Gig review: Kyungso Park, SB Circle + Hey String

Isn’t it refreshing when a band exceeds expectations? When you were expecting something pretty good, and you get something astoundingly good. When the newbie support band has the class to headline their own gig.

Hey String at the Purcell Room
Hey String at the Purcell Room (Photo courtesy KCCUK)

OK, to call the gayageum trio Hey String a newbie band neglects to mention their success as prizewinners in Seoul Namsan Gugakdang’s Young Korean Musician audition and as 2018 artist of the year at Jeongdong Theatre. But I think even they would acknowledge that Kyungso Park and her new band SB Circle were the main act in the fourth K-music gig this year.

They explain that they aim to push the boundaries of the gayageum in new directions and that’s certainly what they do. Gayageum becomes a percussion instrument, an ajaeng (with the addition of a bow) and a yanggeum (with the use of dulcimer hammers). From the opening bars of their performance they had me hooked, and as their set continued I got even more hooked. This was fresh, exciting playing, music that was immediately appealing but also interesting in the complexity of its rhythms and interplay between the musicians. They produce sounds that are delicate and innovative, but they also prove to Jambinai that you can shock an audience with noise without bursting their eardrums in the process: the grating sound of a bow being dragged slowly across most of the strings of a 25 string instrument simultaneously has a similar effect to the explosive electronic sounds of the band that opened the K-music festival this year without needing several megawatts of amplification to labour the point.

Kyungso Park at the Purcell Room
Kyungso Park at the Purcell Room (photo courtesy KCCUK)

If, at the end of their set, I was momentarily concerned that Kyungso Park would be unable to follow that act, I need not have worried. She started the second half with two solo numbers “Sedna” and “Rubin’s Vase” from her albums Dung-tta (2012) and The Most Beautiful Connection (2015) respectively, immediately grasping the audience’s attention. Park is definitely a class act with a commanding technique and an ability to communicate with the audience that brings vividness and freshness to a piece even when you feel you already know it intimately.

SB Circle at the Purcell Room
SB Circle at the Purcell Room (photo courtesy KCCUK)

So far, so amazing: just as live music should be. For the final set, Park’s new band SB Circle performed tracks from their debut CD, Topology. The four players, one in each corner of the stage, seemed to be isolated from each other, stranded in their own individual pools of light. This was music they knew well, and clearly they knew each other well too, musically speaking, and the performance was polished and well-rehearsed. But I was longing for a sense of danger, of communication between the players, a feeling of the music being created before your eyes – that feeling you should get when jazz musicians come together to improvise. I sat in the audience wondering whether the band needed another soloist, perhaps a flautist, to mix things up a bit. It might have been my imagination, but the most danger I felt in this performance was when Park seemed to look diagonally across the stage at a point when the drummer seemed to be out of sync with the gayageum – an easy impression to give when both instruments rely for some of their effect on multiple percussive beats per second. But this was only for a moment and overall this was an enjoyable set, though lacking the spark of the gayageum solo and trio sets earlier in the evening.

Thanks to Hey String, Kyungso Park and SB Circle for a great evening.

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