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Concert notes: Tori Ensemble at the KCC

It was encouraging to see the KCC’s first concert of the year very well attended. It was also very nice to have plenty of comfy seats laid out in the multi-purposes hall. The KCC hopes to bring you a wide range of music on a more regular basis than the past, and the Tori ensemble was a perfect introduction.

Heo Yoon-jeong (geomungo) with vocalist Kang Kwon-soon
Heo Yoon-jeong (geomungo) with vocalist Kang Kwon-soon

Tori had been performing in Amsterdam the previous week as part of a big lunar new year festival there, and they were very welcome in London. The ensemble comprises Heo Yoon-jeong on geomungo with vocalist Kang Kwon-soon. Heo is designated to be the next holder of Intangible Cultural Property #16 (geomungo sanjo), while Kang is a noted performer of court music.

If I were to have one gripe with the evening’s performance, it would be that the audience were told nothing about what they were about to hear. A simple list of the five pieces to be played, and scant biographical detail on the two musicians, gave little to go on. One assumes that Tori simply repeated some of the music they performed in Amsterdam, so some useful programme notes or some verbal briefing must surely have been available.

Kang Kwon-soon
Kang Kwon-soon in intense concentration

The evening started with a remarkable vocal solo – a gasa called Chunmyungok. We were not told the subject of the song, but it was full of han and emotion. The sounds and techniques used were totally alien to someone used to a lieder recital by a western mezzo-soprano. Rich, deep chest voice alternated with an almost falsetto head voice; repeated notes accelerated and turned into a tremolo. A vibrato turned into a glissando shift onto an adjacent note. And all was done with the utmost of control. As the last pianissimo note faded into silence were left wondering what tragedy had just been unfolded.

Next, a traditional solo for the geomungo (Hahyundoduri), and then a song with geomungo accompaniment which was billed as an east coast shaman song called Desasunim. Beyond that, we were told nothing, but both seemed to be in traditional style. What followed was more up to date, while still respecting the soundworld of the traditional instrument. Some internet research since the performance reveals that Heo is a composer as well as a performer, so maybe the more contemporary works were by her.

Heo Yoon-jeong
Heo Yoon-jeong with her geomungo

In the next item, a geomungo solo entitled Foreshadowing, the geomungo was plugged into an amplifier, and a little box of electronic tricks was positioned at the feet of the instrumentalist. The player would set up an ostinato bass rhythm with the strings, and with an imperceptible movement of a silk-slippered foot the ostinato would be looped through the speaker. A second and even a third ostinato would be layered on top, producing a complex multi-tracked foundation on which the player could then improvise and extemporise a melody. After a while, a new ostinato would be set up to create a different mood. Lovers of the music of the late great John Martyn will be familiar with the echoplex, and this was the same technique used in a more refined manner with an ancient instrument. Never did the technology intrude – it was as if Heo was playing a duet or trio with herself. And in the final piece, Isudaeyeop, the same piece of gadgetry supported the geomungo as it accompanied the vocalist.

There are many ways in which the capabilities of traditional instruments can be explored and made “relevant” for a modern audience. The popular route is to tune the instruments to a western scale and play Beatles covers (as the Sookmyung Kayageum Orchestra) or newly composed pop music (as Sorea). The more cerebral and satisfying route is to respect the traditional modes of the and create new music which suits them. This is the route followed by Won Il’s Baramgot and by Tori. It was certainly very successful, and one audience member confidently announced that he’d just witnessed the event of the year. I’m hoping the KCC has a number of concerts up their sleeves to prove him wrong over the next 10 months, but this will take some beating.


One thought on “Concert notes: Tori Ensemble at the KCC

  1. “one audience member confidently announced that he’d just witnessed the event of the year” – if that’s a reference to my comment to you after the concert, then what I said – or at any rate what I intended to say – was that it was very probably one of the events of the year. I *am* confident of that because I can’t imagine anything being much better.

    I agree that some more information on the musicians and the music being performed would have been helpful. On the other hand, it was a free concert, so I’m more than somewhat forgiving of a lack of detailed information.

    More importantly, if we don’t know much (or in my case anything) about the words being sung or the context of the performance, then we have to concentrate on, for want of a better two words, the pure aesthetics of the performance, which perhaps gives a somewhat different – and hopefully useful – perspective on a performance to many of those who do understand the context. I’m not advocating ignorance as an asset in appreciating art, simply observing that provided one has experience of arts which have some connection to an unfamiliar art, it’s possible to get an intense artistic and emotional experience from the more abstract aspects of a performance.

    Apart from the emotional content of the music (by both musicians), I was struck by the very high level of control: for example, when the singer switched very quickly from what would, I think, be considered a beautiful tone of voice by most in the West to a tone which was much more like the harsher sounds of Pansori, which I know some not familiar with it dislike. For me, to quote a line from Im Kwon Taek’s film Sopyonje “But I like Pansori”.

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