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Kim, Earl [Eul ]locked

  • Martin Brody
  • , revised by Greg A Steinke

(b Dinuba, CA, Jan 6, 1920; d Cambridge, MA, Nov 19, 1998). American composer. Of Korean descent, he began piano lessons at age nine, and was a pupil of Homer Grun for seven years. In 1939 he studied composition and theory with arnold Schoenberg at UCLA; in 1940 he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied with ernest Bloch , but his education was interrupted by a stint in the US Army Intelligence Service during World War II. He returned to Berkeley after the war and studied with Roger Sessions (MM 1952). He served on the faculty at Princeton University from 1952 to 1967, and from 1967 taught at Harvard University, where he was James Edward Ditson Professor of Music. He retired in 1990 and continued to live in Cambridge until his death in 1998. Throughout his career he was active as a conductor, performer, and ensemble pianist. Kim served terms as Composer-in-Residence at the Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies and at the Marlboro, Dartmouth, Tanglewood, Cape and Islands, and Aspen Music Festivals. Among his awards were those from the National Institute of Arts and Letters; the Ingram Merrill, Fromm, Guggenheim, Koussevitzky, and Naumburg foundations; Brandeis Creative Arts Medal; and Mark Horbitt Award of the Boston Symphony. Kim was active in politics, particularly in the 1980s, co-founding Musicians Against Nuclear Arms in 1981 and serving as its president for four years.

Kim’s compositional aesthetic crystallized during the early 1960s, in response to such diverse influences as the texts of Samuel Beckett and Kim’s apprehension of the structure of a Japanese stone garden. Describing the latter, Kim said: “It summed up my theory of composing: discrete images not taken in by the eye or ear at once, but seen or heard consecutively. At the end there is a whole that is somehow synthesized from all these separate pieces. Multiplicity becomes unity … transitions take place by means of silences. Statements are being made when nothing is being said.” In “Thither” (from Now & Then, 1981) and in much of Kim’s other music, segments of various sizes, from individual tones to large-scale sections, are often framed by silence. The segments often recur, largely unaltered, after the presentation of a contrasting section as in the Violin Concerto. Kim’s writing for voice demonstrates a sensitive response to the rhythms and intonations of spoken language, whether the speech patterns are dramatically intensified (as in Lines, 1975), spoken with only rhythms and dynamics specified (as in Melodrama, 1975), or sung. The instrumental accompaniments are often in rhythmic unison with the voice, sometimes doubling the vocal lines or following the contours of the spoken text. Though its harmonic materials and dramatic contexts are diverse, Kim’s music is economic in means, delicate, and subtle in its inflections. His 12-tone sets and procedures are occasionally used but pitch structures are not derived from such sets.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, for whom Earl composed two of his major works, remembered him in the New York Times as a “composer, devoted teacher, musician extraordinaire. Earl brought to music colors we only dreamed existed but had never before heard. Creative and imaginative, he was truly inspired.”


(texts by Beckett unless otherwise stated)

Footfalls (opera, 1), 1981


Letters found near a Suicide (F. Horne), S, pf, 1954

Exercises en route: Dead Calm, Rattling on, Gooseberries, she said, They are far out, S, fl, ob, cl, vn, vc, perc, actors, dancers, film, 1961–71

Narratives: Monologues, Melodrama 1, Lines, Eh Joe, Melodrama 2, Duet, Earthlight, actress/female nar, actor, S, 2 tpt, trbn, 2 vn, 2 vc, pf, television, lights, 1973–9

Now & then: On the Meadow (Chekhov), Thither, Roundelay, S, fl, harp, va, 1981

Where Grief Slumbers (Apollinaire, Rimbaud), 7 songs, S, harp, str orch, 1982

Cornet for Narrator and Orchestra, 1982

The 7th Dream for Soprano, Bar, vn, vc, and pf, 1986

The 11th Dream for Soprano, Baritone, Violin, Cello, and Piano, 1988

3 Poems in French for Soprano and String Quartet, 1989

4 Lines from Mallarmé for Voice, Flute, Vibraphone, and Percussion, 1989

Some Thoughts on Keats and Coleridge, “In Memoriam Roger Sessions,” for Chorus, 1990

The 26th Dream for Baritone, Chorus, and Strong Orchestra, 1991–92

Dear Linda for Woman’s Voice, Flute or Piccolo, Piano, Marimba, Percussion, and Cello, 1992


2 Bagatelles, pf, 1952

Dialogues, pf, orch, 1959

Vn Conc., 1979

12 Caprices, vn, 1980

Scenes from Childhood for Brass Quintet, 1984

The White Hour for Chamber Orchestra, 1998

3 early works, withdrawn

Principal publishers

Composers Collaborative and Theodore Presser

Principal record labels

Albany, Bis, Naxos, New World, and Nonesuch


  • E. Barkin: “Earl Kim: Earthlight,” PNM, 19/1–2 (1981), 269
  • G.L. Jeffers: Non-narrative Drama: Settings by Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem and Earl Kim of Plays by Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett (diss., UCLA, 1983)
  • J. Tassell: “Golden Silences: the Flowering of Earl Kim,” Boston Globe Magazine (27 Feb 1983), 10
  • M.E. Jeon: “I am Concerned with What is Good,” Sonus, 7/11 (1987), 1–9 [interview]
  • Obituary, New York Times (26 Nov 1998)
  • A. Brandt: Liner notes, Earl Kim (New World Records, 2001)
Perspectives of New Music