Soo Yeon Lyuh is a master of the haegeum, a two-stringed Korean bowed instrument. She possesses not only flawless technique and a full command of the haegeum’s traditional repertoire, but is also widely recognized for promoting the creation of new pieces for haegeum. For twelve years, Lyuh was a member of South Korea’s National Gugak Center, the foremost institution for the preservation of Korean traditional music. Since then, Lyuh has endeavored to weave authentic styles into new musical domains, relocating to the Bay Area and drawing inspiration from its dynamic improvised music scene. Her contributions have sparked the creation of new repertoire for haegeum—the lifeblood of any instrument. She has premiered dozens of new works and recently made her debut as a composer with the Kronos Quartet.
Lyuh began commissioning pieces for haegeum while she was still living in South Korea. At the National Gugak Center, which traces its roots to the 7th Century Shilla Dynasty, Lyuh performed with the Creative New Music Troupe. The institute rarely has open positions and the selection process for performers is incredibly rigorous. Lyuh’s rarefied position not only required her to possess a deep understanding of historical works, but to be capable of negotiating challenging new ones.
Lyuh started visiting the United States to explore the ways in which she might expand the possibilities for her instrument, requesting new pieces from numerous composers including Larry Polansky, Cindy Cox, Karlton Hester, Thomas Osborne, and Donald Womack. In the process, she met the Kronos Quartet’s violinist David Harrington. He invited her to compose her own work for Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire; the project commissions string quartets from prominent and emerging composers from around the globe. Lyuh’s “Yessori” for string quartet and haegeum is available on Kronos’ website. Lyuh premiered the piece live with the Kronos at WNYC’s Greene Space in New York City in March of 2017.
“There was no question that she was a phenomenal instrumentalist,” says David Harrington. “The sounds she is able to create on the haegeum are wholly unique and open up a vast new realm of sonic possibilities to Western ears. Moreover, the breadth of her knowledge of Korean traditional music is an incredible resource for musicians and scholars alike.”
Lyuh’s pioneering efforts to reinvent improvisational methods – ones integral to historic Korean traditions, but lost to generations of performers – are peerless. Although playing by ear is regarded as the key to the spontaneity of performances in Korean folk music, Lyuh has ventured in a decidedly experimental direction. She played with drummer Simon Barker, guitarist Henry Kaiser, bassist Bill Laswell, and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa on Mudang Rock. In December, she played with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith at the Create Festival in San Francisco. She also collaborated on a recording of free improvisation titled Megasonic Chapel (Fractal Music, 2015) that features Kaiser, percussionist William Winant, pianist Tania Chen, and cellist Danielle DeGruttola. Meanwhile, Lyuh continues to hone her improvisational skills by working with cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and sitting in on courses taught by pianist Myra Melford at the University of California at Berkeley and avant-garde icon Roscoe Mitchell at Mills College.
A distinguished scholar, Lyuh earned her Ph.D. in Korean Traditional Music from Seoul National University. In 2017 Lyuh was awarded a fellowship with the Asian Cultural Council to develop collaborations between haegeum and experimental music in the Bay Area. As a lecturer, she is sought after for her ability to impart valuable insight and intercultural understanding to those unfamiliar with gugak; her dissertation researched the changing role of haegeum in Korean orchestras beginning with early court traditions. As a visiting scholar at Mills College (2017-2018) and UC Berkeley (2015-2016), Lyuh taught established and emerging composers in the Bay Area about haegeum composition and techniques in order to create new repertoire for the instrument. Lyuh has also been a visiting scholar at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa (2011-12).
Born and raised in Daegu, South Korea, Lyuh early musical studies were typical for those in her country. She took piano lessons from the age of three, a way to “acquire Western music’s grammar,” and was performing as a soloist with the Daegu Philharmonic Orchestra by the time she was twelve. Still, Lyuh was unsatisfied with the piano and switched to the violin—only to quit music completely three years later. When she missed playing, her mother suggested taking up a traditional instrument as a hobby, an alternative to the pressurized and competitive culture of classical music. She had no idea that it would become the pursuit that would define her future.
“I think that it will be impossible to conquer the haegeum in my lifetime,” says Lyuh. “That is because it becomes harder the more I play it. The instrument continues to reveal itself. It is full of untapped possibilities.”