The Intricacies of History Making With Sunik Kim

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Sunik Kim is a musician, writer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Their work is dynamic, ever-evolving, but always striking a visceral edge where the emotive threads within become a grounding point amidst chaos. This spirit takes the form of wondrous density in Kim’s new album on Notice Recordings, Raid on the White Tiger Regiment. It feels overwhelming at first, but at a certain point, everything else fades away, and we become immersed in the dense, inviting soundworld. 

I continue to be struck by Mattin’s liner notes and the idea of “open density” – music that aims to connect and converse through endless layers. Raid on the White Tiger Regiment seems almost impossible in this respect, so vast we can’t perceive its entirety until we let it encompass us entirely. It is a stunning, remarkable achievement.

Raid on the White Tiger Regiment is out now on cassette and digital formats via Notice Recordings. Sunik Kim can be reached via their website HERE.

I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

What immediately comes to mind is LimeWire. More specifically, the process of beginning to wrap my head around a circuit that is now second nature: hearing a snippet or fragment of something intriguing, researching it, and “making it mine,” so to speak. In that earliest phase, every single blown-out 128kbps mp3 I managed to wrangle was precious and unique—whether it was Avril’s “Take Me Away,” Linkin Park’s “Numb,” or a bootleg recording of my middle school concert band. The incredible idea that I could slowly amass a personalized collection of audio files, and express myself through them, emerged and began to solidify here; really, my 532GB iTunes library is that very same collection of files from 2005, just passed from machine to machine, augmented, corrupted, flipped inside-out. All of these in-between iterations have now been lost to time—I often delete huge swathes of music thinking I’ve outgrown them, only to sheepishly re-download them a few weeks later—but it’s no exaggeration to say that this library, and the very particular—obsessive?—habits and workflows I’ve developed to preserve and extend it, is the critical foundation for all of my creative work today. That being said, if it were all lost tomorrow, I would make it work.

Did you always want to be a musician or a composer?

No. Growing up, I was always interested in creative expression—penciling sprawling Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions across several taped-together sheets of printer paper; writing multi-part sagas about anthropomorphic superhero dogs; etc.—but the idea that “musician” (let alone composer) was an actual, attainable profession never crossed my mind at the time. Even today, it’s technically not my “profession” (I have a day job), though, of course, it’s a central and very important part of my life.

What was the first impetus to start playing music and creating your own sounds? Was saxophone your first instrument?

The first objective impetus was piano lessons imposed from above, which fizzled out quickly; the next was picking up the alto saxophone when I was 11. The saxophone quickly became a deep passion, but in likely harsh retrospect, it was a kind of cold one—one admittedly kept alive by a real inner drive—that was ultimately fixated on virtuosity, exteriority, technique, recitation, and replication. I essentially stopped playing once I left high school, picked it back up briefly from 2018-2019, and haven’t touched it since. 

In these earlier years, I also remember trying—maybe for about a week—to notate some musical ideas on sheet paper. Lacking any kind of tangible feedback loop that never went anywhere, and I gave up immediately. The real subjective creative impetus only came in high school, when I downloaded a cracked copy of FL Studio on a whim and started making what I can only describe as a comic sans version of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. I still have the files, and they’ve held up in their own bizarre way. The sheer, visceral fun of clicking and dragging wild shapes across piano rolls, switching out garish instruments for even uglier ones, and intuitively throwing my musical diet of the time (a chaotic soup of AllMusic and Wikipedia-sourced “Great Albums,” early blog-era buzzbands passed down from cooler friends in the know, and SoundCloud-scene odds and ends) into a blender of my own design—very little compares to that initial feverish rush. What I also realized in retrospect was how much the software informed the contours of the music: FL allowed for very efficient and straightforward experimentation with minimal setup or fiddling, versus Ableton (which I soon transitioned to), which felt less immediate but more flexible in certain ways, leading me to think more about designing my own workflow from the ground up.

So I really want to focus on your new album, Raid on the White Tiger Regiment. Can you tell me a little about when you first learned about this piece and what drew you to this particular one of the revolutionary operas?

