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Singer Im Tae-kyung’s Crossover Life, Music

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#1 ttenovy


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Posted 02 March 2008 - 04:25 PM

Standing at a three-way crossroads between a Ph. D in engineering, a lucrative job offer at a big company and an inner calling for music, crossover tenor Im Tae-kyung decided to walk the path of a musician. ``My heart said, sing,'' the 34-year-old told The Korea Times in a recent interview in Seoul.

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

This is the third in a series of interviews with the next generation of classical musicians. ― ED

With his own radio show and hit album, and appearing onstage with artists like Sumi Jo and leading major musicals, Im Tae-kyung seems like any other successful musician. But for the 34-year-old, it took a masters degree in engineering and overcoming leukemia to pursue his passion for music, and life.

Born in Korea, Im studied music at the elite Yewon School and Institute le Rosey in Switzerland. But his childhood dream was to become an engineer, so he majored in engineering at Worcestor Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts while staying in tune with a minor in music. There were numerous offers from producers to make his singing debut, but he insisted on completing his undergraduate studies.

After graduating, Im decided it was time to sing, and received lessons from renowned Metropolitan Opera tenor Richard Casily for about a year. But this was no easy feat, as he had to ``beg him for three months'' to prove he was serious about music, Im said in a recent Korea Times interview.

Just when things started to go smoothly, including a chance to take part of a summer music program in Italy, Casily died from a heart attack. It was just before Im was to enter the master's program at Boston University in the fall.

The shock hit hard. ``I was devastated. It was the first time I felt discouraged from doing music,'' he said. Taking it as a sign that he should not sing, he went back to engineering.

Toward the end of his graduate studies, however, he learned something new about himself: What he had suffered from back in junior high school was not chronic anemia but leukemia. At the time, he was in treatment for more than a year. Although he should have continued treatment, which for his particular form of leukemia may have lasted at least 10 years, Im insisted on going back to school. His mother never told him what the diagnosis was.

Not only was he perfectly healthy, Im actively took part of team sports throughout his academic career. ``I'm an engineer; I like doing research. So I studied about terminal diseases, and found that your body produces the most hormones for fortifying the immune system when you are moved,'' he said. He believes being part of the sports drama and always being inspired by the arts helped him persevere.

``I started thinking about the meaning of life, why I was able to live on. I prayed everyday, and developed a dream: to pursue my desire, music, and to inspire those who are terminally ill that they, too, can overcome it,'' he said. ``I also became interested in social welfare _ not just giving through charity, but becoming involved with something more systematic,'' he said.

By then, pursuing a Ph. D in engineering was a sure path, but he was also recruited to work for a big automobile company. After about a month of deep deliberation, his pastor's words struck him: ``follow your heart.'' And so, he decided to answer the calling.

Crossover Life, Crossover Music

``Crossover music is straddling different genres of music, it's different from simple fusion. I love all types of genres. My mother is an amateur gugak (traditional Korean music) artist, so I grew up with that, and I also enjoy pop, jazz, Latin and Fado. And I've always done classical music. So it was natural that I do crossover music,'' said the engineer-turned-singer.

``I believe that a piece of music embodies the composer's thoughts, feelings and messages, and the role of the musician is to deliver them to the listener with our own expression.

``Crossover enables you to approach music for the sake of music by diminishing barriers between genres. For example, it's difficult to explain the concept of `han' or deep sorrow inherent to Korean culture to a non-Korean. But by incorporating gugak into jazz, you may not know what it is but feel heart-shattering grief.

``It may seem like mixing up different music genres. But I must have solid reasons for crossing one music type with another to produce a certain color, image or thought. Even if someone dismisses it as being too light, I've achieved my ultimate goal. I've worked hard to do something that can be easily accepted,'' he said.

Often, aspects of a musician's life define his/her music and the music defines parts of them, but it's quite rare that an artist's music and life coincide so entirely.

``In a way, I have no choice but to do crossover music. It's how I lived my life. I grew up in Korea but spent my teens in Europe and then moved to America. European, American and Korean societies all have a different air about them. Instead of trying to define it, I like to sense it. In terms of studies, I loved the sciences but I loved music and the arts. There's so much beauty in everything, and wouldn't it be a waste to just focus on one thing and try to communicate within it?

``In Europe, the word `sorrow' may be better understood than jazz music. It's understanding these distinctions and translating it through music,'' he said.

It's been six years since Im made the crossover to music, and he is indulging in ``the pure pleasure, pure excitement '' of being onstage. ``The eyes of an appreciative listener are so beautiful, almost like those of someone falling in love,'' he said.

The singer also mixed in a bit of acting, playing principal parts in musicals like ``Jesus Christ Superstar.'' During a performance of ``Winter Sonata'' in Japan a few years ago, a fall scene went bad, leaving him with two broken ribs. This was at the end of the first act. But somehow he managed to finish the show.

``I believe there are hardships but not impossibilities. We are given only as much pain as we can handle,'' he said. As for leukemia, he gets check-ups every now and then but said he is ``totally fine, better than fine, actually.''

Last year Im finally took a step toward making his dreams come true by launching a series of ``Concerts of Sharing'' (he doesn't like the word `charity') titled ``Sunaebo.''

``They're a cornerstone to my longtime social welfare project,'' said Im, who plans to expand by forming a team to discern who needs help where, and studying about welfare systems a bit more.

He also wishes to design a germ-free performance space for patients, where he can apply his engineering knowledge for his artistic goals and welfare concerns.

Offstage, he will release a project album as early as the end of March. This is great news for fans who have been waiting anxiously since his 2004 recording ``Sentimental Journey,'' which had instantly topped music charts.

For now, fans can meet Im at his upcoming solo concert, ``The First,'' Saturday at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. Although it's not technically his first concert, the singer says it is his ``true first'' in that he will showcase his musicality in full. He will visit various genres ranging from classical and jazz to pop and musical scores. Call (02) 522-9933.

An artist with his own color, Im possesses a vibrant musical spectrum. But he said his music is ``colorless.''

``I hope my music would be a ray of light that gives true color to the object it touches,'' said Im. As if it were a touch of fate, a blinding shaft of sunlight pierced in from behind him, waking up the lazy afternoon.