Monday, March 3, 2008

Seoul music part one

After seeing the thrilling performance of the touring Dulsori group in London last summer, I've been itching to find some performances of traditional Korean since arriving in Changwon. Apart from big touring names, the programme at the city's main arts venue mainly focuses on family shows and western classical music. While piano recitals and flute ensemble concerts are all well and good - especially when they're free - they aren't exactly what I was hoping to find in Korea, and a trip to Seoul offered a good opportunity to broaden my cultural horizons.

On this visit, I didn't quite have time to visit the National Centre for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, which houses a museum of old-school instruments, puts on a variety of shows and even runs courses in the different musical styles (only open to foreigners, for some reason, which seems a real shame). I decided instead to see a show at the Chongdong Theatre, a small basement space under a peaceful courtyard in a secluded pedestrian area in central Seoul.

I was expecting something possibly a little cheesy, or a little reverent and staid, but a show that would hopefully prove a good starting point for further exploration. Sitting in the tastefully designed auditorium, packed with parties of school children and Japanese tourists, I was intrigued, but completely unprepared for the vibrant, playful and powerful performance that followed. Offering snippets of styles from the broad history of Korean music, dance and spoken word performance, the show may well have had a touristy sheen, but for someone with almost no knowledge of these traditions, it was an inspiring, ear and eye-opening 90 minutes.

The first section of the show focused around a number of instrumental pieces in the Shinawi style, which is based on the idea of flowing water and performed on a variety of stringed and wind instruments, with sparse percussive accompaniment. The young musicians, all seated in sparkling, flowing robes, at first gave off an air of studious calm, but soon seemed to get lost in the ebb and flow of the music.

Taking centre stage were the players of three related instruments, each with strings stretched over a concave wooden base, but in different configurations and played in contrasting styles. The six-stringed Geomungo is plucked with a small wooden baton/plectrum, which is also used to beat against the base; the Ajeang is a seven-stringed bowed instrument with a lower tone; and the Gayaguem, with 12 strings, is plucked by hand, usually carrying the weight of the melody.

These instruments create a lovely, layered riverbed of sound, and with an emphasis on string bends and dexterous flourishes, a loose, improvisational feel. Along with the subtle cross rhythms supplied by the Jangu (double headed drum) player and the harsher, occasionally dissonant sounds from the Haeguem (a two-stringed fiddle) and the flutes (Piri and Daegeum), the overall effect is dense, but with a lightness and real sense of momentum.

In classic jazz style, each player took a solo, which helped give the performance the feeling of an intimate jam-session between very accomplished people reacting naturally to each other and clearly enjoying making music. The music was accompanied by a version of the shamanic Salpuri dance (the Dance of Life), reflecting Shinawi's original role as the centrepiece of village rituals and celebrations. In this form, the music would continue for hours, with the players I suppose entering something approaching a transcendental state. Though the Chongdong version lasted for barely 15 minutes, it was certainly hypnotic and very alive, giving a hint at the music' trance-like qualities.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Sounds wonderful.

Not sure you should expect classical concerts to be free though. If people pay £80 for Neil Diamond solo much would you pay to hear 76 properly trained, well rehearsed musicians doing their thing?