Improvising with Seoul: An Interview with Kevin Parks

Kevin Parks doesn't have too many albums to his name but each one of them, including last year's Severe Liberties with Vanessa Rossetto, is great. If you listen to any of those releases, it's clear that he's a very astute musician, able to shape the way he plays his guitar or utilizes his electronics to compliment the musicians he's performing with. He currently resides in South Korea and has been involved with the experimental music scene in Seoul for over a decade now (you can watch some live performances at the Dotolim YouTube channel).

Despite his busy schedule, Parks took the time to thoughtfully answer the numerous questions I had for him via email. A big thank you to Parks for his generosity and patience throughout the entire process.



Tone Glow: I just want to start off by saying thanks for doing this, I really appreciate it. One of the reasons I wanted to do an interview with you was because there isn't a lot of information about you online. You're currently a teacher at the Catholic University of Daegu and are involved with the experimental music scene in South Korea. What led you there and how did you end up becoming involved with those musicians (e.g. Hong Chulki, Ryu Hankil, Jin Sangtae, Choi Joonyong)?

Kevin Parks: I am indeed currently a teacher at Catholic University of Daegu. But my Korea story is a long one that has too many twists and turns to tell in detail. I first came to Korea in the mid-1990s as a student off winning a small scholarship. Sometime in the late 80s/early 90s, I took a strong interest in Korean traditional music and that led me to attending Yonsei University for a semester to study Korean. I had an option to stay the whole year, which I very much wanted, but I was working my way through school and had to be back for the fall term. So I stayed as long as I could but that experience was transformative and I knew I would find a way back. It was an amazing eye-opening experience for me, having barely ventured more than a few hundred miles from New York. I grew up working class. People in my family never travelled abroad unless they were in the armed services or whatever. Korea then was a bit harder than it is now but I just loved it instantly. I still do.

Not too long after that I returned to Korea, did a few more semesters studying Korean at SNU, and then walked into a job teaching computer music at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. I was not much aware of what noise or free jazz or improv was going on, other than Kim Dae Hwan (Percussion)—who I learned about through Korean traditional music circles—and Kang Tae Hwan. I heard Park Je Chun (he taught percussion at the same school I worked at) and Miyeon and maybe a few things here and there but I was not actually doing much improvisation at that time (late 90s). That flame was rekindled when Joe Foster arrived. He was looking to play and reached out to me to let me know he was coming to Seoul. I had previously done a lot of AMM-esque experimental free improv at Brooklyn College but I had sort of left that and fell down the computer music rabbit hole. In any case, things started to gel in Seoul around the time Joe showed up (coincidentally) and he was much involved right from the get-go. He was the one who got me interested again and introduced me around.


Kang Tae Hwan (Alto Sax), Choi Sun Bae (Trumpet), Kim Dae Hwan (Percussion) - "Seoul Free Music Trio" from Korean Free Music (1989)

Joe and I jammed a little, but more importantly (at that point), I went to many of his shows. That is where I met, over time, all of the rest of the gang, Chulki, Sangtae, Joonyong, Hankil and Seungjun as well as meeting others who were playing a lot, like Sato Yukie and Alfred Harth. Through Joe I also met Bill Ashline who has been such a vital part of the scene in a myriad of ways. Bonnie Jones was there for a year or so as well and Bonnie and Joe, of course, did so many interesting things together as English. Additionally, though never resident in Korea, Bryan Eubanks visited a few times and he is friends with everyone and a frequent collaborator with the Seoul crew as well. I then decided to pursue a PhD and went back home, though you would not hardly know it as I returned literally every year while I was doing courses at Virginia, some years twice. But one of the very first things I did when I returned to the US was start looking into playing live improvised music again. I became pretty active in 804.noise (Richmond VA) and other activities and most importantly, played very regularly in a trio with Wendy Hsu and Carey Sargent, which was a really great experience. We played at home most Thursdays and did lots of gigs. I like to play a lot. I also developed by playing in ad hocs and jamming with friends, and played as much as possible when in Seoul. I returned to Seoul in 2009. Joe and I had already done Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt in 2007 and we followed that up with Prince Rupert Drops and then Acts Have Consequences at the same time I did the Celadon Records recording with Sangtae and Chulki. While there were other things in the mix (disillusionment with computer music, a general overall interest in improvised music and a desire for a messier, more social musical situation), Joe Foster’s arrival in Seoul just after the 2002 World Cup was key; it was through him that I met and played with all the other Seoul folks.

There are numerous factors that led you to becoming a full-on improviser but I imagine part of it had to do with the positive experiences you've had collaborating with these various musicians. Are there any specific ways in which these collaborations have helped you to grow as an improviser?

