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Sehyung KIM (b.1987)
Three Sijo [38:34]
Elena Gabbrielli (flute), Szilárd Benes (clarinet), Sehyung Kim (piano)
Ensemble Geori
Schallfeld Ensemble
rec. 2017/18, SPSC Laboratory, Recording Studio, University of Graz & Rehearsal Room of Schallfeld Ensemble, Graz, Austria; HAUS Studio, Seoul

There will be those who look at the total playing time of this CD and think that it seems very meagre. That under-40 minute duration, however, is only part of the story. What we have here is the same basic thing in three versions played five times by differing combinations of instruments. And to add insult to injury, as it were, the piece recorded comprises just a single sustained note with sparse additions in the guise of gentle percussive clumps from the piano, which is the one instrument which is common to all these versions. This is, to put it mildly, something which will appeal to only the most rarefied tastes. That said, I find something strangely hypnotic, not to say compelling about this, and at no point during the 38 minute stretch, did I even think of feeling that enough of a single sustained note with occasional deviations had been reached.

Describing this music on paper makes it sound like one of the mid-20th century experiments from John Cage and his acolytes. But Sehyung Kim is cut of a very different cloth, and has very different objectives in his work. Born in Kazakhstan and trained at the Moscow Conservatory before moving on to the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria, he has participated at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, and his work has been commissioned by various new music ensembles and festivals in Germany, Austria, Russia and the Ukraine. It is, however, totally new to me.

Kim’s work seems to focus on the stretching of minimal material and resources to extreme lengths, and in defying the general shortening of humanity’s attention-span. A single pitch, running through the entire piece, varying only in intensity and occasionally wavering microtones either side, is the basis of his Sijo. The title is drawn from a traditional Korean poetic form, and the specific Sijo behind Kim’s work was written in the mid-16th century by Hwang Jini. This is a gentle plea not to rush through life but pause and reflect along the journey, and is quoted at the head of the extensive and very detailed booklet notes by Thomas Wozonig, which also give graphic illustrations of Kim’s Sijo; which, for the inquisitive, is written as a single horizontal line of varying thickness and with timed additions shown as parallel lines. In the light of Hwang’s words, and seeing the vividly indicative illustrations of how the music is written down, it all begins to make a great deal of sense.

Less convincing is Kim’s decision to write three different versions of the same thing, and to record two of those versions twice. Kim is quoted in the booklet as having originally set out to write a series of miniatures but then “I realised that the whole time I had not been writing different pieces, but a single one”. Each of the three Sijo is identified by the date when it was written – 11 November 2015, 27 October 2015, 2 May 2017 – and each was written for a different ensemble. The first was for flute and piano, the second was commissioned by the Graz-based Schallfeld Ensemble and is for saxophone, double bass and piano, and the third for daegeum (a traditional Korean bamboo flute) and piano. Kim specified that the first could be played on any wind instrument and piano, so to illustrate the point, on this CD we have a version of it with clarinet, while the third was revised and we hear both versions on this CD performed by the Korean Daegeum/Piano due of Dasom Baek and Jared Redmond (who go by the name of Ensemble Geori).

At considerable length Wozonig explains in often quite minute detail how each Sijo differs from each other, and what clever and intriguing structural and musical elements have gone into it. None of this, however, is readily apparent to the listener of this CD. But perhaps, on this occasion, ignorance is bliss; taking Hwang’s words to heart, this does represent a moment of calm and reflection in this busy, unsettled and turbulent world.

Marc Rochester

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