Does hybrid music work?

I looked in briefly at St John’s Smith Square on Sunday for the Thames Philharmonia concert. Hee-jo Kim’s Kayagum Concerto in A minor was the first item on the programme. Here is an extract from the programme notes, written by John Morrison:

This concerto is based on the most traditional sanjoh with its classic and clear-cut rhythms and scales, providing easy playing for beginners; but it is in fact one of the most difficult to perform, because of its controlled and well-defined melodies and rhythms. This concerto is in the western classical three-movement form, and these movements demonstrate Korean non-court rhythmic modes or jangdans. The first movement shows the mode called Jinhangjoh (an allegro); the second a Joongmori (andante) leading to a more lively joongjoongmori; and the last movement is a goodguri (allegretto) followed by a Jajinmori with contrasting cross-rhythms, which becomes faster and leads to a final vivace section called Whimori.

Without knowing the traditional rhythmic modes themselves I’m afraid these programme notes were lost on me. Also lost at times was the sound of the kayagum itself. Pitched against a full orchestra including brass, a silk-stringed zither doesn’t stand much of a chance. There was a microphone attempting to amplify the delicate sound, but it didn’t seem to have much effect.

The concerto was billed as composed by Hee-jo Kim, and arranged by the conductor Byung-yun Yu, but it was not explained what the original scoring was, and why the work needed arranging.

Composing new works for traditional instruments is a worthwhile objective in order to keep the instruments “alive”. The works of Hwang Byung-ki are good examples of new compositions for old instruments which are successful. What possibly is more problematic is the use of traditional Korean instruments in combination with Western classical instruments — or potentially any mixed combination1. The attempt is not doomed to failure by any means, but combining instruments of radically different styles and particularly tuning convention needs very careful management. On first hearing, I’m not sure that as a piece this particular attempt worked. I was much more interested in the Kayagum solo passages (played with undoubted skill by Mi-sun Gwon – below) than when the instrument was playing with the rest of the orchestra. And somehow each movement seemed to end unexpectedly, with the result that you were left feeling “Oh. Was that it?”

Being very familiar with western classical styles, perhaps I need to be better drilled in the sanjoh rhythms before I attempt one of these hybrid works again so that I can appreciate better what is being blended with what.

Mi-sun Gwon playing the kayagum

  1. I have yet to hear the acoustic guitar / 25 string kayagum ensemble which performs in London. A pleasure in store for me []

3 thoughts on “Does hybrid music work?

  1. KBS FM has got a bunch of sanjo albums in their “Korean Traditional Music” series that you might want to check out. Supposedly the performers on those albums are the best Korea has to offer, with recordings that displays the musicians’ talents at the height of their careers. And the booklets offer information in both Korean and English ^^

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