Art music in Korea has a long pedigree, although until recent times there was no role for a composer comparable to that in the West. Training of Koreans in the Western tradition began in the early 20th century, but that era's regional turbulence predictably made things difficult for the would-be composer or concert-goer, despite the post-war formation of the Korea Symphony Orchestra. Better times now prevail - in the South, at least - and composers like Hye-jin Yoon (or Yoon Hye-jin in the native ordering) are beginning to emerge.
Yoon has taken a different path to better-known expatriate compatriots like Unsuk Chin and Younghi Pagh-Paan who have written music in the European art music tradition - sometimes indeed, like Sukhi Kang and Uzong Chae, following modernist or post-modernist trends. Instead she works with traditional instruments and performers, following in the pioneering footsteps of Hwang Byungki
(b.1936), composer and gayageum (12-silk-string zither) virtuoso extraordinaire. This genre is generally known as 'changjak-gugak', literally 'creative traditional music'.
On the other hand Yoon's music, largely due to the instrumentation and playing style, will probably strike Western ears as still pretty traditional, even though her writing indicates a 'modernist' philosophy - she strives "to create multi-layered sound spaces", for example. In this regard it comes as no surprise to learn that 'gugak' is a term used in Korea to refer to both changjak-gugak and traditional forms themselves, the latter consisting of music of the court, theatre and field, as well as folk songs and shamanistic ritual music.
Thinking Being Irresistibly Burnt
is Yoon's first commercially available CD. All four works were commissioned by the young Korean traditional music ensemble Jeong Ga Ak Hoe. The instruments they play, listed in the booklet, constitute an exotic mix of strings, wind and percussion, with the frequent addition - not always successful, it must be said - of female and male voice. The title work drops the European/American listener in at the deep end, with nearly thirty minutes of unusual tunings, sounds, structures and a fairly slow tempo. The overall effect is hypnotic, and the frantic 'bang-on-a-can' crescendo towards the end is thrilling. The work is inspired, of all things, by Samuel Beckett's play, 'Words and Music' - or more precisely, a music drama based on it created by Jeong Ga Ak Hoe (their own intriguing highlights of which can be seen here
Those not enamoured of folk-style crooning in whatever language will be less impressed by Un-Experienced
, where the female singer appears to push her voice to its limits, and indeed just beyond. The music takes a back seat, content to plod along as a low-key but atmospheric accompaniment, played on the yanggeum, or metal-stringed hammered dulcimer, and the geomungo, a six-string bass zither.
is a duo for the haegeum, a two-string fiddle similar to the better-known Chinese erhu, and the gayageum, these bowed and plucked strings possibly debating, again at a leisurely pace, the nature of time and space that Yoon's rather abstruse note muses upon. The final work bears yet another philosophical title, Soaring Toward Absolute Solitude
. A fuller ensemble is deployed but once more the pace is andante
and the dynamic soft, with Jeong Ga Ak Hoe's performance again having an extemporised feel about it. In sum, the disc is a rather disorientating listen for the tenderfoot European, but an attractive, colourful one nevertheless.
Audio quality is superbly realistic - an example to European sound engineers who do not always reach the same gold standard. The CD and accompanying booklet are housed in an attractive retro-style cardboard box, sturdy and bright red, with a little white fish visible through a porthole in the lid for some reason. The booklet is actually a large sheet of concertina-folded paper, with a red map design on one side and notes, in Korean and English, on the other. Yoon supplies her own commentaries on the four works, although it must be said that something may have been lost in translation - the notes are peppered with slightly weird, metaphysical-sounding phrases like "The destination the fundamental inquiry of human being is heading to does not exist inside the general time and space."
In all likelihood, changjak-gugak seems ultimately doomed to dwell in the gloom cast by that cultural Frankenstein's monster known as 'K-Pop', but those not in its thrall can enjoy this model specimen of real
Korean music at no risk to sanity and very little expense. The CD is distributed by an American company and is widely available on the internet in the usual places.
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