Simon Parkin and Malcolm Singer for composition and improvisation, harmony with Peter Norris, counterpoint with Joel Feigin, and theory with Nils Vigeland.

Hyung-ki Joo has collaborated with Academy®Award-winning composer, Vangelis, and was chosen by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Billy Joel, to arrange and record Joel’s solo piano works on his last album to date, Fantasies and Delusions. He also regularly co-writes with his Igudesman & Joo duo partner, Aleksey Igudesman, and together they have been commissioned to write works for orchestras such as the Pittsburgh Symphony, Dusseldorf Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Zurich Tonhalle.

His music is published by Universal Edition and Modern Works.

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Interview

What does music mean to you personally?

To put it in a few words, I’d say that music is like air and water to me, both things without which one would not be able to survive. I love food, but one can survive without food. Air and water are essential to stay alive, and that’s how I feel about music. Or let me put it another way, air and water keep me alive, but music makes life worthwhile. If I had to choose between going blind or going deaf, I’d choose going blind, because the thought of never being able to hear music again would kill my spirit.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

Music is about so many things. And I think it’s up to each person to find and define what music is to them. Yes, there are elements of fantasy, but there also elements of human struggle, political conflict, oppression, emotions, daring, violence, peace, humour, cleverness, games, nature, beauty, indulgence, passion, unrequited love, abstractness, poetry, sculpture, seduction, conditioning, connection, communication, sharing, healing, and the list goes on.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

Well, I’d have answered this differently at other stages of my life. But today, I’d answer that if I was not a professional musician, I’d be an amateur musician. Very often, the amateur is more the musician than the professional- amateur coming from the word “to love”.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about the future?

Yes and no. It has been my deepest concern ever since I was a teenager that classical music concerts needed to find another way to present itself. When I was a youngster, I believed that it was impossible for anyone to love music more than me. (I still believe that by the way). And here I was going to concerts to listen to the music that I love passionately, and finding myself feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome, bored, making me wish I was anywhere else. What that signaled to me was that we had a real problem. If the person who loves classical music more than anyone else in the world does not want to go to a concert, then what chance does everyone else have? Classical music alienates audiences by taking itself far too importantly, and by surrounding itself with elitism, conservatism, and old ideas. The word “classical” is already a problem. It should be just called music. Educational institutions, Concert Halls, Promoters, Critics, Teachers, Artistic Directors, Radio Stations, Classical Video Channels, Managements, Competitions, Audiences, and the Musicians themselves carry on the stale customs of the past instead of sowing new and innovative seeds for a current and future audience. Of course, there are many exceptions from the above, and seemingly more and more. But they are still outliers. If you took a yearly program brochure of any major concert hall, you could just copy/paste that and put it in all the other brochures, because it’s basically all the same. Concert programs are not daring and most of them very unimaginative. A typical symphonic concert is the same formulaic 3-course meal: Overture, Concerto with a famous soloist, and a Huge Symphonic Work. There is far too little invested in the young generation of talents, and instead paying huge sums to the older generation of famous names which exhaust the budget for other interesting talents to emerge. I think that every concert should feature some student or upcoming artist, even if it’s just for 5 minutes somewhere. Imagine what kind of experience and motivation this gives to the musician of the future. And imagine how entertaining this would be for the ticket-buyer. It’s time to make new traditions, take more risks with artists who are elevating the boundaries, take care of the young and emerging, and even revitalize some of the traditions of the 19th century, when concerts were much more open and varied, and there was less pompous divide between the artist and the audience.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

I wish for music to be used more often for education and healing. It’s been well proven scientifically that music has all kinds of benefits. We should make more out of its potential to make us smarter and healthier beings. With “Music Traveler”, an app designed to book a room with an instrument at the click of a button, we are hoping to bring more music into people’s lives. In the past, before radio and especially TV, most homes had a piano, or some other instrument, and people would connect by singing songs or entertaining with music. Now, that is lost. But with “Music Traveler”, we aim to bring back a 21st Century vision of that by having musicians and music lovers making music in people’s homes and private and public spaces at the touch of an app on your smartphone. With all the digitalization and instant access on demand video culture, hearing music being played live is even more special. We noticed this even more through the Covid related lockdowns. The great thing about “Music Traveler” is that it’s designed for musicians and music lovers alike. Many people have a piano at home, but do not play it themselves. If they choose to be a host, they can put it to use, and have music ringing in their house. We hear a lot of feedback from hobby musicians, who have nothing to do during their lunch break, and by looking at the app, they can book a room nearby, and spend some time making music before going back to work.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

I believe that creativity saves the world. If you believe in Gods, then you’ll know that Gods even created the world, so the world is born out of creativity. Even if one finds something that works, there’s always a chance that one gets stuck in only seeing that particular solution. We need to change perspective on a daily basis by being creative. Seeing other people from their point of view, having empathy for others, provides insight, and empathy does lead to creativity. Music is such a fluid thing that one needs to react to it. You can't control a flowing stream, you need to go with it, so this means every step requires a creative action from you. Music should feel like it’s being created at that very moment. It exists for only one moment in time, and then it is gone.

