The Sound of Nature: Dal:um live at Southbank Centre

Dal:um in concert

“Korean traditional instruments contain the sound of nature.”

This is the opening line of Ha Suyean’s answer to my question regarding what Dal:um would like their international audience to know about ancient Korean instruments gayageum and geomungo.

“For someone coming to these two ancient instruments for the first time, what will they discover?”, I had asked.

I was genuinely curious to know from the musicians’ perspective what they believe is to be discovered about gayageum and geomungo, the two traditional instruments of ancient roots that Ha Suyean and Hwang Hyeyoung are introducing to the world through their music.

Sound is evocative, and music taps into our feelings, reaching our inner world with a depth and accuracy unknown to words alone. And memories meet sound in this journey from the ear to the heart. The sound of gayageum and geomungo might not be connected to any memory for those who are being presented with the traditional sounds of Korea later in life or now for the first time. This is, as I learned through our interview, a very different reality from that of Ms Ha and Ms Hwang, who both approached these instruments in their childhood. Hence, my question concerning what was there to be discovered, as if I was planning a trip to some hillside village full wonder and narrow roads.

Ms Ha’s answer got me thinking. The sound of nature. I pictured something similar in my mind during their performance at Southbank Centre in London, earlier this month as part of the 2021 K-music festival, on 6 November. Not only because of the actual notes played through the silk strings of the instruments, but because of the percussive element to the performance. When playing the geomungo, a bamboo stick called suldae is used to rhythmically hit the wooden instrument as well as vibrating its strings. Together with the reverberation in the room, the communion of darker and lighter sounds resulting from the intrinsic structural differences between the two instruments, and the composition of the melody, which alternates pauses and dynamic -almost frenetic- sections, the overall sonic atmosphere was such that it reminded me of something organic and profoundly natural. The sound of nature, indeed.

I was also fascinated by the non-musical component of the performance. The musicians played sitting down in front of their instruments and the gestural expressiveness was something I couldn’t bring myself to think of as any less valuable to the concert than the music played. There was a certain elegance to every gesture and the sonic dialogue between gayageum and geomungo was beautifully enhanced by what felt like a wordless communication between the musicians while they played, sitting not far from one another on the stage. To me, this added to the performance beautifully, as it could be seen as a non-verbal conversation between two artists and two instruments to which the audience could participate offering attention and at times silence, at times cheerful noise.

Inspired by their performance, I asked them a few questions about their musical journey. Here’s what they said:

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Ha Suyean (gayageum)
Ha Suyean playing gayageum at the Purcell Room
  1. First of all, huge congratulations on your show here in London at Purcell Room, Southbank Centre. It was amazing and a pleasure to go see. How did you start playing music and when did you realise you wanted to pursue a career as a musician?

Suyean: I first came across the gayageum during after school classes in primary school. At that time I had talent and transferred to a performing arts school. At first I didn’t think to be a performer but at one point in university, I saw myself as a performer when I felt myself playing as if the song was alive.

Hyeyoung: Influenced by my family, I started playing the gayageum at 8 years old and came across the geomungo at 14 years old. I dreamt of becoming a musician while attending a traditional Korean music secondary school.

  1. Your musical journey took you from South Korea all the way to the United Kingdom, performing in front of an audience that might be less familiar with the traditional side of Korean music you embrace. Is there something you would like your international audience to know about gayageum and geomungo? For someone coming to these two ancient instruments for the first time, what will they discover?

Suyean: Korean traditional instruments contain the sound of nature. I want to show the silk stringed gayageum and similarly constructed geomungo’s natural and charming sound. It sounds very beautiful even with natural sounds.

Hyeyoung: Like our album title, I wanted to show the sound of the similar but different stringed instruments.

  1. During your performance, your gestures are as harmonious as the music you play. Is that a natural consequence of the technique you learned over the years or is that part of the performance? In other words, what guides the gestural expressiveness in your performances while you play?

Suyean: There are lot of gestures that come out naturally while playing the music. However, I tried to express the feeling of dance for the song ‘Tal’ because it is inspired by the Korean traditional dance ‘Talchum (Mask Dance)’.

Hyeyoung: If you talk about gestures, I feel you are talking about ‘Tal’.

That song was inspired by the Korean Mask Dance and we wanted to express it through our bodies. In particular, our gestures are big during the second movement’s liberation part.

Hwang Hyeyoung (geomungo)
Hwang Hyeyoung playing geomungo
  1. Your debut album Similar & Differenthas been released in June 2021 and showcases a powerful dialogue between the instruments you play. How did this album come to life? What was the creative process like? And finally, do you have a favourite track from the album?

Suyean: Dal:um was created in 2018 but we had no album. We met Chris Eckman from Glitterbeat in 2020 during the Journey to Korean Music program. When he heard that Dal:um didn’t have an album yet he proposed releasing an album and chose songs that showed the gayageum and geomungo’s powerful yet beautiful sound.

This album has songs composed by ourselves and also collaborative tracks created by young Korean composers. My favourite song is ‘Tal’.

Hyeyoung: This album has songs we worked on when we became a team in 2018. There are songs composed by Dal:um but also collaborative works by various composers. This album tries to capture the different perspectives musicians and composers have on the gayageum and geomungo. My favourite song is ‘Tal’.

  1. Whats coming next for Dal:um? Is there any news you can share with us or any goal you are working towards?

Suyean: We are currently preparing Dal:um’s second album. Dal:um’s music won’t be limited to one style. Please anticipate Dal:um’s dynamic sound.

Hyeyoung: This first European tour visits mainly Northern Europe. My goal is to perform in other European nations and the Americas to widely share Dal:um’s gayageum and geomungo sound.

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Dal:um is certainly one of the great acts of London’s festival of Korean music and it’s been a true pleasure to attend their show and, even more so, get to ask some questions to these talented musicians and performers. I am looking forward to Dal:um’s future music endeavours and their next concerts.

Meanwhile, we can connect with Dal:um on Instagram and keep up with the exciting K-music programme on Korean Cultural Centre’s website, Facebook and Instagram.

Dal:um at the Purcell Room

Dal:um performed at the Purcell Room on 6 November as part of the 2021 K-Music Festival. All images are courtesy of the KCCUK and used with permission. Photographer credit: Ikin Yum.

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