These qualities resonate and radiate from the music of Young Sub Lee. People are often surprised and intrigued by the similarities between jazz and Korean traditional music when they hear Lee perform. He pours all of his energy, body and soul, into the music, creating a driving intensity that engages and inspires listeners to dream and to dance. He improvises, playing with melodies and rhythms, creating and developing music that transcends boundaries.
Lee came from Seoul to Seattle this spring for a three-month artist residency sponsored by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture and the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Foundation and hosted by Northwest Heritage Resources. As part of his residency, Lee taught Korean traditional wind and percussion instruments at the University of Washington as a Visiting Artist in Ethnomusicology. He has also given many public performances and workshops at various venues in Seattle and Tacoma, including Meany Theater, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Seattle Pacific University, Tacoma Art Museum, UW Center for Korea Studies, NW Folklife Festival, Jack Straw Productions, and Lucid Jazz Lounge.
Lee plays contemporary and experimental music as well as traditional Korean music on various instruments, including a large horizontal bamboo flute called “daegom”, a smaller vertical bamboo flute called “danso”, a conical oboe called “taepyongso” (“o” is like o in brother), and a double-headed drum with an hourglass-shaped body called “janggu”. Lee majored in daegom for his bachelor’s degree (with a full scholarship) and composition for his master’s degree (and received the grand prize for his thesis) at Chugye University of Arts. He was a member of the orchestra at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul and he taught at Chugye University of Arts for several years. He is also a founding member of the fusion group Vinalog.
Lee’s music can be heard in the original soundtracks for several Korean films including “The King” and “The Clown”, which was seen by more than 12 million people and set a new record for box office ticket sales in 2006. He is returning to Seoul this month to resume his role as conductor of the Korean Traditional Youth Orchestra in preparation for upcoming concerts.
Lee comes from a family of musicians. His father, Byong Uk Lee, is a guitarist and composer. His mother, Gyong Ae Hwang, is a singer and dancer. His sister, Eun Gi Lee, plays a Korean zither called “gayagom”.
Lee is married to his high school sweetheart, Bok Eum Kim, who plays a Korean zither called gomun-go and graduated from Ehwa University. Kim joined Lee for several performances in Seattle.
Lee also performed with Nuri Jung, who has a master’s degree in gomun-go from Seoul National University and now lives in Seattle. I had the pleasure of accompanying Lee on janggu for most of his performances here.
Lee has also lived in Nashville and New York City, where he studied jazz and played alto saxophone. He often collaborates with jazz musicians, improvising and creating fresh new music on Korean traditional musical instruments. In Seattle, Lee performed with guitarist Dennis Rea and his group Moraine, as well as trombonist Stuart Dempster.
Even when performing traditional Korean music, Lee improvises freely and continually, which makes the music fresh and alive. He plays with rhythms and melodies from various regions of Korea, each area having distinct styles and flavors. Improvisation is a vital element in the creation and continuing development of Korean traditional music such as sanjo, a genre of instrumental music that is based on shaman ritual music from the southwest.
Perhaps even more impressive than Lee’s musicianship is his warm and generous heart. He is a deeply considerate and thoughtful teacher and friend, and his music is filled with his spirit. Even if you didn’t have a chance to see him this time, I highly recommend keeping an ear open for opportunities to hear him in the future.