Just generally I found that writing scores and doing computer music could be a solitary way to be in the world. I didn’t want those to be the only ways that I made music. I was keen to work collaboratively and to make a more social music. I don’t think there is any way that you come away from a significant collaboration without some new notions, new fascinations and a few new riffs even (let’s be honest) but I think it is often hard to say specifically what those things are, but you know you are a little different for having shared that effort.

The collaboration with Carey Sargent and Wendy Hsu was important because of the many hours we spent sitting in a room making music together. We had a kind of deep trust and friendship that allowed us to risk mistakes or explore something that might not be fruitful and it also allowed us to really get to know each other. We got really good at reading each other’s signals and interacting, and yet there were always new things and surprises. No question I have learned from playing with all the folks I have recorded or shared a stage with. Playing with different groups always presents a set of challenges unique to that configuration of instruments and personalities (for example playing with folks who tend to come from a more harsh noise background can be tough for me when I show up with just my guitar) but perhaps I am just too close to it to say specifically what those things are. Making and performing music well is not easy and one of the things that helps is to just put yourself in as many different situations as possible. I try to do that, to a point. A last thing about challenges: I have played several times with one improviser in various settings, on two continents and for whatever reason, despite all the people we have in common, I will confess that I have not yet felt like I have really played a great set with this person. This player is always wonderful enough that folks in the audience may enjoy the set anyway, but I always feel like I have somehow been confounded. Perhaps not entirely a bad thing! And it shows me I still have more to learn.

Can you speak a bit more on your time with Carey and Wendy in Pinko Communoids? I know you three came together while at the University of Virginia and played numerous shows together, even touring in Taiwan at one point. How was that whole experience, as well as trying to create a close community in Virginia through the HzCollective?

Wendy, Carey and I got together really just for fun. I think I might have sent around an email asking folks to jam and they responded so we began meeting regularly on Thursdays to jam and played some shows around Charlottesville just for fun. Subsequently we became involved in 804.noise in nearby Richmond. Richmond, Baltimore and DC all have pretty good size noise scenes so we were lucky on that score. What happened at 804.noise is a story for Kenneth Yates to tell but we later formed the HzCollective with him and Jonathan Zorn and others and played regularly and organized shows and even a festival or two at the BridgePAI in Charlottesville. That Virginia had such a bustling little improv noise scene at that time is at least partially due to the tireless efforts of Kenneth Yates. I met a lot of nice folks through the Richmond noise/improv scene and through Kenneth, players like Jimmy Ghaphery, Cory O’Brian, Clifford Schwing and others. Many folks who were playing Baltimore and, say, heading down to Asheville would pass through Charlottesville and also Richmond so we got to meet and play with folks that way as well as playing with a lot of folks who were resident Mid-Atlantic.

You've studied composition under numerous composers. Most of them have devoted a large part of their career to computer music but you've also studied under Christian Wolff. Is there anything in particular you've gained from your time spent with him?

Christian had a dual appointment in classics and music and liked to teach music courses with groups of students but was much less keen to give individual composition lessons, I think due to the very loose nature of the lessons received from Cage. He’s a genuinely humble person so perhaps that traditional authoritarian “master-student” type situation that prevails in music as a teaching model is something he is not keen on participating in but he sensed I really wanted to work with him so he agreed. I think I wrote a pair of string quartets and an electronic piece with him. He was really focused on very practical things and gave lots of good advice particularly as regards to orchestration and instrumentation. I was working a lot with microtonal stuff then and he didn’t do that himself and likely did not want to get too deep in the weeds of all those tuning ratios but he listened very carefully and gave really solid pragmatic advice. I wish I could impart some amazing profound zen-like nugget of wisdom but it really was nuts and bolts stuff. The result was my pieces were ready, rehearsal time was not wasted, and I got fantastic readings of my pieces by the quartet that came in to play them. As a student, that is the maximum experience. If you write a piece and stick it in a drawer a lot remains unknown. But to make a score, rehearse it and have it played in concert completes the feedback loop. You hear it and learn what really works and what doesn’t. Christian really helped with scoring and notation and gave smart and insightful feedback. It was critical feedback too, he is one of the nicest people you can meet, just a lovely human being but he will tell you if he thinks something you wrote doesn’t work but generally he is very enthusiastic and encouraging. It was also nice that so many amazing people came to visit him. He would bring them around and you could hang out with them. I spent a whole week brown bagging it with Gordon Mumma. Hugh Davies also dropped by as did several others. Christian would just bring these folks around to talk to us.

