A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung
As someone with no musical ability whatsoever, I’ve never quite understood the bond that musicians have with their instruments. Now, however, I’m a little closer to appreciating that blend of physical and emotional reliance, thanks to this extraordinary and frank memoir. You may not recognise Min Kym’s name, but you will have heard her story: she is the brilliant violinist whose Stradivarius was stolen at Euston Station in 2010. This beautifully-written book is overshadowed throughout by that theft hanging in the future, but it is also a thoughtful and very poignant exploration of what it means to be a child prodigy and a top-flight soloist – and the psychological cost to be paid.
Kym is the younger of two sisters, born in Korea to an engineer father who was posted to London when she was small. Sitting in on her sister’s piano lessons, Kym itched to have music lessons of her own and, when a slot came up for violin classes, she leapt at the chance. Her talent was immediately obvious and staggering. In the week before her first class, she taught herself to play simple tunes; in the first month, she’d shot through the first four Grades. By the age of six, she was an acknowledged talent; by eight, she had outgrown the abilities of the teachers at the Purcell Music School and was attending biweekly classes at the Royal College of Music. She was thoroughly committed to her craft: both technically superb and creatively inspired. Concerts followed; there were travels around the world; an increasingly distinguished roster of teachers and mentors; two CDs. This is the stuff of the artist’s biography in a concert programme: the facts.
There’s always the danger, with this sort of book, that the author’s brilliance becomes wearing: that the reader is put off either by a parade of dazzling arrogance, or by false modesty. Kym is guilty of neither. What makes this memoir so appealing (even for those who are blissfully ignorance of the mechanics of music) is the way that she focuses on the emotional toll such a life takes on a young and unformed personality. She speaks of the psychological strain of being responsible for her family relocating back to London from Korea, when her father’s work took him home (I was reminded of Sergei Polunin’s similar situation). She writes about the way that a young prodigy can be – consciously or not – exploited by those around her, who see her as a way to make their own names.
She dwells on the loneliness of being a child whose only real relationship is with her violin – a partnership that brings unimaginable joy and satisfaction, but one that leaves her on the outside of the standard teenage experience. Yet, to some degree, that’s compensated by the sheer rightness of playing. Her description of what it felt like to hold a violin, to play, is hugely evocative:
Everything about it seemed so easy, so natural … There was a normality to it that seemed completely familiar… I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element. I could swim in this world. I could dive and soar. I could ride crests and float down streams, swim with or against any current. I felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time.
Kym is technically very advanced for her age, but emotionally rather naive, and she admits it. Her story offers a depressing series of examples in which the men around her (teachers, lovers etc.) try to ‘possess’ her, which is a sobering reflection of the intense bonds formed in the music industry. Indeed, there are points when I marvelled that she felt able to be so open about her relationships, as she certainly doesn’t use rose-tinted glasses. And she writes about the intense connection that she developed with her violin, the famous Stradivarius, made in 1696. By the time you reach the day of the theft itself, you understand the incredibly strong bond between Kym and her Strad: it probably isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that it felt like a child being snatched from her mother. Those who followed the story in the press will have some idea how the story ends, but I will say only that it’s more complicated than the articles made it sound. More complicated and far more poignant.
I was immensely impressed by the quality of Kym’s writing. At first I suspected there must be a ghostwriter, but there was no sign of anyone else’s name on the copyright page. Her eloquence is heartbreaking. She takes you by the hand and leads you through all the joys and sorrows of her life – even if I was a bit dubious about her vividly detailed memories of times when she was six or seven – and you end up completely emotionally involved. The book may have been conceived as a publicity aid – Kym is thinking about going back into solo performing, and this can’t do her profile any harm at all – but I feel it’s more than a cynical marketing tool. Even if there is, inevitably, a tie-in album (but many books would be better for being sold with a soundtrack). Too much heart and soul has gone into it, and it ends up being an absorbing memoir that focuses both on the particulars of her own life and the general challenges of great ability.
This comes thoroughly recommended, even to those who would normally avoid memoirs. As I said, this book goes beyond memoir: it’s an exploration of how we treat prodigies, what we expect of them, and how these remarkably talented people are often left – at a very young age – to deal with pressures that would crack a stronger spirit. I saw parallels in Kym’s experience both to Polunin, as I said, and to Max Cencic, both of whom have spoken about the challenges of being in the public eye from a very young age. Yes, I’m now tempted to listen to Kym’s last CD (with the Strad), even if it is Brahms, who’s normally way out of my comfort zone; and I’m also interested to see what she does next.
I received this book from Penguin in exchange for a fair and honest review.
And here is Kym again, with violin in hand (I presume it’s the Strad but no doubt a horde of violin aficionados will rush to correct me if I’m wrong).
