Hahn-Bin is the avant-garde violinist you never knew you needed in your life. Arriving in the UK this week for a residency at The Soho Theatre, we spoke to the musical piece of living art – and he wasn’t short for words.
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How’s London treating you?
Actually, I was just thinking to myself it’s really rare for me to feel happy in life except when I am on stage and London, walking around yesterday and this morning I was thinking that this is the first time that I’ve been happy off the stage in years.
Just living and so, I think it also has to do with the fact that staying around Soho area and the last two times that I came here for my London debut at the Royal Albert Hall. I was staying around Knightsbridge and sadly, I thought that’s all there was to London, and you know and even though I do love everything at Harvey Nichols and Harrods it really was not nice and so being here all week at the concert it’s really a blessing. Also because it’s really rare for me that I have a residency, like there’s a series of concerts and one venue usually. It’s one city to the next. I just came from Lisbon and then from Switzerland and so, to have this luxury. I mean I haven’t actually done a residency like this since my concerts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which were about a year ago. So, all around it’s a very special time for me.
Funnily enough you’ve landed at the same time as Madonna, will you be hanging out?
I am going to her show tomorrow...
Amazing. Well you better pack wellies… some Wellington boots.
Oh yes, I’ve never actually been to an outdoor show so it will be interesting. One of the key pieces in what I wear on the stage is actually the Timberland boots, in America it’s what construction workers wear and that was a key piece that I began wearing for my Tchaikovsky violin concerto performance at the Lincoln centre. The performance art, the creative for the team was really about me coming to liberation and freedom and acceptance of my differences through becoming an American and I’d just filed my US citizenship application. The second half of the Till Dawn Sunday show actually is very much the explanation and a further narrative to what I’ve developed for my Lincoln centre debut this past May. So, it’s an homage of what America means to me and what it means to be part of the LGBT community and fight for equality and freedom every single day of our lives.
I mean it’s really interesting because there’s quite a lot of people that think because I’m from New York City that I wouldn’t be subject to discrimination or hate crimes or homophobia in general but the fact is that I’ve had to fight it all my life and especially because I grew up in the Bronx when I moved to New York in 2004 and before that I was living in Los Angeles where I was the only Asian kid in the school. I’ve really had to fight to be who I am today and I think that’s one of the reasons why people do react so strongly in my shows is that I don’t play the music for any other reason than for me. To be able to communicate with people and connect the people, the audiences and create a common language which only classical music really, actually can provide. Considering that there is no language and for me, as an immigrant as well. That’s been so important because there were times I couldn’t speak any of the languages neither English nor Korean because I was performing so actively since I was born basically. That when I moved to the US aged 10 there was a period of time where I couldn’t speak any languages and music became my native language and that’s when I realised that my mother tongue was actually spoken through my fingers. So, Till Dawn Sunday, it’s really all about my fight to be a warrior for individuality through these great classical composers.
I played the violin for ten years growing up, and often found that whatever anger or frustrations I couldn’t express. After rehearsing I would be calm, it was a kind of therapy. Like you say, a language, atleast as a way of talking about something I couldn’t express.
Well that actually really was the reason why I titled my project The Renaissance of Classical Music was because it was not only my goal to give this quarantined genre a complete rebirth but really it came from the fact that after my Carnegie debut in 2009, which I thought to myself, ‘you know, in our society and around the world we’re always being told about certain achievements’ or certain acclaims and reviews. And I achieved everything I was supposed to as a musician – as a soloist in the classical music world. It didn’t give me any joy, the New York Times rave reviews, all my heroes of the classical music world at Carnegie who were at the concert. None of that meant anything and I really went into a very deep depression to try to and find out really the meaning of my existence as an artist.
Because if I thought I was giving it all and I thought that this was what I was meant to be doing but if it doesn’t give me any joy then what is really the point and that’s when I discovered Rainer Maria Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet where he began talking about talking to the young poet about how you must go back into your childhood to find inspiration – and that’s really what I did. I had forgotten that for me, because I obviously went through the conservatory system and obviously Julia for 5/6 years. I had forgotten all about the fact that when I began playing the violin, it was the same for me as it was with painting or dancing or with acting or with creating masks or clothing. I was a very, very creative as a child and the violin was one of the many different ways of expressing myself, but because music obviously speaks so powerfully to people and apparently I did have a gift, of a kind that people would call a child prodigy. That soon it became about the touring and about business. I mean I was on my first tour around 8 years old in Korea, nationwide. Then I moved to the United States to further pursue my dream and then I made my debut at the Grammy awards show a year after that. The moving thing has been non-stop and I got to that point after my Carnegie debut where I had achieved everything I was supposed to as a classical musician, as a young classical musician. And when all of that acclaim meant nothing, what the society tells you, it’s going to be the end basically of what you can achieve. It all meant nothing. I really do feel that I was reborn in 2010 and from that point on, how people have responded really, has been amazing. I mean for the art world to choose, to respond first, me performing at MOMA, it’s such a gift for any artist and all the opportunities that came after. I mean now, when I look back at it I almost feel like I’ve been quite ungrateful because so much came just naturally from my performances.