I learned about the opera while studying the history of the Chinese and Russian revolutions. On the most surface level, I was immediately struck by the imagery of renditions of the opera: there’s a simultaneously fantastical and rooted quality to it, one that absorbs, concentrates the intensity of the real, ongoing revolutionary process, not so much overtly fictionalizing it as drawing out its inherent thrust and vitality. On top of that, of course, the opera concerns the struggle of Korean and Chinese communists against South Korean and American forces during the Korean War in 1953—only four years before the opera was penned, a decade before it was first staged in 1964, and a mere three decades after the revolution was launched. In this struggle, I see not only a genuine example of international solidarity—the Chinese communists called the war “the war to resist US aggression and aid Korea and our future tasks”—but also a decisive historical proof of the powers and potentials in consolidated, long-term political organization: “While enemy bombs fell from overhead, we went on with our meetings underground. When they picture the Korean battlefield, people living in Peking feel it must have been very dangerous. True, there was danger, but it was not so terrible as long as everyone contributed ideas.”

There are already so many vectors, tensions, and overlaps present in the opera itself: between performance and script, script and subject matter, history and its representation, performers and revolutionaries. In addition, there is a central dynamic between victory and defeat, each conditioning and producing the other, cutting across these historical threads: the victory of the end of Japanese occupation of Korea in 1945 produced the defeat of subsequent US occupation, which continues to this day; that defeat then produced the temporary victory of the Korean and Chinese communists over the imperialists; the opera was performed during the Cultural Revolution, which terminated in the as-yet unended defeat of the Chinese socialist project. 

All I did, then, was add yet another node to this unstable web of historical and political tensions already present in the opera itself. In naming my work after the opera, I directly and irreversibly linked the two, rendering my music a kind of soundtrack: an accompaniment to a mediated representation of an event, itself rooted in an extensive historical process. There is absolutely no desire for utopia, fantasy, or an altered reality here; rather, through this work, I want to establish a very particular environment in which thought—potentially transformative—can thrive and bloom, in which the mind has time and space to draw connections: between historical moments, between fragments of sound, and all the complex, chaotic crossings-over between the two. In this way, I see the work as a development and critique of my prior attempts at political or politicized art: with 2019’s Zero ChimeI tried to match the musical form to the intensity of the historical process, to bludgeon the listener; with 2021’s The bent bow must wait to be released, I shifted the burden of the political to the visual realm, still thinking in terms of a text—admittedly abstract and fragmented—to be transmitted to the spectator. With Raid, I am not so much telling you what to think or even necessarily what think—though the latter is still undeniably made clear. Rather, I’m setting certain concrete, absolutely partisan parameters with the hope that generative thought will happen and with a suspicion, but certainly no foreknowledge, of where that thought may go or what decisions it might make throughout the duration of the piece—and after.

When you started working on this, what drew you to this particular approach using Max MSP and Supercollider as the conduit to create this expression of Raid on the White Tiger Regiment?

I want to begin by saying that there are two contradictory aspects and attitudes to this question that I struggle with. The first is that of placing undue emphasis on the purely technical aspects of the work at the expense of the totality and its place in a concrete context. The second is an intentional obscuring of the technical aspects of a work stemming from a kind of competitiveness, an arms-race approach to creative production. To the latter point, I want to be completely transparent about my process, especially since it involves software which is—by various means, legal or otherwise—technically accessible and reproducible and has great “equalizing” potential in that regard, even though this has absolutely not manifested in practice due to the way our society is structured. At the same time, to the former point, I want to avoid, and deeply criticize any kind of fetishization of the technologies used: they are merely tools, instruments, with their own material characteristics and quirks, just like a stick or a trombone. They happen to be most suited to the type of work I’m involved in at the moment, and I’d be more than happy to share my programs with anyone who is reading this.

