Tuesday 15 July 2014

City of London Festival: Korean fusion in LSO St Luke’s

Hyeon-Sik Shin from Ensemble Sinawi playing the ajaeng
Hyeon-Sik Shin from Ensemble Sinawi playing the ajaeng
Korean Fusion; Ensemble Sinawi; City of London Festival at LSO St. Luke's
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jul 8 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Traditional Korean sounds mixed with chamber, folk, and jazz to create an entirely new and individual fusion.

Ensemble Sinawi brought a taste of Korea to central London last night (Tuesday) at LSO St Luke's as part of the City of London Festival. Ensemble Sinawi are interested in continuing the practice of traditional music, focussing on the improvisational and shamanistic sinawi and the story telling of pansori. But they are also aware of the fact that they are living now, in the 21st century, and are immersed in modern music. Traditional sounds are mixed with chamber, folk, and jazz to create an entirely new and individual fusion.

In the programme notes the stringed instruments were all called 'zither' - some of which were plucked with either or both hands (gayageum), others bowed (ajaeng). Yang-Hwa Kim who played the gayageum also sang, while, on ajaeng, Hyeon-Sik Shin's frequent vocal interjections seemed to also serve as indications to the musicians that they were going to move on to the next section.

Both types of zither have numerous bridges. They were sometimes played somewhat like a violin, with one hand stopping the string to form a note and the other plucking or bowing. Or the length of the string (and hence the note) could be altered by very deeply pushing the string down – this technique was also used to create a very wide vibrato. Additionally they could be played somewhat like a harp to self accompany.

The two ajaeng had completely different sounds – one sonorous, somewhat like a cello, the other guttural, bowed harshly so that the bow caught and screeched.

The Korean bamboo flute (daegeum) was played by Sung-Joon Lee, along with a short, vertical instrument with a rasping sound. Similarly to the zithers the flute was played with an active vibrato controlled by rocking it away from the mouth with the hands. The metal stringed dulcimer (yanggeum) with its bright percussive sound was played by Song-Hee Jeong, who also played piano.

There were two percussion players (Ho-Se Yoon and an unnamed performer) with numerous traditional and modern chimes, drums, cymbals and a shaker-type instrument that produced a sound like wind rushing through leaves.

The first piece played was called 'Improvisation' and as such embraced the sinawi tradition. The music was much less stylised than I imagined - the effect to my ears was very similar to jazz. The format of the music was also jazz-like in that every performer got a chance to perform a solo. The second song 'Cadenza for the soul' was described as being traditionally performed to purify a soul on its way to heaven – the last words sung translated as "leave in peace". It was described as a musical ritual for those facing crisis and in need of comfort.

The next song 'Eclipse' had a simpler construction, and was designed to help the listener discover what shadows they have hidden inside them. This was followed by a very long improvisation described as the 'original version of sinawi'. Another song was paired with some traditional dancing by one of the percussionists in a flower hat, to remind us that there were "friendship[s] in the dark", where the flower represented the soul.

During and after the Korean War 'Bu-yong mountain', a poem written by Park Gi Dong in 1948 to remember the death of his sister, has become a symbol to commemorate all lost friends and family. The performance of this song by Ensemble Sinawi was so evocative that it could have been the accompaniment to a film. The final brighter and light-hearted piece was a tale of a rabbit, the King Dragon and his servant the turtle. In the story the king is sick and, having been told that he can be cured by the liver of a rabbit, sends the turtle to get the liver - all the participants have to deceive each other in order to survive.

I felt privileged to have seen this group perform here in London and to have had a glimpse into Korean culture. Ensemble Sinawi continue to perform internationally and have two albums: 'Cadenza for Soul' and 'Into the Time'.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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