Geomungo Factory was the second fusion concert as part of the K-Music 2013 Festival. The cool air conditioning inside the Cadogan Hall provided a welcome respite from the muggy atmosphere outside; and the clean, modern lines of the outfits worn by the four Geomungo Factory members promised that we were not about to hear a traditional music concert.
Geomungo Factory – which comprises three geomungo players and one gayageum player – was founded in 2006 and has built a steady reputation on the World Music circuit. In fact the concert promoters Serious were such fans that they had requested that Geomungo Factory be included in the billing when they took on the promotion of K-music 2013 – or at least so the Serious representative said when he introduced the band onto the Cadogan Hall stage on 19 June.
The group plays a mixture of new music for their ensemble, plus adaptations of traditional Korean music. And in fact most of the first half of their concert was taken up with an arrangement of a traditional sanjo, which for Geomgungo Factory became a “relay”, as each of the four instrumentalists took their turn in playing the solo, while the other players either rested or provided percussion support by striking the bridge or the body of their instrument with their hands or with their plectrum. The eight-movement work seemed to pass in an instant, with the change in instrumentalist and rhythm between movements providing plenty of interest, as the work proceeded through the cycle of ever faster tempi.
The first half finished with a modern piece which involved three of the players standing around a steel-stringed zither which they called a xylophone geomungo – the strings are struck rather than plucked – while the fourth played a more conventional instrument. The xylophone geomungo produced a sound not dissimilar to a celeste, and so it was perhaps natural for the piece to quote from Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy, but the reference did seem rather out of context with the style of the rest of the work.
The second half of the programme was perhaps what most of us had come to hear – contemporary music for instruments which had been modified in various ways. We were treated to a three-string cello geomungo (held vertically), geomungos with electric amplifiers and other effects more familiar to rock guitarists, and a steel-stringed horizontal slide geomungo.
We had pieces which felt like tango, another that felt like the blues, while another could have been the soundtrack to a horror movie. If none of it was rip-roaringly exciting or emotive (as for example the National Orchestra of Korea had been on Friday evening at the opening concert in the Barbican) it was very satisfying and civilised stuff. In one way this second half had plenty of variety of styles and effects, but in another way it was all rather samey. Everything was pretty much in a key close to D minor – the tonality of the music is tied to the pitch of the lowest open string, and so short of changing instruments mid-way through a piece, D is the key. And the soundworld of the geomungo is naturally somewhat dry and melancholy, so perhaps minor keys are more suited to it than major ones.
As one piece succeeded another, I wondered whether having some additional percussion on stage would have stopped me looking at my watch. But the range of percussive sounds produced by the players with the geomungo was adequate enough. Another audience member afterwards had a better suggestion: that it would have been nice to have had a vocalist for one or two of the numbers for added variety. I tended to agree. The vibration of a geomungo string dampens rapidly, meaning the note is not sustained for long (and this is one reason why this band includes a steel stringed gayageum, whose notes last a little longer) and so it’s difficult to get a good tune going. I wondered, when the players returned onstage for an encore, whether they would attempt the customary Arirang, and if so how they would sustain the melody. They didn’t try, instead reprising one of the livelier pieces they had already played.
And that was fine, because despite my own minor quibbles it was a very enjoyable second half, and one which leaves me wanting to hear more of Geomungo Factory, perhaps when they have experimented still further with the capabilities of their chosen instruments (Tori Ensemble use an echoplex to very good effect) or with collaborations with other instruments.