To continue: the technical aspect of the process emerged more or less accidentally or spontaneously through countless rounds of experimentation. My interest in programming began with very simple functions, copying code from YouTube tutorials: make a thing that does a thing. Even this alone is strangely addictive, but what really pulled me into the vortex was realizing that I could connect all of those individual functions in any possible way imaginable, exactly to my specifications. This was not about transferring a perfect blueprint from mind to code but rather setting medium-sized goals—make a routable matrix mixer; make a “time” sequencer that chaotically modulates the program’s clock—and adjusting plans and expectations based on the results. 

I began with an interest in synthesis and unique timbres, building simple FM percussion and sound-altering modules and triggering them at rapid, unpredictable speeds. However, after a life-altering few months spent with the work of Henry Cow—mainly Western Culture and In Praise of Learning—I realized that I was more interested in the relations between the sounds, the architectures they formed—surfacing that logic through a very particular sound-as-material suited to the task—than I was in the isolated characteristics of the sounds-as-sounds separate from one another. At the time, I off-handedly referred to this new direction as an attempt at a “computerized Henry Cow.” From there, I started to build a simple soundfont player that accepted MIDI note data. This gradually grew in complexity, but at its core, it’s really simple: just a handful of those soundfont players being fed automatically but intentionally generated scales and chords at wildly varying tempos. What really excited me was the often hilarious tension between the flatness and rigidity of the MIDI sounds themselves and the disorienting patterns they formed when whirled and projected at extreme velocities and in impossible registers. Each unexpected gesture that emerged from those soundfont players became its own little character with its own life and wants. As a result, piecing the fragments together—which was a completely intuitive, by-ear process where I essentially dragged, sculpted, and folded big blocks of audio in a stripped-down Ableton that I use as an Audacity-esque arrangement tool—was like getting those characters to talk to each other, live together, in an intensified setting. It was essential, too, that the program did not become overly granular, transparent, or seamlessly “smooth” like a professional-grade VST; the program needed to remain surprising and somewhat opaque, to be able to buckle, leak, overheat, frustrate, and crash, to access its hidden material qualities and bring those into tension with their sculpted form. 

It’s in that tension between the rigidity of materials and the odd fluidity of their form that a political aspect emerges. On one level, this tension gestures towards a kind of resourcefulness or scrappiness, a kind of underdog story akin to episodes in revolutionary history where the militants did what they could with what they had and decisively made the result much greater than the sum of its isolated parts. On another level, there is a technological critique here that encompasses the political and aesthetic. I chose this specific musical material because of its unavoidable rootedness, the tangible weight of its cultural and historical associations. These sounds have become coded, even frozen, in the eyes of society—but they only exist as tools in a specific network of social relations and function differently in different contexts. By placing them in this odd, warped setting, I hope to argue that while these sounds have their own history, are inseparable from history, and are certainly infused with decidedly non-neutral political ideas, the associations, and functions—moral, aesthetic, etc.—attached to them are not permanent or eternal but only conditional, contingent upon their particular place in the total social organism and the movement of history. By attempting to destabilize this technological fetish—in which the social role and manifestation of technology are seen as stemming from its material being, its eternal or natural “essence,” rather than its place in the social metabolism—I hoped to argue, through the form of the music, that what will ultimately save us is not some unforeseen deus ex machina, an unimagined technological development, but rather a qualitative reconfiguration—not simply redistribution—of what is already at hand. Or, in Marx’s words: “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” The conditions for the solution—communism—to the current moment are already present or in the course of formation; some of those conditions may be hidden behind frozen, socially-determined shells, just like the all-too-familiar plunk of the standard MIDI piano, waiting to be resituated, recontextualized, granted new life in service of a common goal, a historical task.

One thing that keeps pulling me back to the record is how this really heavy emotional element is woven through it. It’s challenging, often chaotic music, but that intensity has the effect of feeling everything at once. It’s amazing. I’m wondering how it feels for you with this music and if that sort of aspect or approach was something you were intentionally going for with this interpretation?