I'm not entirely sure how it's structured at the Catholic University of Daegu but has he affected the way you teach your own students? And in general, can you touch upon your experiences as a teacher?

I learned so much from all my teachers and I have an especially warm feeling for my time at Brooklyn College because I was so rough then and likely a pretty big problem for all my early teachers. I went to NYC public schools, so it was a lot of babysitting. I arrived completely unprepared for college and it was hard for me to find a path forward. Making things worse, I had a severe hand injury that required extensive surgery and physical therapy. I don’t want to use that as an excuse, but it held me back for sure. I really did not know what hit me when I first arrived at college. I was plenty used to hard physical labor, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant to do an original research project or how to fulfill college level assignments. I was lost with little in my background to prepare me for what I was up against. Fortunately, some fantastic music teachers—Charles Dodge, Noah Creshevsky, Sherman Van Sulkema, Carol Oja, H. Wiley Hitchcock and Curtis Bahn and several others—helped me figure it out. By the time I left Brooklyn College I was in on a path. The experience with Curtis Bahn was key. I was, I believe, his first real composition student. He really helped me out and under his eye I was able to be truly productive with live electronics, computer music, and writing scores. I then followed Charles Dodge to Dartmouth and then later on went to the University of Virginia (after a long stint in Korea). At UVa I primarily worked with Matthew Burtner, Ted Coffey and Judith Shatin. I haven’t talked much about that which makes it seem unimportant. That isn’t true. It is just a bit too close to the present time to know how to talk about but I learned so much from them and also from my fellow students. I remember we would all go walk home from our seminars almost high talking about the music we were working on in class and that is a great feeling and those discussions were nourishing.

Still, I have found things have bogged down for me when I get deep, too exclusive, with academia and forget about my non-academic musical surroundings. How many times I have been seduced by writing code or some big project and lose my focus on producing music regularly with the tools and people already at hand. I think that has to do with the monumentalizing of everything that happens in an academic setting. That aspect of it is unhealthy and I work hard to keep my students loose and try to steer them away from the academic ramifications. I try to keep them focused on the task at hand, which is to make a piece of music (however long or short), that they are proud of, that broadens their experience and makes them feel a kind of satisfaction. Sadly I often fail to take my own advice. But the whole improv/noise world serves as a great foil for all the crap that big “C” composers laden themselves with. Think of someone like Jack Wright, still traveling around from town to town, flopping on people’s couches, still playing house shows, no gig too small, no improviser too unknown to gig with. Think of Kevin Drumm. He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s not getting some sweet tenure track gig or some high dollar “Genius" award, but he puts out a ton of just staggering music. I remember a long day tweaking some supercollider code ended with me seeing a show with Joe Foster in which he played a killer set using mostly just the objects in the room. I mean here is a dude with a fucking chopstick and a broken guitar pedal doing something vastly more interesting than my fancy pants algorithm was outputting. I try hard to keep all that in mind.

As for the guitar. That took a long time to figure out too, and in a way Christian Wolff’s example was key in that. Depressed, I hadn’t even owned a guitar after Dartmouth. But obstacles and limitations can lead us to interesting places. It is weird to me now that I actually even play the guitar but I have played guitar since I was 6. What else was I going to do?


Your live performances and albums are primarily improvised and collaborative. As you've previously mentioned, this is at least partially a natural response to your academic focuses and the time you spent making computer music. Are you generally uninterested in performing solo or composed music then in this non-academic area of your life? Most of these Seoul musicians are improvisers so I imagine it's also the way things work out when being involved in this scene.

I am interested in playing solo but I feel like that is a very different thing from playing in small groupings (as is large ensemble improvisation, which presents its own unique challenges). Playing solo involves lots of things that are unique to it and it is missing that interaction that comes about playing with another person and as a result is harder to sustain and harder to make interesting for the audience. I am sure more solo playing is on the horizon for me and I have done some but this last little stretch has really been about getting in a room or on a stage with two or three other players and seeing what happens and that still remains really interesting to me as there are seemingly as many ways to do that as there are people doing it. I do play at home by myself sometimes and have enough recorded for like 4 solo records but I am still really getting so much out of playing with others. This project with Vanessa is a great example. So many things that she did that really made me think. There are things that happened on the record that I would never have come up with left to myself and my own poor ideas. How will that experience change my ideas about sound? How will that filter into what I do next? How could you not want to do more of that? But I do also want to see what happens when it is just me up there. I think of someone like Keith Rowe playing these long solo sets and sustaining that interest, which is fascinating as well.

