Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fusion (and Chuseok)

September 22nd, 2010 추석 Chuseok, the Korean Autumn Harvest Holiday

Well, as foreigners without a particularly close family in town we didn’t do anything particularly for the holiday, however we did venture out for several hours of observation of various performances and events. There were far fewer than the internet led me to expect and each place I’d looked up in advance had less going on, presumably in all cases because yesterday’s rain had caused plans to change, but it was still a very happening day outside, lots of small events and concert stages. None of the places we went to, ironically, had the traditional events I wanted to see, partially because I saved the best event (being held two days in a row) for tomorrow. We started at City Hall, spent quite some time in 덕수궁 Deoksu Palace, then proceeded to 천계천 Cheongyae Stream, hit a bit of 대학로 Daehangno, then looped around and came back to 세종문화회관 Sejong Culture and Art Center which was hosting a performance by Sukmyeong Gayageum Ensemble. That meant that not most but ALL the performances we’d hit during the day fully qualified as fusion.

The funniest menu item I've seen in a long time and the view down the stream.

Photos of Deoksu Palace and Karjam. The one B/W should teach him to stop goofing around when I want to take a photo of him!

Photo of one of the Sukmyeong performers.

I am torn on the subject of fusion. The other day when I went to Prof. Hilary Finchum-Sung’s class one of the cool things she said was that the violin had developed over centuries to be ideally suited to playing Western classical music, like Mozart, and that likewise the Korean instruments, regardless of roots in China (in most cases) had evolved to fit the ideal Korean aesthetic. So when you try to play “Moonriver” on the 해금 haegeum it’s sort of laughable at best. I call that sort of thing a gimmick. It’s the same with photography, people will develop a very unusual process that creates an unexpected result and then go with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good photo. It’s unexpected to hear the Beatles on 가야금 gayageum, but that doesn’t mean that it really sounds good. Honestly it sounds like muzack. Elevator music. Maybe you’d want to listen to the end the first time, but after that would you want to hear it again, really? The Beatles being one of the main sources of the Sukmyeong group’s adaptations (they play very few Korean traditional pieces and even when they do, since they all use 25nylon string (modernized from the classical 12 silk string) gayageum, it still won’t sound fully traditional. In other words I find Western music played on Korean instruments at least a waste of talent, and often just annoying. However some groups that combine Western and Korean instruments and play pieces of music that are a bit between the two traditions can produce exciting results that may cause people to reconnect with traditions/traditional music/ traditional instruments and can give young performers a chance to be creative and find excitement in a musical genre bound by tradition and chock-full of canonical pieces which though often (산조 sanjo) originally as welcoming to improvisation as jazz are in practice increasingly rigid. During the day Karjam and I heard both interesting fusion and not interesting fusion.

One of my favorite performers is 장사익 Jang Sa’ik. The man has an amazing voice. (Or should I say had? He can’t sing with the power he could when I was first seeing him live.) Jang is traditionally trained and fully proficient in traditional music, and has chosen to create fusion ensembles to accompany adapted traditional, traditional and newly-composed songs. I can't complain about his fusion, he's just a master, and if it keeps him artistically engaged I'm all for it. But there are a lot of performers who don't master the traditional arts before they start messing around with fusion and I think that that is often off key (bad musical pun, sorry). [Another Jang Sa'ik fusion performance].

김덕수 Kim Deoksu, one of the most famous drummers in Korea, has had long-standing fusion relationships, including with the Jazz group Red Sun. It's funny to look back on it now, but the first Korean music CD I ever owned was Kim Deoksu Samulnori with Red Sun (actually it was given to my ex, but by my 합기도 Hapkido instructor, way back in 1996).

Fusion has been embraced by the government as the perfect ingredient in tourism ad campaigns, just look at this one for an example.

These days there are a lot of co-productions with B-boys (in case you didn't know, Korean B-boys win many international competitions, and Korea's becoming quite the hot location for B-boy and B-girl activities). [example 1] [example 2]

Some Koreanists have written on fusion music, including R Anderson Sutton who wrote a whole article on how the Haegeum is being utilized for a lot of fusion these days, whereas in the past the gayageum was more favored. I love Haegeum, but sometimes people try to repress its natural rasp when they play it in fusion, which to me begs the question "why use haegeum if you don't want it to sound like a haegeum?" [Haegeum fusion example 1][we heard a lot of music in this vein today][a third example][more haegeum fusion]

There are also a lot of younger traditional musicians who try to adapt K-pop hits for their instrument, I don’t know if this is being performed anywhere seriously, but so much of this is running around Youtube, I should acknowledge it. So are they screwing up by not concentrating on polishing the ‘real’ skills of their instrument or are they keeping themselves engaged and finding artistic inspiration? I really can’t judge this, but I need to follow up on this subject during my fieldwork. And I’d really like comments on this subject! [Go halfway through the video to hear the pop with the gayageum


  1. You write: "The other day when I went to Prof. Hilary Finchum-Sung’s class one of the cool things she said was that the violin had developed over centuries to be ideally suited to playing Western classical music, like Mozart."

    I think the professor may have it backwards. It may be more accurate to say that European art music since the later Baroque has evolved with the capabilities of the violin family in mind.

    You write: "It’s unexpected to hear the Beatles on gayageum"
    What is "unexpected" about it? The kayagŭm is a musical instrument. Beatles' songs are, at least to some, music.

    You write "Honestly it sounds like muzack. Elevator music."
    No it doesn't.

    I don't see why anything that can be played on the western psaltery or on the neo-Irish harp can't be played on a 25-string kayagŭm. The same music sounds a little different on each of these instruments, but not necessarily better or worse.

  2. Well it does sound like muzack to me. But everything is a matter of taste, right? These things can be played on multiple instruments, but it doesn't mean they sound good. Or do they sound good to you? Honest question, I'd like to know.

  3. I was once told that the essential characteristic of commercial background-music is that it is recorded or mixed in such a way as to eliminate almost all dynamic variation. I have never been able to verify this claim, but I remember from experience with the product of the Muzak corporation (in the name of which the letter "c" nowhere occurs) in the 1970s that it was hard to listen to more than a few bars at a time. Therefore anything that I can attend to from start to finish I experience very differently from how I experience background music. The six-kayagŭm arrangement of "Let it be" linked above is not the greatest arrangement that could be devised, but its defects are due to nothing inherent to the 25-string kayagŭm. The kayagŭm to me is just a specific instance of the "gay sautrye" (Chaucer's phrase, CT prolog and CT Miller's Tale), and therefore cannot be said to be inherently unsuited to having played on it anything that might be played on the psaltery or harp.

  4. thanks for the clarification and the spelling tip!