Korean ensemble preserves an ancient endangered musical species for the modern world.
Thursday, February 8, 2001
But these gifted and ambitious youngsters are known for Western classical music. When the four members of Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea came to Monterey High School last week, they played in an entirely different musical language from the Mozart/Mendelssohn/Tchaikovsky repertoire that has long attracted and sustained others from their homeland. Indeed, they brought a music so foreign sounding that it was all but impossible to distinguish between those pieces that were newly composed and those of the ancient oral tradition-the Korean classical music preserved from centuries-old courtly and folkloric lineage.
That both old and new used the same traditional instruments and techniques did not make the challenge any easier for those students and guests who attended the two assemblies in Monterey High''s small auditorium. But careful listening to the explanations volunteered by Ji-Eun Jhon of Scotts Valley-the principal coordinator of CMEK''s Monterey Bay visits-opened a window on a music tradition that, even in modern-day Korea, finds itself a species endangered.
Using traditional zithers, flutes, bamboo oboe, pipe bells, wood slats, drums and the singing voice, CMEK illustrated an ancient art in which instruments imitate (and stylize) the sounds of animals, wind and water. The conspicuous lack of a pulsing beat may have bewildered those weaned on rock and hip-hop, but it sharpened the attention of students-and teachers-who remain determined to open their minds to the unfamiliar.
Owing to its long tradition, Korean instruments are known worldwide for their distinctive timbres and colors. In like kind, Korea''s musical practices have evolved what the seasoned ear will recognize as an expressive character unique to the Korean peninsula. P''ansori-the reenactment of national epics in virtuosic terms-infuses Korea''s vocal tradition, as was demonstrated by Sook-Kyung Hwang, and is echoed in the instrumental legacy of the royal courtly heritage.
But CMEK''s quest is different, seeking instead to build up a repertoire of new works by composers interested in exploiting and integrating Korea''s traditional music with 21st-century creative vision, not to mention the past century''s Occidental influences. To that end, CMEK''s concert at UC Santa Cruz last Sunday made a defining statement. Not only did it bring together western and Korean instruments, but it featured new works by composers from both cultures. These included two originals by Hyo-Shin Na-a contemplative one using Korean zither and wind chimes with western cello and contrabass, the other a dramatic piece for Korean zither, transverse flute and mouth organ. (In the latter, zither player Ji Young Yi--who gives CMEK its artistic leadership and vision-strummed violently over the silk strings of her instrument.)
The concert was produced by New Music Works, whose music director, Philip Collins, hastily wrote Harvest Moon Rain for Korean instruments. The work occasionally echoed the example of Lou Harrison, one of Collins'' mentors, who not only attended the performance but heard his own arrangement of traditional Korean civil and military homages to Confucius.
Yuji Takahashi''s aphoristic Kayageum Nado Asobi combined Korean and western instruments (and voice) in a spatial piece deployed all around the Music Recital Hall. Eight musicians, including Michael McGushin at piano, concluded the evening with Bonu Koo''s Canti de bocca chiusa e melisma, which featured the humming and vocalizing of Hwang. Audience response gained increasing focus as this exotic, often fragmented, whispering and pulseless music worked its unique charms.
CMEK''s appearances in Monterey (and at Marina del Mar School in Marina) represented an extraordinary network of arts-supporting teachers and agencies, not least the Cultural Council for Monterey County and Rebecca Hicks, unquenchable arts advocate and administrator of the magnet Arts Academy at Monterey High.