It was a typical wet autumn evening in the Barbican, and inside St Giles’s church it was a little bit chilly. The audience was a touch thin on the ground – some of the regular followers of Korean cultural events will have been at the gala opening of the Korean film festival 5 minutes walk away, or at the annual Anglo Korean Society dinner in the House of Commons. But there were some familiar faces in the audience, undeterred by the diary clash, as well as plenty of less familiar ones.
Those who went to the AKS dinner will have had a splendid time. I certainly did last year. I heard mixed reviews of the film, but in general it got the thumbs up (review here). But I guarantee that no-one who went to those two events will have had an evening to match ours. We were simply blown away.
In general, people who come along to concerts in London churches are a pretty staid bunch. And I’m guessing that followers of small-scale world traditional music ensembles are similarly restrained. But at the end of the concert on Thursday there were several who felt moved to rise to their feet in order to applaud.
It was a brave decision by the organisers to have the instruments unmiked. The plan was to let the airy acoustic of the church carry the sound, rather than have wires, amplifiers and speakers do the work. As the concert opened, I wondered whether it was the right decision. A pianissimo low note bowed on the geomungo was drowned out by the creak as someone shifted in their pew on the other side of the aisle towards the back of the church, and it was probably ten seconds before most of the audience realised that the musicians had started playing. They realised that they were going to have to pay attention. And having to do that little extra bit of work to hear the quietest passages made the audience listen more attentively.
For most of us it was the first time we’d come across Baramgot, the Korean ensemble specialising in music on traditional instruments. We knew we were going to get some modern compositions, but we didn’t know what to expect. I was half expecting something like the fusion pop music group Sorea. That would have been fine, but what we got was better.
The concert started with a plaintive Arirang from Jeongseon in Gangwon province, accompanied only by a Korean flute and a bowed geomungo (sounding a little like a viola), and sung by the remarkable Kang Kwonsoon, who managed to be both restrained and agonisingly emotional at the same time. This was a far cry from the jaunty southern arirang which features in Sopyonje, or the version which generally gets performed when encouraging an audience to sing along. If the evening was going to carry on at this emotional level for too long the audience would soon be exhausted. But the concert was intelligently programmed, starting with the slower, more meditative pieces and progressing towards the upbeat pieces at the end.
The second item, transliterated Beingbing, was composed by the ensemble’s gayageum player, Pak Suna, for geomungo and 25-string gayageum. A remarkable blend of Korean and western sounds, the piece placed varied demands on the instruments. Sometimes the sound world was that of Ravel, at other times the wide vibrato from the Korean tradition predominated. If you closed your eyes sometimes you thought the tone was of a guitar or a harp, at others there was no mistaking the fact that you were in fact listening to something less familiar.
We then returned to more traditional music – a traditional sanjo for daegeum (flute) and changgo (hourglass drum). The daegeum normally sounds much quieter than a western flute, in part because of the membrane which gives it a slightly muffled, buzzing sound quality. But somehow, in the loudest passages, Lee Aram managed to fill the church with his sound, while still retaining the distinctive timbre.
Kang Kwonsoon returned to perform a traditional vocal piece which again she performed seated, accompanied by geomungo and daegeum. The vocal colour was at times indistinguishable from the daegeum, as she imitated the wide, slow vibrato of the wind instrument.
From then on, we had more modern compositions: a 1964 piece for gayageum by Seong Geum-yeong, and then the remainder were all by Baramgot collectively or by Won Il himself. We had an astonishingly virtuoso piece for solo flute, and ensemble pieces inspired by shamanistic ritual. Some were introspective, others were joyously improvisational like jazz. The audience was constantly being challenged with a new configuration of instruments, styles and harmonies. Sometimes the tuning and mode was definitely Korean, with gentle quarter-tones interposed into the melody, at others the harmonies were much more familiar. While all the music pushed the boundaries of what a traditional yangban audience would have found acceptable, it retained enough from its roots to remain faithful to the past while opening up this Korean sound-world to a new audience.
When oriental composers pen music for a western audience, often the result can sound rather too much like atmospheric mood music like the soundtrack to an exotic film. Baramgot’s offering was vastly superior to that style of piece.
With concerts like this it’s difficult to convey some of the qualities and atmosphere of the evening. Words like “mesmerising” and “spellbinding” convey some of the magic, but one ends up falling back on the cliche “you just had to be there”. Those who were there were very grateful. As we come to the end of the year, the LKL list of 2008 highlights is being prepared. This performance is a strong contender for event of the year.
Baramgot were at St Giles’s, Cripplegate, on 6 November, in their European debut performance. Make sure you catch them if they return. Thanks to Jo Seong-hee for the live action shots, taken in very dark conditions.
- Baramgot’s Cyworld home page