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DPRK unveils new fusion technology on Paris concert platform

At least three things are of interest in relation to the 14 March Paris performance of the Unhasu (은하수) Orchestra from North Korea. First: that it happened at all; second: how it was reported back home; and third, what it was that the orchestra was playing.

Ju Jo-ok (Kayagum) and Ha Nam-un (sohaegum) play Vinalon Extending 3000-ri, conducted by Ju Yun-pom
Ju Jo-ok (Kayagum) and Ha Nam-un (sohaegum) play Vinalon Extending 3000-ri, conducted by Ju Yun-pom

The funding

First, then. How did it get to happen? In the UK, Middlesborough-based opera singer Suzannah Clarke has been trying to organise a visit by the main Pyongyang Orchestra for the past couple of years. The problem has always been funding. Hiring a plane to bring a symphony orchestra and its minders from the DPRK doesn’t come cheap, and nor does the accommodation when they arrive. The money has to come from the West, as the DPRK wouldn’t want to spend cash on such things when there’s missiles to build, the army to feed, and Kim Jong-il’s brandy collection to keep amply stocked.

Questions of funding apart, it was interesting that it was the young Unhasu Orchestra, said to be favoured by the youthful Great Successor, rather than a more established Pyongyang orchestra, that came over.

Musical bling: gold-plated oboe and flute in the Unhasu wind section
Musical bling: gold-plated oboe and flute in the Unhasu wind section

The reporting

Second, the reports back home. The KCNA reported on the performance 15 March, giving helpful programme details. The second piece in the programme, for kayagum, sohaegum and an orchestra of both traditional western and eastern instruments, was simply described by the French Radio website as “Piece pour deux instruments traditionnels Coreens”. We learn from the KCNA website that the piece was actually called “Vinalon Extending 3000-ri” in honour of the synthetic fibre invented in North Korea. However, the programme listing is not altogether accurate, mentioning a hitherto unknown “Concerto No 9” by Brahms as being performed.

The report mentions the performance venue thus: “The Pleyel Theatre opened in 1927 [and] is one of the modern theatres for orchestra in France.” Cynics might suspect that this is a little dig at poor Paris: Pyongyang can boast much more modern facilities than 1927. But most interesting of all is the credits given for the concert:

Organizers of the performance expressed thanks to the dear respected Kim Jong Un with broad magnanimity and noble traits who made sure that the excellent orchestra perform in France.

KCNA fails to mention Maestro Chung Myung-whun, the South Korean conductor who made it all possible. To be fair, in the first half of the concert, the North Korean orchestra was under the direction of two North Koreans, and it only when their forces were combined with the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in a weighty performance of Brahms’s First Symphony that the South Korean wielded the baton. But the initiative of musical engagement was entirely his, not the young Kim’s.

Changgu and kkwaenggwari in the percussion section
Changgu and kkwaenggwari in the percussion section

The music and instruments

Finally, what was it that the orchestra played? Well, the early part of the concert featured music by unnamed Korean composers. The Radio France website has no information about the composers or dates of composition, though the nature of the instrumentation implies that most if not all of the pieces were composed post-division. Whether the fusion nature of the works appeals to you is a matter of personal taste, but at least they give an additional opportunity for players of non-western instruments to display their skills.

Some of the instruments played were traditional – though their first oboist and flautist sported the ultimate in musical bling: gold-plated instruments. In the percussion section was a changgu and a kkwaenggwari, familiar to fans of samulnori performance. These were unmodified.

But it will be remembered that North Korea has led the South in adapting traditional Korean instruments to make them more suitable for Western music: it was the North Koreans who increased the number of strings on a kayagum from 12 to 21, which enabled more western-friendly tuning. Such instruments were unknown in the South before 1990, and now (with 25 strings) are the stock-in-trade of Southern gugak fusion bands such as the Sookmyung Kayagum Orchestra. It was a 21-stringed instrument that was played by Ju Jo-ok in the double concertante work for kayagum and haegum entitled Vinalon Extending 3000-ri.

Ha Nam-un playing a four-stringed haegum. Note a similar haegum and a mandolin (oungum) in the orchestra behind
Ha Nam-un playing a four-stringed haegum. Note a similar haegum and a mandolin (oungum) in the orchestra behind

But of greater interest was the modern North Korean haegum. A traditional haegum has two strings and no fingerboard. North Korean musicians have crossed it with the violin – giving it two more strings plus a fingerboard, but maintaining the playing position where the body of the instrument is placed on the lap rather than under the chin. The new hybrid instrument, called a sohaegum, is capable of double-stopping and sounds much more like a western instrument – perhaps more appropriate when playing along with a traditional western orchestra.

Kim Un-chol playing the Jangsaenap
Kim Un-chol playing the Jangsaenap

Also in next to the French Horn section of the orchestra was another fusion instrument, a blend of the oboe-like taepyeongso with the western soprano sax, called the Jangsaenap (장새납). This instrument maintained the original raucous edge called for by the composition Girl on a Swing.

After a brief speech in which Maestro Chung talked about a Korea that was politically divided, but nevertheless one family, the inevitable Arirang was played.

Overall the North Korean orchestra acquitted themselves extremely well. In the first half of the concert, as well as the Korean pieces, they gave a very polished performance of Saint-Saens’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra. They had nothing to fear from being placed alongside the French orchestra. The audience responded warmly, sensing that this was an occasion unlikely to be repeated often.


3 thoughts on “DPRK unveils new fusion technology on Paris concert platform

  1. Merci beaucoup for this, Philip.

    So who did fund the trip? Any idea?


    PS KJI won’t be needing the brandy now, surely?
    His son looks more of a vodka + red bull kinda guy to me.

    1. May I offer humble apologies to the Great Successor – apparently there was some North Korean money involved. Radio France will no doubt have chipped in as well. If I get sight of the official programme I’ll give an update. But I hear that this trip is not planned as a one-off.

  2. I’ve consulted the programme (written in very bad French) and there’s no funding credit. But there’s a good photo of a jangsaenap, so I scanned it and added it to the post above.

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