Korean Aesthetics in World Fusion Music

Written by on August 15, 2011 in Arts, Korea Abroad

* This post is written by Chloe Hwang, one of the Korean Cultural Service in New York’s Cultural Reporters.

Park Avenue and East 57th Street — The stage just appeared to be another ground for free-style, jazzy performances with typical Western instruments and their exotic chord progressions. Offstage, however, was all about Eastern flairs and Asian-inspired decorations: the entrance door covered with hanji, ink and washing painting (sumukhwa) frames, ceramics for tea ceremonies, you name it.

This exotic dichotomy was presented at Gallery Korea of the Korean Cultural Services New York (KCSNY) on June 8th. Titled as <Happy Haegeum of Jeung Lim Kim>, the concert was a gathering of prominent performers of various instruments and backgrounds. Not only the performers, but also the audiences were extremely diverse, almost offering one-to-one ratio of Koreans and non-Koreans, children and adults. By the time the concert began, Gallery Korea was fully occupied to the extent that some people were sitting on the floor to appreciate the following performances.

Jeung Lim Kim (Left) and Jin Wook Hong (Right) playing ‘Haegeum Sanjo’

Jeung Lim Kim (Left) and Jin Wook Hong (Right) playing ‘Haegeum Sanjo’

On top of the diverse atmosphere, a mélange of haegeum, janggo, piano, cello, bass, and drum created contemporary, yet ethnic and harmonious sounds. To briefly recall, the first two performances were only by haegeum and janggo, presenting a classic scent of Korean traditional music. Followed by ‘Haegeum Sanjo’ and ‘Jomyung-gok (Bird’s Song),’ a total number of six contemporary pieces by Jingoo Lee were performed in the fusion style. Although a haegeum is smaller in size, range, and volume compared to a violin, it perfectly fitted famous pieces, such as ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ and ‘New Black Cat Nero.’ Furthermore, deep tones of cello and bass had no discordance mixing and matching with high-tone haegeum sounds and rhythmic drum beats. It was also refreshing to notice the genre transition along with Jeung Lim Kim’s change of clothes from hanbok to cocktail dress.

Jingoo Lee (Left) and Jeung Lim Kim (Right) singing 'My Love Arirang' together

Jingoo Lee (Left) and Jeung Lim Kim (Right) singing ‘My Love Arirang’ together

“Not only the instruments, but also Jeung Lim’s voice were incredibly beautiful,” an audience acclaimed after the concert. “I’ve been a great fan of Jeung Lim Kim. My favorite used to be ‘New Black Cat Nero,’ but I would say today’s highlight was ‘My Love Arirang’ when Jeung Lim and Jingoo sang together while playing haegeum and piano.”

Indeed, arirang was the most loved of all. When the concert was all finished, people cheered and screamed, “Anchor!” and requested for  a repeated performance of it. What made it unique was the traditional arirang melody and p’ansori-like vocal being played and overlapping, respectively, with the piano.

‘Happy Haegeum’ demonstrated Asian forms of music fusing with Western instrumentals and rhythms to engender a third form of musical aesthetics. It was, overall, an inspiring experience to feel the American, jazzy groove and Korean concept of heung (흥; excitement and fun with one’s loss of inhibitions) at the same moment. It certainly presented the true beauty of the blend and charm of the fusion, leading audiences one step closer to ‘happier’ New York.
Interview with Jeung Lim Kim After <Happy Haegeum> at Gallery Korea

Jeung Lim Kim with haegeum, a traditional Korean string instrument with a rod-like neck, hollow wooden soundbox, and two silk strings (From KCSNY)

Jeung Lim Kim with haegeum, a traditional Korean string instrument with a rod-like neck, hollow wooden soundbox, and two silk strings (From KCSNY)

Q. When did you start playing haegeum?
First year in high school. Before that, I used to dance and major in Korean traditional choreography. But with a short height, I had a physical disadvantage over others to continue. It also costed too much money. (Laughs)

Q. How did you end up performing at New York City?
Honestly, it is really hard to have a solo recital in Korea and seemed even harder in the United States. I would like to give special thanks to Jingoo Lee, who composed and arranged most of the music for tonight’s performances. He has been studying music in New York for four years and had requested me to perform his pieces with haegeum. He inquired the Korean Cultural Services New York, got it approved, and invited me to be here today.