Some of my favorite music is intentionally cryptic, cold, or overtly concept-driven; but I’ve always prioritized visceral impact in my own work, almost from the perspective of club music where the necessity and urgency of the music must—must—be felt upon hitting play, and the music must be able to speak for itself to a certain extent. This has nothing to do with extreme volume or aggression, and in fact, I hate most “noise” or noisy music whose sole intention is to be as loud and transgressive as possible for its own sake. Rather, I try to construct that impact through careful attention paid to both the horizontal and vertical aspects of the work and the dynamic between the two. To further elaborate: I hope to imbue the work with a gravitational pull, part of which stems from the horizontal sequencing of musical events, the way in which one event disintegrates or cuts into another, or one event produces, as an inevitable consequence of its own internal logic, a secondary, embryonic form that then becomes primary. This often comes down to decisions on a second, or even millisecond, scale: the transitions have to be just right, or the entire structure collapses or becomes unconvincing, mere pastiche or collage rather than composition. The vertical aspect, which of course, literally intersects with the horizontal, comes from an attention paid to each discrete “slice” of the work at any given point in time. On a most surface level, this can be seen in terms of “thinness” or “thickness,” but I prefer to view it in terms of conflict or contradiction: does each slice contain, within itself, tensions and clashes between its various intertwined elements, tensions with origins and trajectories? This is not at all in service of a kind of modular approach where slices can be freely interchanged; rather, with attention paid to both the horizontal and vertical aspects at every moment of the work, an incredible momentum can be derived from the chaotic crisscrossing of the questions: (1) Where is the sound going? And where did it come from? (2) What is the sound doing? And what does it want to do?

The emotional aspect, then, while it does arrive overtly in some sections—mainly thinking of the second half of “Spring Thunder Is Rolling”—derives, at least personally, from these structural decisions and their life cycles, their struggles, and hard-won victories. I cry tears of joy at Cow’s “Industry” or “Living in the Heart of the Beast,” not because of any kind of emotional or sentimental affect, but because of the perfect cut from one event into another, the most attentive morphing of one musical gesture into another, the way each sequence leads inevitably, but always in stunning and often hilarious fashion, into the next. To be very clear, my emphasis on structure does not render the actual sound-material secondary; this is not an abstract score transferred from the mind that can be embodied by any set of instruments or materials. Rather, the structure and material are inseparable, both from the perspective of their construction and the direct listening experience. Each individual sound fragment or character that composes the larger piece is technically computer-generated—but the actual construction and assemblage of those fragments are, as mentioned earlier, an entirely intuitive and iterative process. In a way, as bizarre as it might sound given the music, I see parallels with Morton Feldman’s process here in terms of his careful avoidance of capital-S Systems, his emphasis on concentration, tactility, and intuition, and the attendant ephemeral, lowercase-s systems that emerge in the direct experience of sifting through and unfolding the materials at hand. 

Public domain image from a performance of the opera

I love the liner notes of Mattin’s description of “a conscious encounter with history making music” and the idea of “open density” – something I also felt. What has it been like for you, from the other side of it, to be creating something that not only has so much history but also creates its own history in the process?

Mattin’s comments really opened up an aspect of the piece that I hadn’t considered before. They can be read in many ways, but from my perspective, this idea of an “open” rather than closed density and “history making music” is directly related to my comments above about the relationship between structure and material. As Connie Li wrote in an incredible review of Raid, these particular sounds “recall a MIDI rendering of a piece which hasn’t yet been performed—usually a marker for a work’s initial stages.” Here, already, there are historical implications: the sounds, in their materiality, gesture towards a potential future from a rooted, tangible present; they set parameters for that future but do not predetermine it. Further, as Keith Prosk wrote in another great review of the work, the sound materials—through their skewed form—are reduced to a kind of “crucible ooze from which new models may rise.” Here it is not so much a question of reduction to an essential “sameness” as much as an attentive tracing of a logical and historical through-line within each ephemeral formation of the materials. The “skeletal” aspect of the MIDI sounds means that they can represent, take on, and shed a huge diversity of musical forms with specific social and cultural connotations. Where it gets really interesting, of course, is in the inherently warped, distorted nature of these shapeshifting representations: very few would mistake the canned, blurt-y trumpet sounds here, for instance, for “the real thing.” 

