Although the official opening concert of K-Music 2016 is Nah Youn-sun with Ulf Wakenius on 20 September, the British Museum’s Chuseok celebrations in collaboration with the KCC have given us several performances by the contemporary gugak group Jeong Ga Ak Hoe.
They presented a programme of traditional music in the Korean Gallery on the morning of 15 September, and moved to the more spacious venue of the BP lecture theatre for a well-attended programme of more modern arrangements in the afternoon. More was to follow over the next two days. It was a shame that the programme notes for the Thursday afternoon did not give us more information about the arrangements. Presumably they were by the band themselves And the running order was different from that laid out in the programme, so that if you had done your homework beforehand you might have found yourself a little confused.
Those are my only gripes about the performance which was astounding, immediately drawing you in and transporting you to another world. Folk songs from places as far afield as Jeju island and Seodo in the northwest of North Korea were the inspiration for the music. Pansori also featured, in an unusual and evocative scoring of an extract of the Simchongga for gayageum, ajaeng, daegeum, saenghwang and percussion: one of the many highlights of the afternoon.
The longest piece, at 15 minutes, was Alio version 1. With elements of beompae (Buddhist chanting), pansori and also – if the complex cross rhythms as the musicians clapped in accompaniment to the vocals were anything to go by – a heavy dose of flamenco. This piece, according to the programme notes, was an interpretation of Arirang, but I didn’t manage to detect any of the familiar phrases of either the Jindo or Kangwondo versions which are the best known outside of Korea. No matter. This was an emotional performance that started in quiet meditation, grew into a passionate swirl of music before subsiding back into calmness.
If the rest of the K-music festival’s performances match up to Jeong Ga Ak Hoe we are in for a succession of treats.