Over a decade ago, you spent some time with the Sadari Movement Lab working on a theater piece entitled Spectrum. I'm assuming that was one of your experiences creating music that was both composed and with a larger group. How did you end up getting involved in that and what did the music sound like? Many of its shows sold out and it seemed like it was a huge success—have you been involved with them in any way since?

That was a great collaboration with a really amazing group of folks. I don’t even know how to describe it, part mime, part dance, part experimental theater. There was sculpture and interesting lighting effects and projected video as well (which had to be carefully aimed at moving scrims). It was based on a sort of Koreanized Hamlet but the script itself was very short. We did that show several times including a 3 or 4 day run at the Seoul Arts Center. The music for that was all pretty much composed and worked up in rehearsals. The director of that group is a brilliant man named Im Dowan and he has the actors all work on designing their own costumes and concepts for the characters including these dynamic masks and props that all moved when the actors moved. I went to rehearsals, read the script and edited my music to fit and made some new bits as well. It was a lot of work but so exciting. It was all computer music and I triggered it from the computer while watching the action on the stage and one bit was generated in real time with supercollider. It was a ghost scene that seemed to be a little different each night so I would have to adjust the timing of that. I used filtered noise bands that I could control in real time, the sharpness and tuning of the filters. Much of the music was done with granular synthesis (opening and closing) and there was some sampled prepared piano as well. The music was highlighted in that production and was not just incidental. I loved that project and those people and would work with them again in a heartbeat. I was asked again to work with them on another project a couple years ago but for health reasons I was not able to. I was sad to have to turn that down. I have many nice memories of that project and am still kind of proud of how that turned out. We wanted to do it as multichannel audio but that was the one thing we couldn’t manage. If I were to do that again I would like to do something more immersive with 4 or 8 channels of sound.

Spectrum sounds like it was phenomenal and it's always nice to hear about experimental art being done in Korea. It also seems like it was perfect for you considering the intersection it presented between your own musical interests and Korean culture at large. You've studied Korean traditional music and taken lessons before but have you ever thought about incorporating some of those instruments (or some of the "Korean sounds" that were part of your library project) into your main musical endeavors?

I have actually. I have a whole big opera (for lack of a better word) that makes use of a series of poems by the Korean modernist Yi Sang. One piece, Flowering Tree, features haegeum sounds prominently (as did Spectrum). I own a haegeum which I bought on my first trip to Korea and have done a bunch of pieces using samples of me squeaking on it but I can’t really play it. It is very difficult to control. A piece that features a written out gayageum part is called Remourseful Chapter and that was played live a couple years ago but I have not been able to get the gayageum part recorded. The whole long (2+ hours) cycle ends with a piece called The End, which features some samples of me playing janggu. It is a big project, some 22 poems and 16 pieces of music, most of which has been played in concert over the last few years but I am hoping to put it all together as a 2 CD fixed media project. I just need to get that one last gayageum melody recorded. I would have done more but it is the same problem as always. Money. Performers need to be paid. I hope to do more in the future including perhaps writing some acoustic music for mixed ensembles. I love the sound of Korean instruments. The timbres are so rich and complex.


How did you end up getting into Korean traditional music in the first place? Are there any specific pieces you particularly cherish? I would love to hear any and all recommendations.

When I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College the student body was diverse. There were also many foreign students, particularly in the Conservatory. I made friends with many of the Korean students and through them I got to hear some first rate Korean music (I previously didn’t know much about it and had some vague misinformed notion about how it might sound). My first recording, probably like many people, was that famous Nonesuch Explorer Series record P'ansori (Korea's Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music). That knocked me out, especially the two P’ansori excerpts. I mean, Kim So-Hee that is going right to the top of the mountain right there. So there wasn’t much easily available beyond that, but I got the idea that I could get more by hunting in Korean book stores in Korea town, which I did and I also wrote to the National Gugak Center asking for information. Not long after that King Records re-issued two CDs of Korean music and the film Seopyeonje, came out. By then I was long since hooked. I was armed with recordings and information the National Gugak Center and the Korea Overseas Information Service sent me, and what I could find out at the Korea Society Library and buy at the Korean book store at 32nd street. I remember getting a lot of those “Deep Rooted Tree” series CDs and LPs, those ones with the brown covers. It got out of hand pretty quickly. I was working at Joseph Patelson Music house then, we would get paid Fridays in cash and I would go home through Korea town every Friday eat Korean food and buy some recordings to explore. I was interested in it all but my initial interests were folks genres, p’ansori, sanjo, sinawi, minyo and shaman ritual music. Like a lot of young working class radicals I was less keen to celebrate the aristocratic side and Lou Harrison’s approach (look they have a sophisticated elite too!) kind of bothered me, but I was not immune to that music’s charms either. I go around in circles. My current interest is in the “in between” stuff, if you will, the semi-aristocratic songs and regional julpungnyu. Please don’t ask me how many recorded versions of julpungnyu I have, but as you know julpungnyu music is variable. Unlike the grand style of the National Center, the regional variants are often played in smaller mixed ensembles of who ever showed up that day and these various smaller instrumentations are endlessly fascinating to me. Incidentally, around that time one of my favorite pieces was Hymnkus by John Cage. As you know that is that way too. There is a large number of parts and you can mix and match any number of them you want depending on who is available to play. I love that. The smaller, more localized folk style of julpungnyu is so full of charm and beauty and also, it is only there that you can hear that music’s connection to sanjo. When you first hear that sanjo might have some roots in that music you might be mystified if all you know are the large grand performances of it. But listen to regional hyangje chul p’ungnyu (Gurye Hyangje Julpungnyu, Iri Hyangje Julpungnyu) and you can hear more of a connection.