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

Yes. We all need to get of our pompous backsides, curb our ego and elitism, and connect with the young generation. We should be asking them how they would like to listen to a concert. Is it standing up, lying on the floor, with visual mapping, with a DJ, with a drink in their hand, by providing some commentary or fun facts on their phone that they can follow while listening, the chance to have some interaction with the performers, whatever it is, and then analyze the feedback and create an environment where they will feel welcomed and not intimidated. During the lockdown, it was impossible of course for people to make music freely and thereby also impossible to book rooms with the “Music Traveler” app. There were a lot of concerts and videos being uploaded online, but all for free to the consumer. I thought this was terribly damaging to the cultural world. My team and I at “Music Traveler” came up “Music Traveler TV” or “MTTV”, designed to host uploaded content from anyone- from Hollywood stars such as John Malkovich to the presently unknown young artist of the future- and making sure that all of the revenue went to the artists themselves. For such an endeavor to continue, we are always in need of capital, so if there are any kind investors reading this, please help us support art and artists. More info at musictraveler.com

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favorite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

It’s hard to single out a favorite piece written by me- because my pieces are like my children, in some way. If I had to squeeze out an answer, then I’d have to say my two favourite pieces are the ones I wrote for my real kids- “Lullaby for Leo”, and “Lina’s Waltz”. Let me squeeze in a third, there’s a song I wrote called, “It’s Once Again Christmas”, which is written for my father. I’m very proud of a piece I wrote with my partner, Aleksey Igudesman. In 2018, we were commissioned by the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich to write a new special work for the orchestra’s 150th anniversary and so we came up with, “A Historical and Hysterical Guide to the Orchestra”. It chronicles the birth of every instrument and follows it through the history of the world until it lands in the home of the symphony orchestra. We noticed that someone had not written a guide to the orchestra since Benjamin Britten, and as wonderful as that piece is, it feels outdated. So now there is a new 21st century guide to the orchestra. The creative process for that was lengthy. For starters we had to do a lot of research into the history of the world, and the evolution of instruments. The creative process is hard to define. Sometimes it’s just about doing something and then seeing where it goes. Sounds vague, but that’s pretty much often the case!

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

Don’t be afraid of liking something- whether it’s classical or not. You don’t need to become the next Mozart to be able to play or experience classical music. Many non-professional musicians, with other jobs, have plenty of fun getting together and playing chamber music or in an orchestra. It’s like you don’t need to be Messi, to enjoy playing a fun game of football.

Do you think about the audience when composing?

I don’t think necessarily about the audience, per se, but let’s say I’m always trying to see what it would feel like to the listener. For an example, if thinking about the duration of a piece, often pieces, even great ones, go on far too long, and so I’ll take care to see that the piece doesn’t take longer than it needs to.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

As you know, I just released my book of piano pieces on Universal Edition, and so I hope to have them soon recorded by the wonderful pianist, Yu Horiuchi, who helped me very much during the writing and editing of these pieces. Immediately after this interview, I will be working and performing with the wonderful Trondheim Soloists, playing my “Holberg Reflections”, inspired by Grieg, and also some music of one of my favrouite musicians today, the genius British Jazz pianist, Gwilym Simcock. One of my dream projects is finally being realized later this year and I’ll be performing trios with two of my favourite musicians in the world, Pierre Colombet and Raphäel Merlin. They are from the incredible Ébène Quartet. With my duo, Igudesman & Joo, we are launching our new series, “Stars and FREEks” at the Tonhalle Düsseldorf. This is particularly exciting, as we are featuring and performing with musicians with exceptional abilities, many of whom play as street musicians, or are only known as an internet sensation, but would normally never be invited to play in a classical concert hall. And here’s a shout out to anyone who has a special talent with music. Are you someone that can do something exceptional with music? Perhaps you can breakdance while playing the flute, or you can play the guitar while standing on your head, or you can play the trombone, the piano, and sing all at the same time, or you can yodel Schubert, whatever it is, contact us and send us a video of what you do to production@igudesmanandjoo.com and you may win the opportunity to perform with us live on stage at the Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Germany. You can also even upload your content for free on MTTV, and you could generate revenue- all tickets sold on your content go all to you! As Igudesman & Joo, and in my solo work, experimentation is part of the game. And that’s what music should be about- playing games. After all the word for playing music in many languages is the same as when playing a game.