“Most people have two lives, but I think I’ve had three and am on my fourth,” said professional violinist Hyeyung Yoon.
Yoon knows what it means to be successful. As the second violinist of the internationally renowned Chiara String Quartet, Yoon traveled the world and was recognized for her bold performance methods.
But at the end of 2018, the quartet decided to end their successful 18-year career. Thus began Yoon’s fourth life as a solo musician.
Immigrating to America
Yoon lived in Korea until she was seven. Then she immigrated to Queens, New York, where she started feeling lost as she adjusted to the new country and language.
“It was a cloudy period where everything was kind of foggy,” Yoon said. “A lot of the emotional trauma of moving from place to place … was unresolved. I didn’t have any way to express that, and it wasn’t okay for me to express that.
“Because my parents were having a hard time, [they] didn’t know that it was healthy to express and give language to that experience,” she said.
In seventh grade, Yoon’s family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte was drastically different than Queens, and Yoon quickly felt the effects of the move on both her craft and her sense of identity.
As a student, Yoon felt lonely as one of the few Asians at her school. But as a musician, she was praised.
“Music was a safe place for me,” Yoon said.
But Charlotte wasn’t enough for Yoon’s growing talent, and soon, she became one of the best in her area. Simultaneously, she also wanted to be where she didn’t feel so “other.”
And so for Grade 10, Yoon convinced her parents to let her go back to Queens and stay with her grandparents.
Back in an environment that was more culturally diverse and filled with ambitious peers, Yoon flourished. She went on to study at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, where she met the future members of the Chiara String Quartet.
The Chiara String Quartet
The format of a string quartet gave Yoon the ability to engage classical pieces with a unique emotional depth alongside the members. The Chiara didn’t just perform — they also championed unique methods to engage with audiences.
Instead of just performing in concert halls, the Chiara performed in bars, clubs, and other non-conventional performance venues for their “Chamber Music in Any Chamber” project. They also memorized entire quartets to perform them “by heart” to better engage with and internalize the music itself.
Still, something was off. Yoon was drawn to conversations about race and identity, but as the only person of colour in her ensemble, it didn’t make sense to explore the topics within the setting:
“It’s one thing to suggest playing music by an Asian composer, but it didn’t feel right for the whole group [to discuss],” she said. “This wasn’t the identity we created for the group as four individuals coming together.”
As the years went by, Yoon also began to notice that the audiences she performed for were predominantly white. This made her wonder who she wanted to perform for.
Then after 18 rewarding years of quartet life, with outside help and much discussion, the members decided to end the Chiara String Quartet, opening up both time and space for Yoon to engage fully with topics important to her.
Building a Community
Now, as an individual musician, Yoon is focusing on building a community and an audience that is more diverse.
“Playing for the same audiences of the last 18 years doesn’t feel exciting to me,” she said.
Yoon wants to create an experience that is more welcoming. She explained that there are people who enjoy classical music, such as her family, but who don’t go to performances because they don’t see themselves in the spaces.
She hopes to facilitate spaces where anyone feels welcome to experience music and community. One such space where she felt an openness of community and creativity was in traditional Korean music.
“Madang” means “courtyard” in Korean. Traditionally, it is where community members would visit, celebrate, and create together. In the space, performers would interact with audience members. During the duration of the performance, differences between people were obscured.
Yoon resonated with this concept and started to brainstorm methods to create a similar inclusive environment. She collaborated with two other artists for a project around madang and also wrote about her findings on her blog.
Building off that philosophy, she travelled to South Korea in winter 2019 to continue her research.
One practice, 굿 or goot, particularly stuck out to her. Goot is a gathering of people to ensure the harmony of the village. A group of musicians visit different locations of the village, from the well to the tree to the home of those with hardship, and perform for two hours.
Witnessing this practice at Pilbong Village gave Yoon an idea to perform goot across the community she calls home: Queens, New York.
Yoon is creating a concert series titled Queens88, where she performs 88 concerts over three years in a variety of settings and for a mix of audiences. Rather than hold performances to bring audience members to larger concert halls, she wants the end goal to be the performance.
“The idea is bringing people together from diverse backgrounds,” she said.
Yoon’s Fourth Life
“Most people have two lives, but I like that I had three different lives: Korea, America, and then the quartet,” Yoon said. “And now I think I’m in my fourth life, which is post-quartet.”
Yoon continues to hone her craft as she spends her time researching and defining what audience she wants and what community she needs.
“I feel as though I’m not quite ready to share until I figure out or build a community to share this message and that I want to be a part of,” she said.
Yoon is taking her first foray into community building with the launch of the first event for her organization, Asian Musical Voices of America. Together with musicians, writers, and a composer, Yoon hopes to discuss the question of “What does it mean and what does it take to find your voice as an Asian in classical music?”
Even for an accomplished musician like Yoon, it is a lifelong question.
The Asian Musical Voices of America: A Reading, Performance, & Panel will be held on January 16, 2020, at 6:30 p.m. at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in New York City.
For more information and to RSVP, check out: https://aaww.org/curation/presented-by-music-asian-america-music-research-center-asian-musical-voices-of-america/
Donations of $5.00 are suggested at the door.
You can follow AMVA on Facebook here.
Making Asian American media
We believe that our stories matter – and we hope you do too. Support us with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for us and by us are here to stay.