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Jung Jae-il’s K-music opening concert leaves London wanting more

Jung Jae-il at the Barbican
Jung Jae-il at the Barbican opening the K-music festival on 1 October 2023 (image courtesy KCCUK)

Ten years ago, the very first K-music festival concert, given by Won Il and the National Orchestra of Korea, was on the main stage at the Barbican. So for the first concert of the 10th anniversary K-music Festival it was the appropriate venue for Jung Jae-il to make his London debut.  The Barbican is also the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Jung Jae-il was recently recording the soundtrack for Bong Joon-ho’s next movie, Mickey 17 – though for those purposes the venue was Abbey Road.

Talking in his shy, diffident manner on the Barbican stage Jung said he had admired the LSO since his childhood and listened to countless of their albums. That was probably a comment tailored for the audience. Jung’s first love, according to his interview with Nikki Bedi on the BBC Arts Hour (broadcast on 6 September 2023) and with Liam Izod at the BFI on Saturday 30 Sept, was heavy metal, and as a teenager he had a band playing Metallica covers. But his musical interests range widely, from Beatles to Bristol trip-hop and Bjork, from Brian Eno to Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as mainstream classical music.

Jung is a musician of mystery and contradictions: as a child he hated learning the piano, but the piano is the instrument he turns to when composing and the one he plays most when performing. He doesn’t like funk, but his first money-earning musical gig was playing bass in a funk band called Geeks1. He doesn’t like performing on stage, but loves actually playing2. On that last point, Jung comes across as almost painfully shy – in the reception after the Barbican concert he would shrink back into the shadows in preference to taking centre stage – but it is clear that once the music starts he is totally immersed: the audience disappears and the music takes over.

Jung Jae-il at the BFI Southbank
Jung Jae-il at the BFI Southbank with Liam Izod and interpreter Sophia Dasol (photo: LKL)

From the interviews and side-conversations prior to the concert we also learned that:

  • The scene where Okja skitters around the underground shopping mall chased by the bad guys is accompanied by lively Balkan trumpet music. Jung is a fan of Emir Kusturica’s movies in which such music features, and Bong Joon-ho too likes the gypsy-style music which covers layers of emotions. Jung went to Skopje, Macedonia, to work with local musicians for that scene: for the six minutes that ended up in the movie, they recorded one hour of music.
  • Bong Joon-ho came across Jung as a composer via the movie Sea Fog (해무, Dir Shim Sung-bo), for which Jung wrote the score and Bong produced and wrote the script. Alternatively (Jung himself wasn’t quite sure which version was true), Jung was recommended to Bong by Save the Green Planet director Jang Jun-hwan, who had directed a music video for Jung.
  • Jung wrote a pop song for ballad-singer Park Hyo-shin entitled Wild Flower (야생화). The two musicians had met when on military service.
  • Jung is versatile as an instrumentalist: he played the musical saw in the Parasite soundtrack – but sadly those particular cues were not included in the medley performed at the Barbican.

Turning to the Barbican performance itself, it proved a great way to open this year’s festival. Of course, it was good to hear the movie and TV soundtracks live with a big orchestra to appreciate the sounds and to watch Jung switching between piano and guitar (which he played in the Squid Game medley). All the music was worth listening to in its own right, but without the visuals they were meant to accompany, the experience was sometimes lacking a certain something. The track that got the most applause was The Belt of Faith from Parasite – the scene where Ki-jung induces an allergic coughing fit in the housekeeper by sprinkling her with peach fluff. The track is a well-crafted piece of pastiche baroque music whose clockwork efficiency perfectly complements the slick editing which depicts the unfolding of the Kim family’s devious plan to make the posh Park family think that the poor woman has tuberculosis (and thus getting her fired). It is one of the few tracks where you can tell the end is coming – a sequence of repeated cadences signals the event – and the final chord lands as Ki-taek reveals to Mrs Park the proof of the housekeeper’s infectious state: a red (ketchup-) stained tissue retrieved from the kitchen bin. While many of the songs faded off into nothing, as dictated by needs of the movie scene to which they relate, this one had a definite ending and positively demanded an audience response.

Conductor Robert Ziegler and Jung Jae-il
The was good communication between the musicians throughout (photo courtesy KCCUK)

The concert as a whole started off with a peaceful solo piano number from his album Listen and continued with a second track from the same album in which Jung was joined by the orchestra. In the first piece, Ocean Meets the Land, there were echoes of Barber’s Adagio, as the music started peacefully, low down in the register, and slowly crescendoed to the top of the keyboard before subsiding again. The orchestral number, Esthesia, alternated between icy starkness and comforting warmth. Both openers had a steady pulse, and were predominantly dark and meditative in tone. After that, we needed the more light-hearted, child-like music from Squid Game, and the LSO duly delivered, with the wind section enjoying playing the descant recorder for probably the first time in decades. Here Jung alternated between playing the piano and electric guitar, bringing echoes of heavy metal to the soundscape.

