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The Justice (March 18, 2014)

Performance delivers traditional Korean culture

by Nate Shaffer

This past weekend Slosberg Recital Hall served as host to yet another wonderful world music concert. The Korean Cultural Society of Boston brought “Soul of Korea” to Slosberg Music Center for a night of traditional Korean music. The Korean Cultural Society, established in 2012, is a non profit organization that seeks to introduce and promote Korean culture and art into the Greater Boston area. Although the concert featured solely Korean music, it touched on several distinct stylistic traditions that brought in starkly contrasting music.

Between the pieces, Hilary Vanessa Finchum-Sung, a visiting professor of ethnomusicology from Seoul, South Korea, spoke about the pieces, giving reasons for why and how the different performance styles and musical aesthetics developed. Some of the music came from folk traditions; others were created to be concert music. The atmospheres of the different styles varied strongly and offered many different moods, timbres and affects.

The sounds created by these traditional instruments weren’t too unfamiliar. A few different types of piri were played—a wind instrument that has a dry and harsh woodwind type of sound, at times like a singular bagpipe, other times more like a soprano saxophone. There were a few types of untuned percussion instruments (that is, an instrument without a specific pitch, like a drum set, unlike a xylophone) among them the jing and the janggu. However, by far my favorite instrument to watch was the gayageum, a plucked instrument that resembled an oversized Appalachian dulcimer. It was played with the fingers and quite a bit of vibrato. Watching the intricate choreography of the fingers and hands unfold with the music was something like watching a pianist’s hands move up and down the keys. It produced a dry, plucked sound that most of us might associate with music from somewhere in East Asia.

The first piece presented a very laid-back style that had been developed by and for the Korean aristocracy. It featured an ensemble of janggu, piri, daegeum and gayageum players. As this music was made for aristocrats to play themselves, it didn’t feature much virtuosity. Its purpose informed the aesthetic as well: this piece, made for accompanying times of relaxation and meditation, moved at a very slow pace. Although there was no melody, as is typical of Western music, it still had structural development—clear cadences at the end of sections. Instead of developing harmonic or melodic material, the ensemble fell more or less out of phase with each other at the end of these sections. As the piece progressed, these moments of convergence resulted in longer pauses, which became shorter as the piece continued. Given the stasis in the music, these silences had an intense effect.

My favorite piece was dynamism the third, a duet between vocalist Yi-ho Ahn, and percussionist, Sori Choi. Ahn exhibited a startling dynamicity in his performance; the highly expressive style of storytelling caught me off guard. The combination of different uses of the voice, along with the volatility of rhythm and vocal style made this a captivating adventure. There were freely sung tones similar to a Broadway performer, but scratchy raspy sounds similar to something from hard rock, like Guns N’ Roses or Alice in Chains more specifically. It featured some straight talking, and other ‘sing-talking’ that reminded me of Stephen Sondheim.

The interplay between vocalist and drummer was engaging to watch. Instead of the percussion taking on a role as accompaniement, the relationship between the instruments had developed as an equal partnership. As in other pieces in the performance, the drummer shouted out words of encouragement to the other performers. As is traditional, the audience was asked to cheer on the performers as well.

As a member of Brandeis’ Improv Collective, I find it amazing how this music reminds me of the sounds of free improvisation (a strategy for improvising that has no orientation toward style). Although Western classical music has developed a huge amount of diversity and unity within the sort of music it creates, it excludes a lot of sounds and forms featured in other world music traditions.

It is really a treat to have such wonderful musicians from other cultures share their gifts with a Western audience. It’s humbling to know that there is always further musical beauty that lies outside of what we’re familiar with.

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