Another fantastic CD of tradtional Korean music, reviewed by Korean music enthusiast, Joshua Cheek.
When considering the regions turbulent history over the past 60-70 years, it becomes obvious how exceptional Kim Jeong-Hee's first album, "Like a Thousand Geese Flying" is in the history of Korean music. By her own admission a late bloomer, Kim was originally trained as an engineer. Her interest in music came about as she sought to understand her own identity as a Korean. For the last 15 years, Kim has devoted herself to studying North Korean folksongs and composing new works based on them. The sounds of North Korean folk music were known to have been a profound influence on the great modernist composer Isang Yun, but for her own work, Kim has embraced the Changjag Eumak, "Creative Traditional Music" style. This is reflected both in the instrumentation (all of the music is played on traditional Korean instruments) and her overall style, which extensively draws on the melodies and textures of traditional Korean instrumental music.
Of particular importance to Kim has been the Inter-Korean Summit, an extraordinary accomplishment that received very little coverage in American news. She writes: "Traditional performances including folksong can be a very good medium to help the North and South understand each other and recover a sense of cultural kinship. I'd like to weave together the mere 70-year-long division with the folksongs sung for thousands years. In the first collection of my works, North Korean folksongs are performed by South Koreans." Yes, behind all the idiotic tweets and photo ops, we need to remember that there are tens of thousands who still dream of "the day when they can greet the sunrise on Mount Baekdu and shout Hurray! on Mount Halla......"
The program opens with the first of three sanjos. Sanjo is a uniquely Korean form of virtuoso solo instrumental music, constructed as a suite with continuous movements which increase in tempo and rhythmic complexity. The Seodo Piri Sanjo Ayong-sori features the piri, a simple reed oboe. At first, somewhat bracing in tone, the ear soon becomes acclimated to the raw sound and the thrilling minimalism of these "scattered melodies" draws you in. The next piece, "As Wild Geese Fly" is a thoroughly developed essay for a colorful chamber ensemble comprised of a Saenghwang mouth organ, Haegeum fiddle, Gayageum zither, Yanggeum hammered dulcimer and Janggu drum. Based on a work song for weeding rice fields, the refrain compares the cooperative labor of the village to the image of a "thousand wild geese flying off together". Throughout, wisps of melody shift from instrument to instrument, painting an autumnal scene. In Seodo Tungso Sanjo Aewonseong we hear the Tungso bamboo flute, an end-blown flute, similar to the Chinese xiao, and the Japanese shakuhachi but with a uniquely Korean touch: a reed membrane covers an additional blowhole giving the instrument a characteristic "buzzing" sound. Once again, despite the limitations of the instrument and the filk song origins, Kim confidently develops her material, perfectly timing shifts in rhythm and tempo. The inspiration for the ensemble piece "Blow, Blow, Blow" was a folk song from North Pyeongan Province that describes a Punggu or 'bellows'. The lively rhythms and playful melody is reminiscent of many Korean folk songs while the colorful instrumentation (Haegeum fiddle, Ajaeng bowed zither, Geomungo struck zither, Yanggeum hammered dulcimer, Temple block and Janggu drum) evokes the extrovert, improvisatory quality of sinawai, a form of folk/shaman music.
The gayageum solo 'The Sun Slips Over the Ridge at Twilight' uses a work song about plowing the fields as inspiration. Kim concludes with piece with the gayageum playing a polyphonic antiphonal/canonic effect to bring the song to a joyous close.
"Five Mal of Rice in a Layer of Sod" features a work song from South Hwanghae Province and once again, Kim's mastery of instrumentation is on full display, featuring the Daegeum bamboo flute, Piri oboe, Geomungo zither, Janggu drum and Jeongju, shaman bell. The penultimate track is the third and final sanjo. This time, the haegeum fiddle with its strident, mournful tone takes the spotlight. Drawing on a funeral song from South Pyeongan Province, Kim crafts a powerful threnody "to all the young souls who had to say goodbye to this world before fully blooming." Concluding this journey into North Korean music Kim has selected her first composition to incorporate a very famous North Korean folk song as its theme, Punggu Taryeong, The Song of Bellows or Steel Mill Ballad. Composed for an ensemble of Daegeum bamboo flute, Piri oboe, Ajaeng bowed zither Gayageum zither and Janggu drums, Kim stays close to the contours of the original song but expands on it with imitative passages, some deft contrapuntal interplay, well-timed modulations and brilliant usage of instrumental color.
Kims creative vision has been vividly brought to life by an extremely talented group of young and master musicians. Her thoughtful approach and light touch with regard to her handling of her North Korean source material pays off handsomely; the music never loses its sense of identity, but Kim's gentle molding and craft is evident everywhere. Very highly recommended for anyone even remotely interested in Korean neo-traditional music and the musical traditions of North Korea in particular!
*This is a line from the famous student protest song 'Our One Wish is Reunification', it refers to Mount Baekduy, a volcanic mountain at the furthest north of the peninsula and Mount Halla, at the southernmost point.
Many thanks to Changkwan Jung for introducing me Ms. Kim's music and congratulations to Jocelyn Clark for her wonderful translations. It truly made a major difference in appreciating Kim's music.
1. Ayong-Sori - Soedo Piri Sanjo 2. As Wild Geese Fly - Chamber Music 3. Aewoonseong -Soedo Tungso Samjo 4. Blow, Blow, Blow - Chamber Music 5. The Sun Slips Over the Ridge at Twilight - Gayageum Solo 6. Five Mal of Rice in a Layer of Sod - Chamber Music 7. Kkotsangyeo - Soedo Haegeum Sanjo 8. Punggu Taryeong - Chamber Music