Leegowoon’s First Piece: Korean Post-Modernism?


leegowoon

OGUN Music JEC- 0253

This review was completed by chance on International Women’s Day.  It is not intended to stand in for all that means but I am pleased to present this woman’s work today.

Lee Go Woon is a composer new to this reviewer.  My friend Joshua Cheek has been sending me occasional shipments of some really hard to find releases from the western edge of the Pacific Rim.  There are some amazing gems being released from Korea, China, Japan, etc. that rarely find distribution in the United States and this is one of those discs.

One thing these discs (classical or popular) seem to have in common is a serious attention to art work and album design.  It is enough to start people like me whining about the loss of the 12 x 12 format of the LP which brought about the genre of album art, something I can never stop lamenting I’m afraid.

Well, it’s not just pretty pictures though.  This is a curious disc by young Korean woman who is familiar with traditional Korean classical music and apparently with other genres as well.  Korean classical is less well known to the general public in America than its analogous counterparts in Japan, China, Thailand, India, etc. but it is a fascinating and ancient system of music with its own set of artfully designed instruments.

Cultural appropriation has become a strongly pejorative term these days but what happens if an artist is appropriating their own culture?  What I mean is, for example, the incorporation of traditional Hindustani instruments and idioms in the hybrid pop of Bollywood music or similar such mashups with Chinese or Japanese traditional musics.  These are creative options and, while not necessarily a cherished part of so called “high culture”, are nonetheless acceptable and marketable options.  It is a hybridization or perhaps something like “self appropriative” or simply promoting?

The incorporation of traditional music is akin to the work done by composers like Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Aaron Copland, and that whole late 19th and early 20th century fascination with folk and traditional music spurred on by late romantic nationalisms.  The present disc fits roughly in that tradition, just being done in the 21st century and it does not appear to be about nationalism either.

Lee Go Woon’s first piece is basically a song cycle written for voices (one male, one female) and an orchestra comprised of traditional Korean instruments.  It is not the synthesis of east and west that one finds in Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps (1967).  It is not really at all about the west at all.  And it is therein that the real interest lies.

The composer studied piano as a child and later she studied traditional percussion instruments.  She graduated from the Korea National University of Arts in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree and attained a Master’s Degree from the same school in 2016.  She received a Gold Medal in the 31st Korean Traditional Music Competition the same year.

Korea has, perhaps more than many countries, had their traditional culture undermined by military occupations, bombings, forced relocations, etc.  The fact that there have been 31 years of competitions attempting to recover some of their precious musical culture is certainly reason for hope and these first compositions by one of their finest new composers is a reason to listen.

Unfortunately the liner notes in that beautiful booklet are mostly in Korean and I haven’t been able to find someone to impose upon for a translation.  But I can tell you that the album has 5 tracks and that the music is quite listenable.  It would be helpful to know the text of the sung portions but the music speaks pretty well for itself.  The recording is lucid and there is quite a bit of definition to bring out the subtleties of the instruments and the performances are wonderful.

Happily this music can be heard via MP3 downloads on Amazon as well as via various streaming services.  Hopefully there will be more to hear as Korea moves on and recovers more of its rich culture and shares it with the world.

 

 

In the Mood for Shakuhachi, Man?


Last night I had the pleasure of attending another in the great occasional series of house concerts produced by vegan chef extraordinaire, Philip Gelb. Phil wears many hats. He is a fine shakuhachi player and, by his own students’ testimony, a great teacher as well. He is without doubt a wonderfully creative chef catering vegan cuisine to the bay area and beyond. And over the last six years he has hosted an occasional series of concerts at his loft in West Oakland modeled in part on the Creative Music Studio that flourished in Woodstock, New York in the seventies and early eighties. In fact some of the musicians Phil has hosted are alumni of that fine collective. His business is called, ‘In the Mood for Food’.

The dinner which is frequently tailored to the artist’s preference was a Thai/Japanese fusion of some five delicious courses. And customarily the performance occurs followed by the dessert course.

The musician was a shakuhachi player and instrument maker named John Kaizan Neptune, an American expatriate living in Japan since the seventies. Neptune is a surfer and surf board maker who has turned his carpentry skills and musical talent on the creation and/or modification of musical instruments after his interest in eastern philosophy drew him to Japan where he continues to live and perform.

Having heard traditional shakuhachi I was somewhat unprepared for the kaleidoscope of sounds and styles of music which followed our entree. Neptune, dressed in a head scarf and and Japanese style short vest jacket and blue jeans, looked the role of the American surfer/musician he describes himself to be. He had three shakuhachi of different lengths and he described some basic facts about the instruments in a most pleasant manner demonstrating his love and depth of knowledge of his medium.

He varied his program with a mix of traditional pieces and a sampling of some jazz/improvisational work which opened our ears to some amazing possibilities for this ancient instrument. He spoke casually of scales and playing techniques demonstrating by playing. At one point he displayed his skill by playing the opening of the Mozart G minor symphony quite in tune on an instrument designed to play a five tone scale. And if any of this sounds at all pedantic it is the fault of my writing, not the artist’s presentation. He was engaging in the manner of a skillful teacher able to meet his students’ needs at their level, neither condescending, nor opaque.

Neptune’s knowledge and respect for traditional Japanese music was evident but his own creative, dare I say American sensibility, has not been lost or subsumed. He performed music that paid homage to the traditions of its origin and kicked out some soulful jazz and blues jams that would do any ensemble proud. The effect was mind expanding and joyful evidenced by a very appreciative audience.

In addition to shakuhachi we were treated to an instrument of Neptune’s own creation, a two headed drum made entirely of bamboo. As in his shakuhachi playing there was a synthesis reflecting and integrating various cultural/musical influences into a new and worthy product embodying the influences of its ancestors as a child embodies the genetic heritage of its parents.

This drum produces four distinct sounds and was played strapped to the performer’s waist. And it could conceivably have great utility in a variety of musical settings. Mr. Neptune again demonstrated his swinging musical sensibilities in playing his new creation. It’s sounds evoked a variety of ethnomusical sounds ranging from South Asian and African to Latin and American. and he will soon be selling this instrument along with traditional and custom shakuhachi.

Following this good humored and spirited performance followed a great dessert and the almost obligatory selling of CDs which the audience, this writer included, consumed nearly as voraciously as the dessert. Many in the audience were Phil’s shakuhachi students and were freely invited to try Mr. Neptune’s instruments which they did with little hesitation.

House concerts generally convey a far greater sense of intimacy and connection than larger more traditional concert settings. And this was even more evident here due the persona of the performer and the receptivity of the audience many of whom were regular attendees at these events.

I happened to have brought a couple of guests to this event and the energy seemed to grab them as much as it did those more familiar with this series. It was a great evening in a great ongoing series at “In the Mood for Food’, a very special place on the east bay.