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Forging connections and building community through music
profile image of Solomon Kim

Solomon Kim, who double majored in music composition and economics, launched the Emory Composers’ Society during his first semester on campus to connect with other artists. It crescendoed into more than he could have imagined.

— Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.

Community was hard to come by when Solomon Kim arrived at Emory University in fall 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant only first-year students like him were invited to campus. Those able to come lived alone and attended most of their classes online.

Connecting with other artists in his music theory class (his only class held in-person that semester) prompted Kim to launch the Emory Composers’ Society.

What he expected would be a tiny club for online concerts actually attracted more than 60 members that first year. It grew to host larger in-person shows the next year, complete with programs, documentation and snacks that drew audiences from across campus and Atlanta while spotlighting Kim’s willingness to create connections along with his compositions.

“For me, there was an element of wanting to do things that would help my friends get their music played,” says Kim, who graduates with highest honors this month with a double major in music composition and economics. “I have always been impressed by the artistic people at Emory, and a lot of what has made a difference in my own work is that community.”

Or, as Emory Orchestral Studies Director Paul Bhasin says, Kim leaves a campus legacy because of that humility and willingness to devote time to giving back, without diluting his efforts studying and creating music.

“Solomon has been exploring the ethical dimensions of the human experience and using his music as the mode of inquiry, while also embracing a sense of obligation to the community,” says Bhasin, who is the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Professor of Music and has worked with Kim both in the classroom and with the Emory University Symphony Orchestra. “He is extraordinarily talented and fearless in his pursuits.”

Striking the right chord

A Dean’s Achievement Scholar who lived in the Philadelphia suburbs before spending his high school years in Tokyo, Kim applied to Emory planning to explore his musical interests while figuring out what he wanted to study for a career.

He began writing his own music in high school during a break from playing the cello. He found that composing helped him think through political and personal questions and was encouraged to continue when a teacher had the school choir perform his work.

Kim especially enjoyed and excelled at collaborative creativity, a gift he has shared freely at Emory. In addition to his work with the composers’ society, he served in leadership roles with TEDxEmory and the Emory Musicians’ Network.

“I really see him as an advocate of bringing people together through music,” says Siji Osunkoya, a fellow Emory College student who will head to medical school in the fall. “He supports everybody.”

Part of that support included taking up previous students’ efforts to create an open-access practice space for all Emory-affiliated musicians and performers.

Kim put in two years’ work to help open the space, which welcomed its first guests last year. Known as the Music Den, it had more than 3,000 reservations this academic year, says Maggie Beker, the project coordinator for Emory Arts. Beker met Kim when he was producing Network Theory, a suite of multimedia compositions that incorporated visual art and texts from Emory alumni artists and his personal networks, as a Stipe Fellow for the Creative Arts.

“We got to experience Solomon’s commitment to community on campus, but his work extends far beyond Emory,” Beker says. “I think it’s impressive to invest so much of himself in other projects while maintaining his own creativity.”

Economics and composition in harmony

By his second year at Emory, Kim had returned to music performance by becoming a cellist with the Emory University Symphony Orchestra and explored new avenues of composition by tackling a wind ensemble piece.

He has since presented a new composition each semester while also participating in major festivals and workshops, from Atlanta SoundNOW Festival to the Cremona Summer Festival in Italy, where he played a cello made by luthiers in the hometown of Stradivari.

“The structures that Solomon put in place on our campus and the work ethic and initiative he modeled has inspired other students who want to be open about alternative paths for their lives,” says Katherine Young, an assistant professor of music composition who first met Kim by attending a composers’ society concert and went on to advise his honors thesis.

“There is great discipline required to make art — and to pursue a life in the arts — in part because the path is harder to predict and every artist must forge their own,” Young adds. “Solomon has that capacity and willingness to be open to the unknown.”

Kim has embraced that uncertainty. His musical development has led him to experiment with volume and density of sound, with a focus more on texture and timbre than harmony. Studying economics has helped him explore funding mechanisms for artistic work and possible incentives for specific kinds of work.

His honors thesis brought the two together with his original seven compositions that examine how artists respond to market demands.

Among the works performed was Eccentricities, an experimental piece he conceived while leading a discussion at the Darmstadt Summer Festival in Germany last year, about how to steward natural spaces when human intervention becomes disruptive.

For his thesis, he conducted the chorus of the Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra, reiterating his effort to build community with music. He presented his work at the research symposium of the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, where he served as an undergraduate honors fellow last year.

“I am deeply concerned about what it says about a society to devalue art in favor of building the apparatus of the state power,” Kim says. “Economics gave me the framework to think through how music can help us build community with each other.”

Kim will continue that musical exploration as the recipient of a Fulbright Research/Study grant to study improvised music next year in Turkey.

He is unsure what will come after his Fulbright year. He arrived at Emory similarly uncertain, and he expects he will be similarly eager to explore his options such as further study.

“While at Emory and while seeing all the chaos in the world today, I have developed a very clear sense of how I can apply my skills and my strengths to follow my conscience in doing what I believe is good for others,” Kim says. “Learning how to engage with the world is what I will always remember from Emory.”

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