Kmusic 2015 got off to a haunting start at the Purcell Room on 1 September with the unusual fusion duo SU:M. I have to confess that, based on the one or two YouTube videos I had watched prior to the evening, I was expecting to be lukewarm. And having an English pianist playing some of his admittedly Asian-inspired compositions to start off the evening didn’t get me in the right frame of mind for the main event. But once the Korean musicians came on stage it became clear that we were in for something really special.
The duo, Seo Jungmin on 25-string gayageum and Park Jiha on wind instruments and yanggeum dulcimer, performed their own compositions on mostly traditional Korean instruments. The one exception was probably the highlight of the evening – a piece for saenghwang (a traditional Korean mouth organ, but one that looks as if it could have been dreamed up by Roger Dean) and the more recently-invented melodica. As Park played the saenghwang, her body gently swaying as if in a breeze, and the instrument moved with her, creating the illusion that it was made of grass stems which themselves were blowing in the wind. It was an ethereal experience.
With no percussion instrument the set was never going to lift off into the levels of excitement that you can get when a changgu or other samulnori instruments are involved, but nevertheless the gayageum proved its versatility in providing energetic percussive effects when required. But high-energy excitement was not the point here: the atmosphere of the evening was verging on the spiritual. The melodies and aural texture were other-worldly, transporting you to a place far from the South Bank of London.
For most of the time, it did not matter that Seo was playing a 25-string gayageum tuned to a largely western temperament, while Park was playing traditional wind instruments with their own built-in termperament difficult to bend to the rigidity of a system perfected by JS Bach. The slight sonic astringency caused by the fact that the piri was happy with its own tuning, which could be varied by the skilled embouchure and breathing techniques of the player, and didn’t mind too much about what the gayageum was doing, was all part of the special nature of the soundworld. But early in the set, it really did feel as if the piri could have done with a bit more warming up, and I was itching to grab the instrument and trim a millimetre off the reed to bring things up to pitch. No such problems with the taepyongso, which was raucous and joyous in equal measure.
For the final piece, Arthur Jeffes rejoined the Korean duo, playing the dulcitone, a celeste-like instrument which blended well with the Korean ones. Park seemed to be conducting a test with herself to see how pianissimo she could get the piri to play without the sound cutting out, and she genuinely appeared to be able to diminuendo al niente. Superbly controlled playing. It was a peaceful way to end a remarkable concert.
A minor quibble. As is often the case with Korean concerts in London, the programme details were poor. If you wanted details of the playlist you had to consult Jon Lusk’s review in the FT later that week (or hang around offer the gig to speak to the organisers).
All photos courtesy of the KCCUK