Nationality: South Korean
Occupation: Cellist
Current Release: Hee-Young Lim's new album Russian Cello Sonatas will be released on Sony Classical on June 5th.
Recommendations: I would recommend the paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. When I was working in Rotterdam I often visited the Van Gogh Museum, seeing the art healed my soul and was a great inspiration to me. When I was a student at the Paris Conservatory, I had a free pass for all the art museums and I took advantage of it every week. I really loved Monet’s garden in Giverny.

If you enjoyed this interview with Hee-Young Lim, visit her excellent website for everything you ever wanted to know about her and her work.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I wasn’t born to parents who are musicians, so I don’t come from a musical family. My parents and I never thought that I would become a cellist one day. It all started randomly, when I received my first cello as a gift. I was 9 years old at the time and not curious to learn how to play, so we just let the cello be an “objet d’art” in our living room until a friend came to visit.  When she saw the cello she was very interested in the instrument, and knowing my indifference at the time my mom was about to give it to her. That triggered my curiosity and it was at that moment I decided to pick up the cello and play --  and I’ve never stopped! Perhaps I never would have become a cellist if this hadn’t happened.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
When I was learning as an artist I tried not to copy others. In fact, I seldom listen to other cellists’ recordings. I do often listen to singers and, when I play, my goal is to ‘sing’ through the instrument.

I think it’s important to find your own unique voice which can’t be copied or taught.  I find that I can inspire my creativity by experiencing exhibitions, art, reading books, walking; I find this all stimulates my creative process where I can come up with new ideas and inspiration.

What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

The hardest thing was that I had to start from zero. I had no support from my parents, I always had to find ways to support myself through competition prizes, foundations etc. Because my parents were not involved in the music industry, I had no connections to tap into when I went abroad alone to study and had to deal with everything on my own. Also, finding a way to showcase my talent to people in the industry who could help me with a career was very challenging. I had to be different from others and stand out, be outstanding in every way, and let professionals discover that I deserved to be recognized.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

The key word is minimalism. I try to keep everything well organized and simple. It’s been nearly a decade and I travel frequently. As I am often in different cities performing every few weeks, I learned the importance of simplicity and this routine has had such a positive impact on my life. I love this minimalism lifestyle!

Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
My first full size cello was a Jean Baptist Vuillaume, French cello, 20 years ago. I have been incredibly fortunate that I was given the opportunity to play several centuries-old Italian Cellos, including Tecchler, Guarneri, Amati, which I had played over the past years and now the Testore cello which I have been given recently.

The relationship between me and my instrument is very important, I am happiest when I am able to express myself freely with the cello and the cello seems to understand how I would like to ‘sing’ and responds the way I want.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

My schedule is not fixed, it changes according to my teaching and concert schedule. But usually in the morning my priority is to find some time to practice, even for a short time so that I can do other things for the rest of the day without worrying about practice the cello.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

So far, I have worked on three albums and one digital single. Every time I have tried to find a good concept. For example, my debut album on SONY Classical was “French Cello Concertos” with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2018. I wanted to show my capability as a soloist with a renowned orchestra and to select various Concertos that would showcase my expansive skills as a musician. My second album, “ Russian Cello Sonatas,”  will be released on June 5, 2020, and I am hoping to display more of my personality and musicality as it’s a duo work with piano. The third album will consist of only two cellos. The recording process is indeed challenging from the beginning to the end but once the album is released it is so rewarding.

The album is a part of me that will stay in this world forever. I am glad that I can share my music with people who hadn’t come to my concerts yet and they can discover my playing through these recordings. Becoming a prolific recording artist is what I aim for.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, the challenge is how to center myself on my playing. The advent of the Internet and TV is great but they are a great distraction for me, so I try to stay away. Especially before concerts, I avoid being connected on social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. I know there are people who are engaged on social media all the time while managing their career, but my focus is on my music and performances.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I’m not a machine friendly person so I rarely use technology except when I practice with the metronome. Because of the pandemic, I am using video for online teaching, which is a new experience for me. It’s convenient for us to run a semester with video, and has been a lot of fun.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?
Creative ideas including various kinds of collaborations come up while talking to different people. So I try to be open to any discussion that often lead me to a new collaborative idea, for example music + dance, crossover etc.

How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?  
Each process gives me invaluable lessons that can only be learned along the way. Preparation requires many hours of practice, endurance and patience. Live playing is more about sharing feelings and interacting with my audience. Recording for an album needs full concentration and I need to be critical to move forward.

Each experience has an influence on my playing. I’m not improvising and composing but I can say that performing is more spontaneous and can occur on the spur of the moment, while composing is more thoughtfully executed.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
I consider “performers” to be messengers; our job is to convey a message from composers to an audience. So composition and performance are two very different aspects.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

It is true that our senses are connected. When I smell a French perfume or French cuisine, it inspires me to imagine French music, the colors of paintings.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

As a musician, I am eager to find ways to contribute to our society. For example, organizing a concert in a hospital, charity concert, school outreach, support for orphan children etc. There are always things to do. I want to contribute and have a positive impact on our community.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?

With the current pandemic situation, the music industry is engaging with audiences by online live streaming concerts. This may continue for some time. Recently, I was asked to play the Elgar Concerto with the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra in Korea in a live streaming concert without an audience.

It was the first time I experienced this kind of concert setting. I had mixed feelings while performing because the current pandemic situation made my heart ache, and it was surreal to perform live in a concert with an orchestra with no audience. I tried to play with my fullest heart for my audience on YouTube!