Don’t underestimate the power of K-pop. That’s a lesson many in the music industry have learned over the past few years, as the South Korean musical export has taken over charts and groups like BTS, BLACKPINK and EXO have broken records, established global fanbases on social media and found footholds in Western culture. Now, a team of composers, K-pop experts and musicians are trying to draw attention to the deeper side of K-pop: its construction as an art.
In “K-Factor: An Orchestral Exploration of K-Pop” on June 20, New York City’s Lincoln Center will host a live symphony orchestra of 50 musicians playing orchestral arrangements of some of the genre’s biggest hits, from Red Velvet’s “Ice Cream Cake” to BTS’s “Idol” and Girls Generation’s “I Got a Boy.” The goal is to shine a new light on the history, evolution and complexity of the music of K-pop, back to its influences in the ’30s and ’40s — and not just on its glitzy and sometimes controversial idols.
“I hope the audience is able to feel that the whole K-pop trend nowadays isn’t just by sudden chance, but more the result of a long history of creative innovation,” says South Korean songwriter Eana Kim, one of the architects of the “K-Factor” show. “[K-pop] is about creating a worldview as much as having good music. I think that’s helped people around the world connect with it recently.”
Kim was brought in by classical composer and pop singer-songwriter and producer Johan, who previously worked with conductor Yuga Cohler on “Yeethoven,” an orchestral mashup of Kanye West and Beethoven’s works. This time, they built a larger team — including Kim, Seoul-based K-pop expert and consultant Jakob Dorof and advisor Jihoon Suk — to develop the show. TIME spoke with Johan, who is based in Los Angeles, as well as Dorof and Kim, who are both based in South Korea, about why the genre was ripe for an orchestral reimagining and what they hope K-pop fans new and old will take away from their project.
TIME: How did this project come together?
Johan: Yuga [Cohler] and I had been talking about doing a show that would explore a type of music that an orchestra would bring out and illuminate in a different way. Partly because of the phenomenon around K-pop, but also because of general interest, we both started talking about why K-pop was compositionally interesting. Pretty much immediately, I reached out to Jakob [Dorof]. I knew him from college and he’s an expert on this; also he knew people who work in this industry.
Jakob Dorof: One of the people we involved very early on is Eana Kim. She is by many measures the top lyricist in the industry [in South Korea]. The side of Korean music we’re focusing on is a bit underrepresented, both in Korea and internationally. We’ve also got Jihoon Suk; he’s an expert on early Korean music, and early recorded music in general. The scope of the show goes all the way back to the 1910s to 1920s and has a really robust historical aspect. And we’ve brought in JungJae Moon, a top pianist here, involved with SM Entertainment, one of the main architects of K-pop since the very beginning. And Chris Lee, head of A&R at SM, is doing a talk.
How is K-pop distinct from Western pop? What has contributed to its recent popularity?
Eana Kim: There was a big decline of boy bands and girl groups in the West in the 2000s, with less focus on choreography and the whole visual aspect. But it was picking up a lot of popularity in Korea during that time, and Japan, too. As the market for “idol pop” expanded here, it helped Korean companies and artists hone their craft and gain a kind of worldwide competitiveness.
One unique thing is the entire K-pop system, [in which] a single entertainment company takes charge of the whole process: directly casting teens and training them, on top of producing and marketing. Eventually, K-pop got to the level where idol group members had to start directly contributing to the creative process, to help them stand out.
Another key thing is Korean idol groups spreading out worldwide through platforms like YouTube and V-Live, which is another way to help build a fandom — sharing glimpses of the artists’ daily lives, their creative process, all that stuff.
Many audiences know K-pop through the popularity of its “idol” industry. What about K-pop musically makes it unique to focus on?
Johan: There are concerts where the orchestra plays pop music, and those are fun. But we see [K-pop] as a robust and intellectual artistic institution. Coming from my background — having spent most of my life as a classical composer before I ever did pop music — that was really the interest: expose people to this very sophisticated music. We want to trace certain musical threads and how they’ve developed over the past 100 years of Korean music history. It’s not just, “here are the hits.” We’re trying to be more provocative from a formal composition standpoint.
Dorof: There are a lot of things about K-pop that are distinct in popular music history worldwide. It is a recently global and Western phenomenon. But that coverage of the musical aspect, the understanding of that — and the depth of it as a process and an art form — is a bit lacking. This is an opportunity to show that.
What struck you in the process of translating K-pop hits into orchestral arrangements? Was there anything particularly surprising or challenging?
Johan: You’ll see songs jumping from genre to genre within sections of a song, even from bar to bar. In ’90s [K-pop], there’s a lot of heavy metal references going on, but mixed with R&B and also a rap component. That can be an exciting challenge for an orchestra. You can’t just be like, ‘Well, there are parts that will work for the orchestra and we’ll drop the others.’ It’s all there, every little detail. So for instance, those ’90s boom-bap drums: I want to use orchestral percussion to capture the exact second that a particular snare drum sound has been chopped a certain way, really getting into the sonic detail of that. I ended up relying on a lot of unusual techniques; you have to play your percussion instrument using this particular type of mallet.
How did you end up choosing the songs?
Dorof: We are trying to have it be a visceral, fun concert experience, but we also want it to have a historical narrative. There’s one iconic example — Girls Generation’s “I Got a Boy” from 2013. It seemed like it would be a real challenge because it’s very musically sophisticated, but the vast majority of it is happening around one chord. I was a little worried about that, but when I heard Johan’s orchestration I was blown away and psyched to hear how that will play. And there’s one ’90s pick from the annals of K-pop that’s just epic and wild and maybe the most classical in the entire set.
Johan: Some songs, like “MAMA” by EXO, are so symphonic already. BLACKPINK has this song “Kill This Love” right now which leans heavily on brass and trombone; that’s fun because it’s going to sound exactly like it. Then when you get into the ’90s, stuff by H.O.T. and the earlier era of K-pop, like Seo Taiji [and Boys], they really capture how jarring the genre juxtapositions are. A song might rely heavily on the drums, but the orchestra is mostly not drums. So you start looking for other details: there’s this whole synth part that I maybe didn’t notice, there’s a background vocal really tucked in.
Dorof: Also, if you take a panoramic view of K-pop history, especially in the ’90s onward, there’s a surprising amount of screaming.
Johan: There’s very metal-inspired pieces. I ended up reaching into my compositional background of chaotic, atonal music and techniques to get jarring stuff to capture those details. The arrangement is closer to a contemporary classical concert than purely a tribute to pop music, because it’s so complex and provocative.
Your team has described the music as having a “radical spirit.” What is most radical about K-pop?
Dorof: For me, a lot of it has to do with song structure. It’s not always verse-chorus pop song format. There might be a diversion or a curveball that only happens once. This super open-minded, all-embracing approach to influences and composition [is different from the] Western pop perspective. A lot of the groups are a Korean equivalent to an *NSYNC or a Spice Girls or a Little Mix; it’s not to say that there isn’t experimental, interesting pop music elsewhere in the world. But when you compare it to the context of pop music and a One Direction or a Backstreet Boys release, as great as that music is in its way, K-pop is striking. There’s interesting textures and emotions that are hyper-dynamic. It can be very theatrical and operatic. Nothing is off-limits in K-pop, structurally or referentially. That’s what keeps me coming back.