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.

 

 

Zhang Zhao’s Myths of China 


Rhymoi RMCD- 1067

The strikingly beautiful look of the physical CD and the packaging are practically an indictment of streaming and digital music formats.  Producer Ye Yunchuan is the founder of Rhymoi, an audiophile label dedicated to contemporary Chinese music.  If this release is any indication it would be wise to pay attention his work.  Besides the excellence of the physical product the quality of the recording will please the ears of the staunchest audiophile.

Zhang Zhao is apparently one of China’s best known living composers (at least in China) and said producer favors us with a truly grand release.  Some of Zhang’s piano works are standard test pieces for conservatory students and this recording reveals his unquestionable mastery of orchestral technique and a mastery of a variety of traditional Chinese instruments as well.  Though biographical specifics are sparse this composer has a growing discography and the present disc demonstrates a highly skilled compositional voice.

This ambitious project is essentially a tone poem or series of tone poems (think Smetana’s Ma Vlast) on stories from a collection of Chinese myths called the Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas) a large collection of stories dating from the 4th Century B.C.  I don’t know how well these stories are known in contemporary China but this is a vast and rich culture that has deservedly survived its own sociopolitical dynamics and continues to inspire new artistic endeavors from its rich legacies.  It is no wonder that the composer found inspiration here.

The composer has chosen 11 stories from the big 18 chapter work.  The setting is for large orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and at least 21 solo instruments which include both western classical and traditional Chinese instruments.  Such a large and diverse set of instruments poses a challenge by itself but the composer succeeds well due in part to having some of the country’s finest musicians whose mastery of these (to most western ears) obscure instruments is clear.  The orchestral musicians and choruses also demonstrate a high level of skill and commitment.  And the composer succeeds very well in integrating such diverse instruments quite comfortably into the larger mostly western classical fabric.  It is reminiscent of Tan Dun’s large Symphony which incorporated a set of ancient Chinese bells into its texture and similarly pays homage to great traditions.

The 11 sections are beautifully illustrated both by calligraphy and line drawings by Dong Xiaqingqing.   Thankfully there are lucid texts in English by Joshua Cheek and Nicholas Angiers describing the myths and giving some clues to some of the interpretive intentions of the composer’s musical choices.  These greatly enhance the enjoyment for those unfamiliar with this lovely mythology.

The sections are:

1. Pangu Separates Heaven and Earth

2. Yao and Shun Discuss Morality

3. Yu the Great Controls the Floods

4. Chang’ e Flies to the Moon

5. The War on Chiyou

6. The Tears of Xianfei

7. Nuwa Repairs the Sky

8. The Peach Banquet

9. Kuafu Chases the Sun

10. The Goddess of the Luo River

11. Fuxi-Ultumate Harmony

Soloists include:

Qin: Zhao Jiazhen

Erhu: Wang Ying

Guzheng: Chang Jing/Ding Xueer

Pipa: Yu Yuanchun/Dong Xiaolin/Sun Jing

Chinese Harp: Wu Lin

Di/Xiao/Xun: Ding Xiaokui/Li Yue

Ruan: Di Lin/Zhao Yue

Suona: Wang Rongfei/Yao Di/Shang Shuai

Liuquin: Di Yang/Pan Yuechen

Yangquin: Wang YuJue

Hansheng: Shan Chunshen

Lusheng: Yang Shengwen

Khoomei: Li Wenbin

Morin Khuur: Hasibagen

Violin: Zhao Kunyu

Cello: Yang Changying

Brass: Qin Guochen/Zhao Xiu/Jia Hui/Mi Qi

Woodwinds: Cao Lei/Yang Yilin/Xie Hongliang/Ren Biao

Harp: Zhang Xiaoyin

Percussion: Zhang Yangsheng/Tian Wei

Piano: Zhang Zhao

Music Assistant: Li Yongmin

This writer has but a passing familiarity with a few of these traditional instruments but the sonic colors are used to great and sometimes subtle effect.  It is a huge sonic tapestry and the  lush and full sound are the result of the skills of sound engineer Zhang Xiao’an.

It is important to note that this disc does not have an experimental feel but rather utilizes a range of compositional devices whose end result leans toward an easily digestible experience which successfully avoids bland populism while creating a lucid musical experience.  It is music that would doubtless be welcomed in most orchestral programs and contains great depths of invention and descriptive power.  It is grand and perhaps cinematic in scope as are the best works in the tone poem genre.