Fringe review: Ensemble SU — The Party

by Philip Gowman on 31 August, 2017 updated 26 December, 2017

in Edinburgh Festival & Fringe | Event reports and reviews | Fusion music | Korean traditional music | Live music reviews | Percussion

Ensemble SU is a five-piece fusion group formed in 2010 and led by Jihye “JJ” Hur on 25-string gayageum with Yein Kim on haegeum, Myunghyun Park on cello, Sangjung Lee on keyboard and Deokhwan Kim playing Korean and western percussion (and not to be confused with a similarly named jazz / gugak fusion trio based in Germany). They came to Edinburgh with a varied playlist juxtaposing more traditional music with modern compositions.

The first set started with a quiet piece for gayageum and haegeum during which sadly the musicians had to battle against the sounds of muzak from the restaurant next door. Once they were joined onstage by their colleagues for the remainder of the set the distraction became less noticeable.

As I sat trying to analyse the rhythmic patterns in the second and third pieces (Song of the Spirit and Red Moon) I noticed that they were predominantly five beats to the bar, and I began regretting that I obviously hadn’t been paying enough attention at the various music talks I’ve been to at SOAS, to know whether this is a particularly common time signature in Korean traditional music (or indeed in contemporary gugak fusion).

As if to pick up on my ruminations, JJ announced the first of the western music cover versions in the set: a take on possibly the most famous of recent pieces composed in 5 in a bar: Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. It worked surprisingly well, though I would have welcomed more exploration of the middle 8, with its liltingly melodious chord progressions, to complement the thorough treatment of the ostinato that opens and closes the tune. One discovery from this performance: the 25-string gayageum is a surprisingly good instrument for jazz improvisation.

A lively changgu solo in the pungmul tradition gave the other members of the quintet time to go offstage and do a costume change before returning to perform another crowd-pleaser: a medley of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and A-ha’s Take on me, which again worked surprisingly well.

The set ended with three works composed for the band, one of them by the keyboard player – all extremely pleasing. The full playlist was as follows:

  1. Bul no ha (two instruments: Gayageum, Haegeum)
  2. Song of the spirit
  3. Red moon (JS Park)
  4. Take five
  5. Korean percussion (Sul jang gu)
  6. Medley in time (Love of my life, Bohemian Rhapsody, Take on me, Viva la vida)
  7. Walking with the wind (Sangjung Lee)
  8. Festival (BR Kim)
  9. Arirang rhapsody
  10. Smooth criminal (encore)

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