Here, then, is where I see both this “open density” and “history making music”: in this particular intensified context—wherein sound-masses whistle by the ear and transform at extreme velocities—the mind constantly latches onto moments, snippets, that even just barely resemble the familiar before they disintegrate, establishing a visceral experience of a vibrating, crumpled historical tapestry unfurling and exploding to the ear. The openness, then, comes from this familiarity-in-motion: these are not purely abstract, self-consciously “alien” sounds but rather very rooted ones with specific associations, simply situated in new, rapidly shifting contexts. To be clear, this is about as far from a postmodern polystylistic or collage-esque approach as I could imagine: I am not cycling through discernible, clashing musical traditions or forms with a wink, for its own sake or as a form of virtuosity—rather, the form and structure of the music is such that there is never a fully identifiable tradition legible to the ear in the first place. Throughout the duration of the piece, the ear and mind are left in a constant process of drawing, redrawing, and discarding connections and associations, often out- or under-pacing the development of the music itself. In this way, the listening experience is made dynamic and requires a certain concentration, a new attentiveness, and mode of listening that directly draws upon—and in—the listener’s social, historical, and political setting and context, their whole being. 

Obviously, there are potent political undercurrents woven into the foundations of this composition, another piece that adds to its heft and another way that challenges us as listeners. What kinds of responses have you had from people to the piece?

I’d group the responses so far into three broad overlapping categories. The first views the work as a kind of closed monolith, a block of sonic overwhelm, a capital-N Noise release, grouping it in with generally “extreme” music like the densest European free jazz freakouts or harsh noise walls, etc. While I only welcome feedback to the work—truly just grateful it’s being heard and responded to at all—I have to say that this is a misreading but, of course, one that I still have to take responsibility for. As mentioned above, I really dislike intentionally aggressive music in this vein: at worst, it’s all tones of gray, utterly humorless against all its wishes, self-consciously edgy to the point of gimmickry or novelty, focusing on an always-ephemeral “wow” reaction and a kind of violent physicality or athleticism with no subtlety, nuance or attention to structure, flow, color, and the delicate balances to be struck between them. The initial impetus on my end was the dry, hyper-focused, and spiky music of Henry Cow, with Anthony Braxton’s early 90’s quartet featuring Marilyn Crispell stepping in near the completion of the work to grant the linear skeleton more verticality. In both of these indirect influences—which more-or-less vanished into the material—the momentum of the music stems from the extremely carefully considered density, overlap, and intertwining of musical gestures, not from beating the listener, or every possible noise-making object in sight, over the head—to say the least. As my friend John Wall said in a recent email: “Empty pots make the loudest noise.”

The second views the work for what it is, hearing and accessing its structural, formal, and perceptual subtleties, some of which I’ve tried to outline above. Beyond informal conversations with friends along these lines, the above review by Connie Li especially fits into this category. Regarding these two first groupings: I see Cecil Taylor’s music talked about in a similarly divergent way, actually—there’s a subset that only hears aggression and incomprehensible noise in the Unit or solo performances, and there’s another that hears, even in the most unrelenting recordings like Akisakila, a beautiful, delicate inner logic, and structure that encourages the listener not to shut down and submit, but rather to concentrate and listen for patterns, densities, and sound-memories internal to the experience of the music itself. I am striving towards the latter—Raid is just the first imperfect attempt that I’m continuing to critique and refine—and am thrilled that this aspect is coming across to anyone at all.

