Traditional Korean gayageum gets contemporary at London K-Music Festival 2016

Kyungso Park pushes the sound of the traditional Korean gayageum in a first time collaboration with saxophonist Andy Sheppard as part of the K-Music Festival 2016.

Musician Kyungso Park is a pioneer. Armed with a gayageum, a stringed instrument that lays flat like a zither on a tilted table, she transforms traditional sounds from her native South Korea into contemporary explorations. Listeners are invited for the evocative journey.

Last night they poured into the clean-lined Elgar Room, a modern hideaway that’s all moody white, classic red and black cast in purple light, tucked into the Victorian Royal Albert Hall. This duality makes it the perfect spot for showcasing the latest performance in the Late Night Jazz lineup and K-Music Festival in London, a collaboration between Park and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

It turns out the duet met just two days earlier.

“I’m really so happy to have a concert as part of K-Music Festival — and with Andy Sheppard!” an awestruck Park said. “When I got an email that I was to have a concert with Andy Sheppard, I thought, ‘Oh my God!’”

“It’s been a voyage of discovery for me. The saxophone is really quite a brutish lump of brass so I feel like I’m on eggshells,” Shepphard said, who had listened to Park’s delicate gayageum recordings before meeting, “But I hope this is the the beginning of a long relationship. You never know.”

It’s not the most intuitive pairing, but Park on gayageum and Shepphard on sax make for a deliciously smooth combination. It’s like coffee and ice cream or sea salt and caramel, a perfectly equal balance of two strong flavors.

And they happen to share a good dose of humor.

Alternating between compositions they’ve written or chosen, they opened with “Proximate Distance” from Park’s album “The Most Beautiful Connection,” followed by Shepphard’s “Libertino.”


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“[It’s] a hesitant composition of mine,” Sheppard said. “You blink and it’s over, but the improvisation could go on. For 15 minutes.”

It does go on — not for 15 minutes exactly, but as an extended, impassioned discussion of new ideas. The gayageum called and the tenor sax responded throughout the set, a charming rapport punctuated by giggles and smiles.

The duo eased into Park’s “The Distance at Which I Can Hear Your Breath,” accompanied by gayageum player Lim Ji-Hye.

“It’s so beautiful,” Park said of Sheppard’s addition of the soprano sax, taking delight in the revelation of new found sounds.


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Part of the joy from listening comes from the joy Park derives from playing. Eyes closed except to exchange glances with her collaborators, her eyebrow twinged, fingers pressed down against the strings and fluttering in a full-handed vibrato like a butterfly flapping its wings. The sound of the gayageum quivered clean as dewdrops cascading down spring leaves, the soprano sax the perfect counterweight, like stones tumbling in a clear stream.

Sheppard’s “We Shall Not Go to Market Today” is aptly named. A tune in no particular hurry, it again brought together all three voices as they traipsed along in what felt like a nod to wanderings of dusty roads, the sax and two gayageums deftly stepping in between and around each other but never on top of each other.

Showcasing a multitude of imaginative possibilities for the gayageum, “Rubin’s Vase,” a solo piece by Park, was a highlight. She offered an openness to interpretation, a gift to the audience.

“Differences can also be the same thing. So many thoughts on my music,” Park said. “So, yeah. ‘Rubin’s Vase.’”

가장 아름다운 관계 The Most Beautiful Connection by Kyungso Park

A lush legato landscape filled the room. Approaching silence on a diminuendo, it suddenly flooded into a resonant acoustic glory that felt like a baptismal bath. And then it ended, fading into a nothingness full of meaning.


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Moving across genres from her original compositions to Sheppard’s jazz and German and British folk tunes, there’s a path but not a defined destination in Park’s musical meanderings. But perhaps that’s the point. Park has started an expedition into the classical music of the gayageum that came before her, and has us eagerly following her, wherever she may go next.

For more Korean music, check out the K-Music Festival lineup through 25 October. Get tickets and learn more here.

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