Do you think it would be a bit reductive to say that you’re having a delayed childhood?
Well, that’s really, that’s really amazing to me that you would say that because that’s really exactly what this Till Dawn Sunday show is really about, is really all about my childhood that in the sense of I’ve longed for it my whole life. I really have been a performer and nothing else and I gave every ounce of myself on stage and that’s why people, other artists have told me, especially one that I shall not mention. She told me thank you so much for giving a part of your soul in your performances and that’s exactly how I feel that I really am bearing my soul on the stage whether I am playing Over The Rainbow or an avant-garde piece of music by a 21st century composer. It really doesn’t matter, like I’m always, my whole life is laid out in front of my audiences. So, with Till Dawn Sunday, what is really different is that I am making peace with the darkest hour of the night and I am coming to a place with the programme, with the music where really it’s about about crying and smiling at the exact same time.
I really feel that’s what childhood is about because when you look at babies that are crying and then the next second they are smiling and if they still have tears but they’re smiling. I thought it would never be possible - as I began this conversation with you I thought that I would never be happy, you know, other than when I am on the stage. But I really feel like my show itself has been healing me. I set out to provide as you were saying, to share what it means to me and that the violin has been therapeutic in the sense that I went to it every time that I was struggling emotionally in the real world. It has been an escape for me and I certainly I wanted to bring that essence, that message to people as well that it’s a more permanent sense of the home that I can provide on the stage than it would be for most pop stars where the lyrics would mostly be about hooking up.
I think for younger audiences there’s still a perception of classical music as a very serious, worthy, almost like painful experience you have to go through to in order to enjoy it. I’m guessing one of the major reasons people have connected with what you’re doing is because you are bringing a sense of joy to it and enjoyment…
Well, I guess another thing is, of course, the fact that I’m really not part of any industry. You know, I’m not in this for business. I’m not in this because of any other reason then just to be an artist. I really couldn’t care less about fame or money. All I just wanted to do from the very beginning was to communicate my language because verbal communication just was not enough and there was so many times in my life where I mean, I think especially the LGBT community will understand this better than anyone where we go through experiences since we are very young where there just are no words to express how you feel. First of all you’re too young to express certain words, second of all it’s been really, you know, the sense of vulnerability is something that’s impossible to really put into words and to be susceptible to all these emotions. The fact is that when I look back at all of those experiences, they really are the reason why I know exactly who I am and I know exactly where I want to go and I think people can sense, that sense of liberation and freedom in my shows. It’s the fact that I earned it. I am actually the message that many of our gay icons have been bringing and I think that in a way that’s why I felt comfortable enough to go on stage everywhere in the United States. Of course, I’ve done big shows in LA and New York but really the most important shows have been in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota and Mississippi where just outside of my dressing room, the kids are from the state university, saying the most horrible things, the most homophobic things that you can imagine. And the entire show, their heads never moved during my entire performance and gave me the greatest standing ovation I’ve ever had. So, it really is the fact that I am a warrior for individuality and for minorities and I fight for that freedom every second that I’m on the stage.
Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Well, you know, I already live my life the way I want. My autobiography to read later, but yes, I suppose. I mean, now in an age of Facebook and Twitter we are always writing our autobiographies so I suppose so. I really feel like everything I want to say I say in my shows and there’s really nothing I leave behind. You know, so many managers which, who, whom I later fired obviously have told me that I give too much on stage. They tell me that it’s better to leave something behind, you know, to keep them wanting more and I say no. I’m going to give them everything in each show. I don’t care if they don’t come back for my next show. I just need to give everything that I have, every performance and I just don’t know how else to live.
You must be exhausted...
It is really exhausting and not a lot of people don’t actually know but most classical musicians in the circuit, they play the same violin concerto 200 days out of the year. The exact same violin concerto. So, with me certainly, I mean to really create a collage of greatest hits of classical music and be, sort of, the living version of the greatest hits ever in classical music. It is exhausting but again, it just has been my destiny and Till Dawn Sunday is really about me no longer questioning the fact that I was born to be an artist.
I feel like you get asked all the time about your hair and your make up and your costumes… Which seems so irrelevant, so I don’t even want to start on all that. But I do wonder if it ever feels like a distraction?
That’s really not for me to say, if it’s a distraction for you, then close your eyes. It’s really that simple. When people say to me that music is not about the visual, then close your fucking eyes when you’re in my audience! And just listen to my glorious violin playing, which is some of the best in the world. What else do you need from me?
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Words: Bob Henderson