The third group forms a slight tangent: this is one in which the work is viewed as a kind of sound collage or plunderphonics. This is another misreading. On a purely factual basis, there are no samples in the studio version—every sound was generated by me. In the live piece, which I’ll discuss further below, the final few minutes do involve chunks of sampled sound. But the intention there was both very directly compositional and in direct dialogue with the non-sampled sounds. Here, as with the latter, I wanted to recontextualize sounds that may otherwise be familiar and have them teeter on that edge of familiarity without ever fully making it there. In this way, just as I attempted to unfold the hidden potentials in static MIDI sounds as a kind of political and aesthetic statement, I attempt to show that these recorded sounds are not frozen but constantly situated in a web of connotations and associations that can be, in this intensified setting, artificially rearranged and distorted. In this way, the sampled section almost acts as a kind of first, faltering iteration or objectification of the skeletal “blueprint” as laid out in the MIDI sections. You can absolutely call it a collage, or whatever you like, but in my mind, to do so emphasizes the sutures between the samples themselves, the fact that those sutures exist, above all, in a way that dispels any kind of intensity of listening and concentration and renders the music a pseudo-random “parade” of disjointed sounds, a literal sample CD. What I set out to do was the direct opposite: to arrange and distort these sampled materials in such a way that the sutures between them almost disappear—but, critically, remain present as a source of tension—thereby surfacing the inner logic connecting them, which was previously obscured by their prior existence as isolated, uniform blocks of sound in their own familiar, legible contexts.

Photo of Sunik Kim playing live surrounded by blue light. Photo by David Laskowski.
Photo by Dawid Laskowski

I really like the live version of the piece on the b-side and the way it opens up different ideas and interpretations about the piece. As an audience member, I also imagine it’s pretty remarkable in a live setting. What have reactions been to the piece when performing it, and what are some of your favorite aspects about playing it live?

To be honest, I discovered the piece for the first time alongside the audience. I never imagined the life and physicality it would take on in this new setting; while constructing the piece, I never once thought I would perform it in any capacity. To hear it take on this hidden and truly surprising clarity and precision at extreme volumes was, without exaggeration, one of the most fulfilling creative experiences of my entire life. At these extreme levels, each fragment and character in the music had space to breathe, to speak to and grip the listener with utmost directness without melting into a kind of muddy density. The nature of my programming and performance setup, too, meant that there were no built-in safety mechanisms like limiters or compressors to balance out the audio stream; this led to many happy accidents where I would trigger an improvised fragment—with my computer’s trackpad controlling parameters like pitch and density—that was unexpectedly several decibels louder than the preceding audio, creating extremely tense and uncertain moments—for both myself and the audience—where suddenly foreground became background and vice versa, the room was flipped on its head. I had to decide in that split-second moment what to prioritize. My friend Dominic Coles, who was in attendance, remarked more recently that the particular life—activation—the music took on at extreme volumes was somewhat reminiscent of Maryanne Amacher’s sound sculptures, just in that the latter was only designed to exist in those nether regions beyond the limits of the home stereo. Thinking through this aspect after experiencing it spontaneously has irreversibly changed how I approach my work moving forward. As a brief but critical aside, I also made lifelong friendships through performing the work—most notably with Gretchen, a.k.a. Vymethoxy Redspiders, a.k.a. Urocerus Gigas of Guttersnipe, with whom I shared a bill at Counterflows and instantly formed an incredible connection, but also many, many others—another rewiring that has me more interested than ever in creative work as a means of meeting and deeply connecting with other people. 

What were some of the biggest challenges for you in making this record?

The biggest challenge was likely that this all felt like a risk bordering on novelty, a genuine experiment with all of the fears and anxieties entailed. I was never completely certain it would all work out, even after I had finished the piece and was satisfied with it. It took some gentle prodding from friends to even bring it to a point of completion and let it go. Now that I’ve taken my first tentative step in this new direction and received feedback—positive and negative—I now more clearly understand the music in its finished form and where it may lead next. Above all, I’ve learned through experience that a work can never be seen or understood in its totality until it has been—irreversibly!—exposed to the world. Even this interview is a process of working through and re-studying of the material that has revealed new aspects I hadn’t perceived before. 

Lastly, what are you looking forward to in 2023?

I just wrapped up a new work that I’m very, very excited about, and will hopefully come out sometime in 2023. COVID permitting, I also look forward to potentially doing a few shows to support that release. Beyond that, I hope to make new lifelong friendships and maybe adopt a pet.

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