Recent collaborations between British and Korean musicians have not always been successful. A planned experiment between jazz trumpeter Guy Barker and Samulnori founder Kim Duk-soo never happened because the latter went awol when Barker came to visit. Instead, having already been booked for the 2008 Dano Festival in Trafalgar Square, Barker appeared briefly on stage with the Yoon Band and jammed an Arirang. At K-music 2015 the consecutive appearance on stage of Arthur Jeffes and SU:M could have come from completely different concerts. Much better was Tim Garland with Lee Aram and Heo Yoon-Jeong in St James’s Piccadilly, and I look forward to getting to grips with the CD from ACT (also Nah Youn Sun’s label) which features some of the musicians from that gig.
Given this somewhat chequered history, what was it that persuaded Serious to bring together Kyungso Park and Andy Sheppard for K-music 2016? Park weaves an ethereal harp-like sound with her modern 25-string gayageum, her compositions redolent with lilting, hypnotic Steve Reich-like ostinati. In the intimacy of the Albert Hall’s Elgar Room Sheppard’s “brutish lump of metal” (his words) could have pierced through Park’s gossamer weave like a laser. But the coming together of two opposites worked brilliantly.
Having been able to listen to some of Park’s music in advance, I knew it had a simple, minimalist beauty, but maybe taken in large doses it could start to become a little bit ambient. Lovely and rhythmically sophisticated as it is on its own merits, for those who want a bit more action it can sound a bit like a Music Minus One track – an accompaniment without a soloist. Enter the natural solo instrument of the sax and we had a marriage made in heaven. As Sheppard put it: Park’s music was like a “delicate web I can float over and interfere with”.
The two musicians only had two days together before the gig to work on the performance, though they had exchanged tracks across the Atlantic via the internet in the preceding weeks. And in person their chemistry together made musical interplay joyously straightforward. Park had said she needed about ten seconds to agree to the collaboration when Serious had rung to suggest it. The respect the musicians had for each other was evident, and even though some of the improvised interplay between the two seemed a little hesitant it was nevertheless playful, and the smiles they exchanged were heartwarming.
Park and her fellow gayageum player Im Jihae play modern 25-stringed instruments with steel strings. The instruments are relatively easily retuned to enable a range of possibilities. Successive pieces can be in different keys and modalities, a flexibility not open to groups such as Geomungo Factory whose gigs can sound somewhat samey as the unmodernised instruments offer little scope for variety. And the break for re-tuning the instruments in between numbers gave space for the musicians to talk to the audience a little.
Most works in the gig were by Park, one was by Sheppard, and probably the most ambitious thing they did was their final track. Sheppard announced it as a piece that would not be known to any Korean, but would be the favourite of anyone immersed in 1970s English folk music. Judging by the reaction of the audience when the track started there weren’t many such people, but in a lucky fluke resulting from university-age musical eclecticism the LKL reviewer immediately recognised the wonderful melodious talent of Nick Drake. I had forgotten the piece was in 5/4 time and started raising an eyebrow at the slightly Brubeckian rhythms coming from the gayageum, but it all worked so well that I gave it the benefit of the doubt and went with the flow. It was such a satisfying rendering that it brought the evening to a perfect close. On returning home I got my CD from the shelf and discovered that the Park / Sheppard version was remarkably faithful to the original while giving it a unique twist.
Of course, Nah Youn Sun and Ulf Wakenius were fantastic at the Union Chapel. But the collaboration between Park and Sheppard in the Elgar Room was a surprise delight, and I really hope that they work together again. Did someone record the gig? If so, send me the tape.
Playlist: Proximate Distance (Park) | Libertino (Sheppard) | Distance at which I can hear your breath (Park) | We shall not go to market today (Park) | Rubin’s Vase (solo gayageum) (Park) | Moonlight and gentle breezes (Park) | Medley – Answer me my love (German folk song) + Chup chup chup (Park) | River Man (Nick Drake)
Kyungso Park and Andy Sheppard performed with Jihae Im at the Albert Hall’s Elgar Room on 11 October as part of K-music 2016. All photos courtesy the KOrean Cultural Centre UK.