I wanted to spend some time talking about Severe Liberties, the album you and Vanessa Rossetto released earlier this year. Was this something that Jon Abbey set up or had you two known each other prior to recording the album? Your previous albums had all been mostly, if not completely, improvised while Vanessa has more of a compositional mindset—was there any preparation that was done before going in to record because of this?

Vanessa and I knew each other on-line but had not met in person. I am a big fan of her music and like her very much personally. We never worked together since she was in the US and I was in Korea but I followed her music closely and with great interest and enjoyment and we sometimes exchanged messages. I actually once asked her to listen to something for me and I believe she once did the same (it was a mix I was unsure of that was eventually released) but this pairing was Jon’s idea. That is one of the things I think that helps set Erstwhile apart as Jon puts thought into new groupings and genuinely functions as both curator and a producer. He pushes for new and interesting situations for people, especially groups of folks who have not worked together before and I think the success rate is remarkably high on that front.

Originally, being separated by thousands of miles, we were going to do the record as a long distance collaboration. I was ill for a while and when I finally had a moment where I was, after several years, able to travel home and visit my family I thought we should meet and actually try to do the record together. So I spent a couple days with Vanessa recording. I took the smallest rig I could carry (a handful of pedals, a D/I, some contact mics, etc), picked up a guitar I keep at my parent’s and we just sat down and recorded for a couple days. It was wonderful and a great deal of fun. But there was no plan really other than to sit and record for a hour at a time several times each day and then mine those recordings for subsequent mixes. We decided that we were not going to limit ourselves to what we could do live but allow ourselves to mix, cut, layer whatever or however we wanted. For this project that seemed like a good idea and i think it worked out well. So it wasn’t a pure improv record or really a long distance collaboration, it ended up somewhere between.


In what ways would you two have limited yourselves? And do you think being together in person impacted this decision, or affected the recording process in general?

It is hard to say how we would have limited it, but I’ll admit that I occasionally make little puzzles and games for myself when I play, but I usually keep them private and I don’t like imposing them on others or even divulging what they are, but they are usually dumb patterns and things I do to keep myself on edge. It is sometimes fun to lay down some parameters for a project. For example, the record we did finally do, while we took liberties at the mixing stage, there were some self-imposed limits. For example I think everything we put on the record came from our recording sessions or environmental sounds that were done in the immediate area. Everything was local to the recording site.

I am sure being together impacted the whole thing, but perhaps that is hard to measure or define. I am exceedingly glad it came about that we could do it that way. I am a really big believer in the whole eye to eye, person to person social music making aspect, it is one very big reason why I do this music and, of course, Vanessa was wonderful to spend time with and get to know. I feel like watching her work also allowed me to understand and appreciate her approach to sound more.

I know you recently got married—huge congratulations! How has married life been? I imagine the past few months have been very busy but is there anything you're working on right now?

Thank you. Yes. Busy. Very. There are good reasons why there are whole books about getting married in Korea. This wasn’t going to city hall and celebrating with a hot pretzel ha!

I have a project or two on the back burner but I don’t want to jinx them by blabbing about them out-loud. Also, when I work with someone I try not to step on their toes (one reason interviews make me nervous). I have enough material for a couple of solo records, if I can find a label that might be interested I really would like to get one out there. I have never done that, put out a record with just my name on it. That’s because with improvisation, I am more interested in collaborations and the kind of interactions I rarely get with composed music and, as mentioned, every new collaboration or show feels like a new situation for me to navigate as a player. But I do hit the record button at home and fool around and I have a pretty big pile of unreleased stuff that might be fun to get out there.