An evening which displayed the rich variety of Korean traditional music. This was a big enterprise, with twelve distinguished musicians involved in the tour, organised by Justina Jang of the Korean Cultural Promotion Agency as part of Think Korea 2006. The musicians played earlier the same week in the Hollywell Music Room in Oxford and Clare Hall in Cambridge, forming part of a mini Korean festival there. The concerts were timed to coincide reasonably closely with an auspicious time in the Korean calendar, the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, which this year falls on 31 May.
Part of the pleasure of the Bloomsbury Theatre concert was the spectacle of seeing the traditional costumes, displayed perfectly against the black of the stage. One of the kayagum players could teach David Beckham a thing or two about dress sense, with his pastel pink pinafore and mauve pantaloons, while the daegum player had a majestic scarlet robe and the dancer a wonderful multi-layered costume.
I confess to not being familiar with Korean traditional music and dance, and I apologise to the cognoscenti for the naivety of my comments below, but on the basis of this concert I think that the life of one of the Confucian yangban literati may not have appealed to me. The opening item, “Cheonnyeonmanse”, was designed for that audience. It consisted of five tuned instruments plus drum — kayagum (12-string plucked zither), daegum (flute), piri (oboe), haegum (2-string fiddle), and yanggum (steel-strung zither struck with bamboo hammers) — playing pretty much in unison; to my ear the instruments in unison had an unpleasant nasal sound. And again to my uneducated ear the piece didn’t sound terribly different from Chinese music, both in terms of instrumentation (the yanggum being the instrument which, for me, most pulled the music westwards) and melody. Fairly uninteresting stuff on first listening, but I’m sure that as you get to know it there are sophistications which reward closer attention.
Things got more interesting after that: a traditional kayagum solo (with drum) played by Yang Seung-hee (an intangible cultural property), a solo pansori performance (with drum), a daegum solo; and in the second half a performance of one of Hwang Byung-ki’s most well-known works for kayagum, some traditional dance, a pansori performed by two kayagum players, and finally an improvisational Sinawi.
Pansori performances, more than anything else in Korean, make me wish I understood the language. The mixture of recitation, declamation and singing, supported and punctuated by encouragement from a drummer, seems to me to be a great way of telling a story, retaining the listener’s interest by constantly changing styles and rhythms. We had two contrasting performances, one of a more traditional solo voice and drum, and another where two kayagum players simultaneously sang the story.
The dance started with some stately sauntering around the stage, displaying the richness of the costume — particularly the long flag-like pieces of fabric hanging from the sleeves and hands. Then the tempo picked up, the surplus arm-fabric was discarded, and the richly-coloured blue skirt was lifted to reveal a red underskirt. I was worried that we were about to descend into the sort of raunchy frolic that Zhang Ziyi was made to dance in that geisha film, but fortunately decorum was maintained. This livelier section displayed the movement in the skirts, and with the surplus arm fabric offloaded, expressive finger, elbow and shoulder movements could be displayed. My one complaint was that the dance was performed to recorded music: it would have been nice to have had the musicians live on stage — somehow without them there the performance felt as if it was missing something.
The highlight for me was the final item, a sinawi, which is a largely improvised piece inspired by shamanistic practice. After an opening ensemble for all the players (largely the same instrumentation as the first item, but with the yanggum being replaced by the much more interesting ajaeng, a zither played with a bow), each instrument (apart from the kayagum) had a solo improvisation, supported and propelled forward by the drum. It was interesting hearing each instrument’s capabilities, and the complexity of its sound. The ajaeng player did a small amount of double-stopping (given the slack tension in the strings surely an adventurous player will one day tackle triple-stopping); the fiddle demonstrated its versatility; the piri revealed flutey overtones in its fundamentally buzzy sound. Somehow, when the instruments are playing solo or independent lines they don’t sound so nasal. I was hoping for a lively drum solo, but it was not to be; but overall the liveliness of this final piece ended the evening on an upbeat note.
Altogether a diverse and enjoyable programme. The performers will be back again next year, and I encourage you to go along.