Q. What is the meaning of ‘Happy Haegeum?’
When I had a recital back in 2008 at Seoul, South Korea, a Korean classical music critic named Jung-kang Yoon gave me the title. According to him, I have this vivacious aura of happiness and look happier when playing haegeum. So I began using ‘Happy Haegeum’ as the main title and changing around the subheading for each recital: ‘Jeung Lim Kim’s Heung,’ ‘Jeung Lim Kim’s Companions,’ etc. Basically it means, ‘You become happy when you meet Jeung Lim Kim!’

Q. Performances in Korea vs. Abroad: How are the reactions different?
We do a lot of performances abroad. Most of the time, we perform ‘traditional’ pieces, and today’s recital at the KCSNY was my first attempt to do fusion. In foreign countries, the reactions are always beyond our imaginations; we often receive favorable responses and long standing ovations. In Korea, however, we do not receive that much of attention. It is heartbreaking, yet true.

Q. What are some advantages and disadvantages of Korean traditional instruments when collaborating with Western ones?
There are a lot of disadvantages and hardships. It is due to the fact that Korean traditional instruments, especially haegeum, do not have a precise pitch like Western instruments. It is not about pressing the right key, but about controlling the level or intensity of pressing. The pitch of haegeum depends on the fingertips and it is usual to have uneven pitches throughout. You need lots of practice in order to convey the Western compositions effectively and to match other instruments harmoniously. Practices after practices, you will eventually learn to play the right pitch by instinct. However, the big advantage is that there is something more about Korean traditional instruments than pitches.

Q. What is your favorite piece among those you performed at tonight’s concert?
‘New Black Cat Nero,’ the last performance of the night. It is one of the pieces arranged by Jingoo Lee, which is also in my album (2007). Well, when I was playing another haegeum piece, my son said it sounds similar to ‘Black Cat Nero,’ so I thought it would be interesting to rearrange the song for real. I wanted it in the bossa nova style and asked Jingoo Lee for rearrangement. The final product, ‘New Black Cat Nero’ is extremely fun to listen. People seem to enjoy the most when I make a cat sound using haegeum. They are often stunned to find out about the variety of sounds haegeum can make: dogs barking, cats meowing, birds tweeting, horses whinnying, and so on. It is an instrument commonly used to make sound effects.

Q. What is your plan for the future? Do you have any upcoming performances?
I came to New York for today’s concert. I currently have no further plan to perform in New York, but will be touring around the United States – Niagara Falls, Washington D.C., and so forth. Then, I will go back to Korea and prepare for my solo recital, <Happy Haegeum: Jeung Lim Kim’s Chunhyang>, which will be held near the end of August in Seoul.

Q. What are your thoughts about the rise of Korean fusion groups? How is this change affecting you as a haegeum soloist?
The rise of Korean fusion groups happened long ago, but I guess they are getting more spotlights and attention from the public these days. I love how young and bright performers try to approach the Korean traditional music from different angles. I am up for the change since musicians always learn, develop, and evolve by trial and error. We, as traditional musicians, also learn to appreciate our traditions more as changes are applied. If I were younger, I would have been more actively engaged in fusion music, because people in Korea love it more than traditional ones.

Q. Any comment about Korean traditional instrument soloists and groups being invited to perform around the world?
More performers of Korean traditional instruments should be invited by more institutions. And once a performer is invited to perform at a foreign place, his/her self-respect and responsibility should be intensified, so that they can offer performances of the finest qualities.

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About the Author

Starting in May 2011, we have been the first class of the Korean Cultural Service New York’s cultural reporters to help promote the uniqueness of Korean culture to New York City -- the world’s cultural hub. As cultural reporters in New York City, we first take on challenges and initiatives to report about dynamic Korean culture to the metropolitan area, but we project that we will eventually reach beyond just New Yorkers to raise awareness about Korean culture to the world.