3 thoughts on “Gone (2017): Min Kym”
First, thank you so much for pointing me in the direction of this book! The first chapter made me grumble a bit about how little talk there was about actual music, but after that, it was so engaging that it just flew by. The writing goes at a frenetic pace, so much so that I don’t think I’ve read anything quite so fast in a long time. I couldn’t listen to any of my usual music after reading this; I needed something a bit more Romantic, something that was raw emotion, something that was more inward facing than one of those “great summits of human achievement” that I am usually found listening to. And yes, something with more vibrato than I am accustomed to. Her CD isn’t bad (I don’t mean that in a dismissive way; I’m just not qualified or experienced enough to pass judgement on non-Baroque violinists or any of their repertoire); it’s just what I need now, and it’s beautiful. Her Salut d’Amour is the most beautiful version I’ve ever heard.
It was interesting to see how many of the same principles of violin playing also apply to piano playing. For example, she described how practising is really just creating muscle memory – that’s much the same with piano. When you’re memorising music, it’s not about remember dots on lines on a page. It’s about remembering the flow of the fingers, the shapes created with the hand, the movements of the arm, and most importantly, remembering what you want to hear. Maybe for truly talented people, “seeing” music comes naturally but at least for myself, it took some time before I could translate the dots on the page into music in my head and in my fingers, rather than going through the intermediary process of converting the dots into letters, and then into keys, and then, if all went well, into something that sounded not unpleasant. But when it “clicked”, it really works.
Not unexpectedly, I am in complete agreement with everything she said about Bach. While he was “not a romantic like Brahms”, there is still something about his music which draws us out of ourselves when we are in the pits of despair or grounds us at points of great elation so we don’t completely lose track of ourselves; in the author’s words, “[i]t is everything good about being human.” I love the Brahms quote that the author uses in relation to Bach’s Chaconne: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite sure that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” Bach may not have been a capital ‘r’ Romantic, but that doesn’t mean that he did not understand, nor lack the ability to communicate through his music, the essence of what it is to be human. For the author, this meant to love, to lose, to let go, to pick yourself up and carry on, because there is so much more, even though you might not be able to see it right then and there, even though it hurts like crazy, even though you may not want to. It’s cathartic. People who don’t get that this is the Bach (and often, more generally, the Baroque) way of expressing the same emotions, don’t get Bach. Brahms got it. The author got it. I love Bach. And I don’t mind Brahms either, even though I don’t have much of his music (*checks iTunes* one piece, as part of a funkily-programmed harpsichord CD, and one cadenza to a Bach piano concerto).
Stradivarius would have been in business when Bach was alive. I’ve never joined those dots together before. That’s very exciting (for me anyway).
As a decent (but decidedly out of practice and ultimately amateur) pianist, I’ve never had the luxury of getting attached to an instrument for performances, a point the author makes in her book. The closest I got was picking out a better instrument for home (and I have to admit I’m quite attached to it). As a breed, pianists are used to meeting strange instruments and getting ourselves acquainted quickly. That said, we all have our (strong) preferences. Glenn Gould customised his piano stool so that it was just the right height for him, even if it looked painfully low to everyone else. Angela Hewitt apparently only plays on Fazioli pianos. I have been known to sit on multiple cushions and carry around blocks of wood to achieve the perfect posture for playing. I love Steinways and Grotrians; I prefer Yamahas to Kawais; I can’t stand Petrofs, nor Bostons, even if they are made by Steinway; I refuse to accept an electronic keyboard could replace an acoustic piano, no matter how good the technology is nowadays (for the record, they are perfectly acceptable as instruments in their own right, but they are not substitute for a proper, acoustic piano). Even so, each one is different. You come across ones that just feel right, others that you grow into, others that are objectively good and everyone loves… except you. And that’s alright. They’re a bit like people: sometimes you just can’t explain chemistry.
One of the books I have on the go at the moment is “Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius” by Toby Faber. It tells the tale of Stradivarius’ life, his surrounds, and his instrument making, and also of several of his more well-known instruments and their owners. Some parts are a bit dry and technical, but it is useful stuff to know (if it floats your boat). It was certainly helpful in understanding some of the changes the author made to her Strad. You’re welcome to borrow it if you feel like continuing on your violin journey of discovery… It talks about the Medici family, if that would influence your decision 😉
And if you want to read more about Asian parents, try “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua. (Of course, they’re not always Asian, as you point out with Polunin and Cencic, but the general (probably correct) perception seems to be that Asian ones have a higher propensity to turn out that way.) It’s very engaging and very well written, and brings out more clearly the point that the author implicitly makes in her book: Asian parents may do things differently from Western ones, but that does not mean that they love their kids any less, nor that they don’t want the best for them.
Am now looking at my diary and trains for a day trip out to Swansea to look at a promising piano…
Thanks again for the recommendation and for the lovely review!
Actually… I stand corrected. Here is a book about a pianist obsessed with a particular piano. Wanna read it? 😉 https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1596915250/ref=pd_luc_rh_sbs_01_01_t_img_lh?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1
This sounds very interesting. I played clarinet during school, and sang but was (and am) only so-so. I don’t know if it would interest you but I enjoyed indivisible by four by Arnold Steinhardt about the Guarneri Quartet. I’m no devotee of quartet music or even classical music in general but I enjoy a lot of it. (Wry grin) the slow sections always put me to sleep.