I was recently fortunate enough to have a conversation with Korean guitarist Bokyung Byun, in the light of her Sounding Board Project, a “New Music Initiative for Guitarists and Composers”. She holds a reputation as one of the most sought-after guitarists of her generation.
Bokyung Byun, welcome to CreativInn, please introduce yourself. When did you start playing guitar and what were your early passions and influences?
I was raised in a city called Gwangju in Korea. I started playing guitar at the age of 6. One day, my mom and I were watching a guitarist perform on TV, and immediately I told my mom that I wanted to learn the instrument. There were not any local music store selling a short-scale guitar for children so we had to order it from a luthier. It took a couple of months for the guitar to arrive home, and my mother says I asked her everyday if the guitar had arrived so you can imagine how excited I was to finally receive the guitar and start learning.
I remember feeling the sheer joy of learning to pluck strings, finding notes on the fret-board, and playing simple songs on the guitar.
What genre of music do you consider your work to be? Who are your major influences?
I play the classical guitar so what you will hear in my concerts is mostly classical music. What is interesting about classical music is that being classical music means music that transcends time regardless of “genere”. My largest influence as a musician is guitarist Sharon Isbin with whom I studied at Juilliard.
Do you remember the first music you ever listened to and the impact it had on you?
My parents were not musicians, but they were avid music lovers. There was always music playing in the house. The most vivid musical experience from my early childhood is my mother singing along to old Korean pop songs. I remember noticing for the first time how the music helped create specific emotions alongside lyrics.
Bokyung Byun, how classical guitar has changed since your days as a student?
The guitar industry has been a largely male-dominated field. I was often the only or one of the few girls at festivals and competitions. I struggled with the lack of female representation in the industry. Since then the number of female guitarists has slowly but surely grown. The research conducted by Fender shows that 50 percent of beginner guitar players are now girls and women. There are more female guitarists actively concertizing than ever, and more festivals and conventions present discussions on what it means to be a female guitarist and the challenges we face in the industry.
Tell us about your artistic process and the way you brainstorm ideas? What do you usually start with when preparing to a concert?
When deciding a concert program, there are many things a performer should consider. To mention a few, I first consider if there will be a unifying theme for the program such as “Music from Spain” or “Contemporary Sonatas.” It can also be a more diverse program including music from different eras and styles. Within the theme (or no theme), I mix and match pieces and put them in an appropriate order to keep the “flow” of the program to hold audience’s attention throughout a concert. More recently, I started putting pieces geographically relevant for each concert on the program. For instance, I programmed Vietnamese folk music arranged for guitar at the Vietnamese-American Guitar Society concert and a new piece written by an Italian composer at a solo recital in Milano. Lastly, I choose music that excites me most. I believe if I am enjoying the pieces I am performing on stage, my excitement will be naturally passed onto the audience.
The relationship between music and other forms of art – such as painting, video art, and cinema – has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself?
Music has such harmonious relationships with other art forms. Sound vibrations makes listening to music a very physical experience.
As the German poet Heinrich Heine describes, “where words leave off, music begins.” I think music helps enrich other art forms by providing and/or reinforcing indescribable emotions and abstract ideas. The undeniable emotional impact of music is especially true in cinema where music is used to build a sense of atmosphere.
What role do you want to have in society as an artist?
There is a lot of pressure on people from the society to hide their vulnerable emotions. I would like my concerts to be an escape from day-to-day where people can truly let feelings arise organically without any push back.
As a teacher, I worked for an instrumental teaching program called Music Advancement Program at Juilliard during my undergraduate years. The program focused on giving musical instruction to children from diverse backgrounds who historically have been underrepresented in the classical music field. Students consisted of different racial, familiar, cultural, and financial backgrounds. Working for the program really opened eyes to how music can be used as a vehicle for social change. To me, teaching music is beyond teaching students to become professional musicians. Learning music provides a safe place for emotional outlet and self-esteem development and it teaches discipline, attention to details, ability to strive for goals, accountability and more. Playing music in an ensemble setting gives children a sense of community. For me, teaching music is providing a safe place for kids and help them develop good qualities of a human-being in this fast-paced world.
Tell me about your approach to guitar playing and about the elements that you like to explore within the music you choose to play?
With each piece, I first ask myself what the composer’s intention is, what the story behind it is, and where the “story” begins, climaxes, and ends–even in abstract music.
You’re the co-founder of the “Sounding Board fest, a “New Music Initiative” to improve and promote mutual understanding between Guitarists and Composers, which took place in July 2019. Could you tell us more about this project?
Guitar is a complex instrument to write for in a sense that the idiomatic playing is completely different from other stringed instruments. The Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera, discussed this difficulty of writing for guitar in the preface of his Sonata “although I had been encouraged by a number of musicians to compose music for the guitar from the time I was a student, the complexity of the task delayed my creative impulse, in spite of the guitar being the national instrument of my country.”
My colleagues and I felt that compared to other classical instruments that have endless repertoire of master composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, etc, guitar still has a lot of catching up to do. In order to have pieces written for guitar, we wanted to know in what ways we can help composers to feel at ease writing for guitar. The initiative started out as a simple question of “what can we do?”
Our answer to the question was that we need to promote collaboration between guitarists and composers. Each year we connect a guitarist with a composer to create a new piece. Composers have the advantage of having immediate, tangible, practical feedback from guitarists. Guitarists have the advantage of being involved in the creative process. and eventually interpreting and premiering brand-new compositions written for them. Our inaugural festival was in Besançon, France. The festival received very enthusiastic responses from the local audience and press.
When will be the next edition of this initiative?
We are working on final details of the next edition and it will take place in summer 2020. We are excited to host the creative bunch of guitarists and composers, and showcase their works.
Thanks again Bokyung Byun for the opportunity to interview you for Creativinn! Are there any final thoughts or words of advice you have for our readers, in particular for the ones who would like to follow your way?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. For those who are considering pursuing music as a career, it might not be the easiest path to follow, but the rewards are worth it in the end!