Soo Yeon Lyuh is a composer, improviser, and master of the haegeum, a two-stringed Korean bowed instrument. Lyuh’s work strikes a balance between originality and tradition, borrowing and recontextualizing familiar gestures from Korean music. Her soundscape follows a logic of texture, pacing, feeling, and unexpected turns.
Lyuh asks classically trained performers to approach their instruments from an unusual perspective, drawing out fresh sounds that, once understood, sound organic. These sounds are deceptively difficult to specify with notation. Instead, Lyuh records herself playing the haegeum and teaches her music to performers by ear. A “score” will be both a printed page, and a set of instructional videos. She asks performers and listeners alike to reimagine the sounds of a conventional Western ensemble.
Lyuh’s music addresses present social issues. “Tattoo” (2021) is about fear and release, and responds to her own experience of a random shooting incident in California. “See You On The Other Side” (2021) was composed in response to the growing death toll of the coronavirus. “Moment 2020” (2020) has been dedicated to artists who struggle to stay creative during the pandemic. Lyuh’s music searches for connection and empathy in tumultuous times.
As a performer, Lyuh possesses flawless technique and a full command of the haegeum’s traditional repertoire. For twelve years, she was a member of South Korea’s National Gugak Center, which traces its roots to the 7th Century Shilla Dynasty and is Korea’s foremost institution for the preservation of traditional music. Lyuh has endeavored to weave authentic styles into new musical domains, relocating in 2015 to the San Francisco Bay Area and drawing inspiration from its dynamic improvised music scene. In 2017, Lyuh was awarded a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council to develop collaborations with Bay Area experimental musicians. She pushes herself not only to command a deep understanding of historical works, but also to negotiate challenging new ones.
Through the Bay Area music scene, Lyuh met David Harrington, violinist of the Kronos Quartet. Harrington invited her to include “Yessori” (2017) in the Kronos’ project Fifty for the Future, which over five years commissioned fifty string quartets from prominent and emerging composers around the globe.
“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 interest in improvisational music draws on Korean traditions lost to generations of performers. Although playing by ear is essential in bringing Korean folk music to life, preserving traditional performance has taken precedence over expanding the music’s improvisational vocabulary. In this respect Lyuh has ventured in a decidedly experimental direction. She was featured on the record Mudang Rock (2018) with drummer Simon Barker, guitarist Henry Kaiser, bassist Bill Laswell, and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. In December 2017, she played with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith at the Create Festival in San Francisco. She also played on a free improvisation recording, Megasonic Chapel (Fractal Music, 2015), featuring Kaiser, percussionist William Winant, pianist Tania Chen, and cellist Danielle DeGruttola. Meanwhile, Lyuh honed her improvisational skills by working with cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and sitting in on courses of pianist Myra Melford and avant-garde icon Roscoe Mitchell.
In 2021, Lyuh began doctoral studies in composition at Princeton University.
Previously, Lyuh earned her D.M.A. in Korean Traditional Music from Seoul National University. As a lecturer, she is sought after for her ability to impart valuable insight and intercultural understanding to those unfamiliar with Korean traditional music; 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 (2011-2012).
“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 for improvisation and composition. I hope the nature of my music can make a bridge between cultures across times, and break down any walls.”