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San Francisco-area woodworker crafts new instruments, sounds

Sung Kim in his San Rafael workshop.
Sung Kim in his San Rafael workshop.
Rachel Dornhelm/KQED

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There are guitars and cellos and banjos. Then, there's the "sympathetic cannon" or the "ox".
Those are some of the instruments designed and built by California wood worker Sung Kim. In his studio he creates musical devices that look and sound like nothing else. The California Report's Rachel Dornhelm has the story.

Sung Kim's workshop is in an industrial office park north of San Francisco, where forklifts move pallets in and out of giant garages. The last thing you might expect to hear there are the plaintive cries of a string instrument coming from a workshop.

But one recent morning, the architectural woodworker and designer takes a break from furniture making to pull the bow across the strings of one of his instruments.

It's not a violin or cello or anything you'd recognize. The instruments Kim points out in his cavernous workspace you've probably never heard of: the ox, the nun's horn, the holy water sprinkler.

You haven't heard of them because Kim invents them from the sounds he imagines he'd like to hear and from hybrids of instruments he's seen.

He shows off one -- the nordenfelt. It is shaped like a long wooden box and sounds like an electrified harpsichord. But the twist is the way the keys are laid out.

"You can get three different rhythms going at once if you're so inclined," Kim explains. "African music was what inspired this one. You get this really nice hammering sound."

The box has three strings pulled taut along its neck, and the keys pop up from below, like the targets of a whack-a-mole game.

"[The keys] are actually what hits the string," Kim says. "Historically, clavichord was a piano, like a piano, where basically it was a hammer that hit from below."

Kim was a punk rock-loving teen in Washington D.C. when he first started building his own guitars. But things changed when he was 21, and he heard a recording of Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar.

"My head kind of split in half," Kim says. "And I was like, 'wait a second! I've been focusing on this western instrument, and there's the rest of this world with all these sounds, all these instruments and all these different approaches that I've been ignoring.'"

Recently Kim has been working with animal hides. On one instrument, he stretched a hide taut over a faceted frame, so it looks like one of Picasso's cubist violins.

Mostly though, Kim creates with wood. Right now he's working on the body of a new instrument, hollowing out a piece of Alaskan yellow cedar -- his favorite for sound boards. Kim's instruments can take anywhere from days to years to complete.

Kim learned his skills at a young age, working side by side with his father, a Korean-trained builder. He says there wasn't much talking, but in retrospect, being tossed into the work without detailed instructions was vital to developing his skills.

"It was always, 'OK make this. Do this,'" Kim explains. "At the time it was a little bit irritating. But it teaches you to develop your own style. It teaches you to develop a brain that takes apart, and dissects, how to build something versus this is how it's supposed to be built."

Kim took a detour through another medium -- clay -- in art school. Along the way he met his wife, the granddaughter of a Bay Area ship builder. And now the two families' well-worn tools hang side by side on a wall in his shop.

He says he can tell them apart because the Western style tools are mostly from his wife's family.

"The Asian style ones are primarily from my father," Kim says. "And the thing is that the techniques involved with these styles, they're kind of contrary. So it's nice to mix the two together."

Kim says with Western-style planing, there's a push stroke, where the plane actually goes forward away from the body taking quite a bit of physical strength. Whereas the Japanese style uses a pull stroke, he says, where you're pulling it towards your body, and there's a little more control.

"It's about as different as that. Push and pull," Kim explains.

Kim doesn't make money from his instrument building, but he has incorporated some of the principals into his woodworking business, where his clients range from homeowners to museums.

Kim demonstrates a media cabinet a client just commissioned. A flat-screen TV will rise up from the back via remote control when it is needed, but he says the real innovation is that the cabinet functions as the speaker.

Kim points to the clean lines of the piece.

"This whole thing actually resonates," Kim says. "So the power amp would actually power this to become a giant speaker.

His music is as improvisational as his woodworking style.

Kim and three musicians playing his instruments were featured by the new music collective Outsound this month. Fifteen people gathered to hear his group Hare & Arrow play four instruments: the fawn, the farrier, the nun's horn and the hare.

High school art teacher and saxophonist Brian Peterson was in the audience. He has played with Kim for about two years and says very few people have his combination of inspiration and craftsmanship.

"You know he called me one time," says Peterson, "saying that he had a dream about an instrument where instead of a saxophone, I was playing into it, but it was goat hoof. Like a hoof of a goat, and it had a double reed. And the next week he was actually building it."

Peterson says even seasoned improvisers often have a safe place they can retreat to in their music. But he says it's impossible to do that on novel instruments like Kim's.

Kim says his goal is to make a living selling the pieces.

"Or even to work with a musician and to design an instrument" Kim says. "Say they would come back in a month, and say it needs this. The upper register is too high, it needs more strings, it needs less strings. I would stop doing architectural work. Are you kidding me? That's the absolute dream."

Kim says he's lucky he landed in California ten years ago, where there are both clients for his high-end architectural woodwork and a vibrant experimental music scene.

"California is a place where I always dreamt about," Kim says. "I could not exist -- what this shop does could not exist anywhere else in the world, I don't think."

He says it's only from this geographic home base, that he can explore all the musical terrain he has in mind.

For more from The California Report, visit their website.