Jung Jae-il playing guitar
Jung Jae-il switches to guitar for the Squid Game soundtrack (image courtesy KCCUK)

Then came the impassioned despair of Memorare, a piece for chorus with orchestra infused with the Baltic bleakness of the likes of Arvo Part, in which conductor Robert Ziegler did well to coordinate the live orchestra with a pre-recorded choral track. The piece comes from the 2022 album Psalms, which had previously featured in Round and Around, his Gwangju audiovisual collaboration with artist-filmmaker Jang Minseung. Jung introduced this track with references to the current tragic static of the world, in which mankind is destroying the environment and in a permanent state of conflict. In that context, the music took on the guise of a powerful Lenten Lamentation: although the words were simply a repeated “Memorare“, there seemed to be an unspoken “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum“. Coming down from this heightened emotional level it was almost a relief to have the simple, reflective tune Listen played next on the solo piano, which ended the first half in a major key.

Jung Jae-il plays solo piano on a darkened stage
Jung Jae-il closes the first half with a solo piano number (photo courtesy KCCUK)

The second half started optimistically with two pieces from Broker: the orchestral number To Be A Bird, which in the movie accompanies a soaring aerial shot of forested mountains, and the poignant Forgiven for piano and strings. We then launched into the Parasite medley with the busily enquiring Opening. In a speech after the concert the Korean ambassador jokingly referred to Jung as the Korean Ennio Morricone, and it was these three tracks, particularly the ones from Broker, that justified the reference in terms of film music that is able to stand on its own without the visuals. As Jung said in his interview at the BFI, there are times when it is inappropriate to “invade” the movie with music; but these are tunes which are allowed to take over.

Three Korean traditional musicians at the back of the orchestra
L to R: Kwon Seol-hoo, Kim Yuhee and Lee Jung-hyoung (image courtesy KCCUK)

After the Parasite medley, which again ended with a solo piano number, we were treated to two tracks from Jung’s upcoming album A Prayer. For this the orchestra was joined by three Korean traditional musicians: singer Kim Yuhee and percussionists Lee Jung-hyoung (janggu) and Kwon Seol-hoo (kkwaenggwari), It has always been Jung’s work with traditional musicians that has appealed most to me, such as his work with singer Han Seung-seok (eg, Bari Abandoned) and Pansori legend Ahn Sook-sun (Trojan Woman); and as he rounded off his BFI interview with Liam Izod Jung revealed that what he finds most rewarding is creating a “fusion of traditional music with my own style.” A Prayer does just that. And, even more than the Balkan music mentioned earlier, it is this combination of traditional Korean elements with Jung’s style that somehow conveys diametrically opposite emotions almost simultaneously, with the gong and drum inspiring energy and elation while the vocals embody passion and grief. These two pieces brought the audience to their feet in a standing ovation, and we needed the encore, the solo piano Incendies from Listen to calm us down after the emotional ups and downs we had just experienced.

Jung Jae-il and conductor Robert Ziegler bow at the end of the concert
The final bows (photo: LKL)

In all then, it was a nicely-balanced programme. It was inevitable, now every newspaper article, academic paper or piece of K-content promotional material starts by name-checking the success of Parasite and Squid Game, that Jung’s London debut should prominently feature music from those productions, and that the interviews should also focus on how he approaches working with movie directors. Now, having had this introduction to Jung, London audiences need to hear about his work with other creatives such as visual artists3 and other musicians, traditional or otherwise. Let’s get him back to London for K-music 2024 to explore these other aspects of his musical career. Judging by the reception he got at the Barbican, London is ready for more.

Links and further reading:

Programme details:

– First Half –

  • ListenOcean Meets the Land
  • ListenEsthesia
  • Squid GameMedley
    • Round 1
    • Way Back Then
    • Pink Soldiers
    • I Remember My Name
    • Round 6
    • Dawn
    • Unfolded
  • PsalmsMemorare
  • ListenListen

– Second Half –

  • BrokerTo Be A Bird
  • BrokerForgiven
  • ParasiteMedley
    • Opening
    • Busy to Survive
    • The Belt of Faith
    • Water, Ocean
    • Zappaguri
    • Blood and Sword
    • Ending
  • A PrayerOn The Road
  • A PrayerA Prayer

– Encore –

  • ListenIncendies
  1. Liam Izod interview, Q&A, 30 Sept – Or maybe, the band’s name should be transliterated Gigs – Izod’s Songlines interview has that spelling, while the sheets handed out at the BFI Q&A had Geeks []
  2. Nikki Bedi interview, BBC []
  3. It was tantalising that the Liam Izod interview mentioned Jung’s collaboration in providing music for an art installation, without giving the name of the artist. I speculate that it might have been Jang Minseung, given that the two were working together back in 2012. []

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