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Kim was born in Dinuba, California, to immigrant Korean parents. He began piano studies at age ten and soon developed an interest in composition, studying in Los Angeles and Berkeley with, among others, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch, and Roger Sessions. After serving in World War II as a combat intelligence officer, he accepted a teaching position at Princeton in 1952. In 1967 he left Princeton for Harvard University, where he taught until his retirement in 1990. He died of lung cancer at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 78.
Kim is known for his vocal and music theatre works, many of which use texts by Samuel Beckett, and for his expressive, often tonal style. His students include Peter Maxwell Davies, John Adams, David Del Tredici, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Curt Cacioppo, Richard Aaker Trythall, David Lewin, Richard St. Clair, Doug Davis, John Thow, Jan Swafford, Randall Woolf, Donald Sur, and Paul Salerni. His art songs have been performed by Bethany Beardslee, Benita Valente and Dawn Upshaw.
- Anthony Brandt, liner notes to "Earl Kim" (New World Records, 2001)
- Barkin, E. "Earl Kim: Earthlight"; Perspectives of New Music xix/1–2 (1980–81), p. 269–77.
- Brody, Martin. "Kim, Earl". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 31 Dec 2008 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15007>.
- Jeon, M.-E. "I am Concerned with What is Good", Sonus, vii/11 (1987), p. 1–9 [interview].
- Tassell, J. "Golden Silences: the Flowering of Earl Kim", Boston Globe Magazine (27 Feb 1983).
- Tommasini, Anthony. "Earl Kim, 78, Noted Composer Of Austere and Dazzling Works", The New York Times (November 26, 1998) 
- Forbes, Elliot; Lockwood, Lewis; Martino, Donald; & Rands, Bernard (Chair). "Faculty of Arts and Sciences—Memorial Minute—Earl Kim", The Harvard University Gazette Archives (May 25, 2000) 
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