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Jin Hi Kim

Jin Hi Kim introduced the komungo, an ancient Korean bass zither originating from the 4th century with silk strings (plucked with a bamboo stick) to a wider public. Jin Hi Kim first studied in South Korea as one of the few accepted students at the national high school for Korean traditional music where she studied court and folk styles of singing, drumming, and bamboo flutes (both vertical and transverse), and selected the komungo as her major instrument. Then she studied further with National Living Treasures from The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul, as well as with Korea's leading ethnomusicologists, receiving a Phd in Korean traditional music from Seoul National University in 1980. Then she moved to the US where she studied at the Conservatory of Music in San Fransisco for one year, the San Francisco Music and Art Institute for another year, then transferred to Mills College in Oakland, California, where she studied for two years and received an MFA in electronic music and composition in 1985.

She has made some orchestral chamber pieces, some multi-media pieces and improvisational pieces, with avant-jazz musicians and worked with ethnical crossover ideas of improvisation with diverse other exotic instruments. I preferred to start with this work because it also showed her classical background, and showed more or less some possibilities of that classical core, especially on the first track. The other pieces reveal the deeper understanding of possibilities how to combine Korean traditional music with certain Western contemporary ideas on tone and melody.

What has been said about what is ‘Living Tones’ :

“A philosophy of music and the compositional concept that she developed over the past twenty years called "Living Tones." "living tones" (sigimse in Korean word), is an essentially Korean concept of music, with which Jin Hi Kim makes manifest the foundation of her compositional path. Kim explains that "the conceptual basis for living tones, which is the essential element in Korean traditional music, is that each tone is alive, embodying its own individual shape, sound, texture, vibrato, glissando, expressive nuances, and dynamics. "Living tones" can take on a dramatic weight that makes music rich." Essential to the concept of living tones is that "the precise timbral persona of each tone generated is treated with an abiding respect as its philosophical mandate."

"Kim began her study of traditional Korean music at the age of 13, and she believes there is now a convergence in different eras and that the centuries-old Korean court music philosophy, based on cosmic principles, and Western concepts, such as atomic theory, fractal geometry and chaos aesthetics, co-exist in living tones. Korean court music is often structured in hetero-phonic orchestration, irregular and organic phrases and microtonal shadings. In the fractal world, the shape of triangles, squares or lines is not important, just as the scale, pitch and melody are not so important in the living tones concept. Fractal geometry focuses on broken, crinkled, wrinkled and uneven shapes (living tones). The microscopic structure of self-similarity (infinite variety) and the haphazard of group (organic phrases) are the essence of being. Kim aims to fuse the old Korean and the new Western concepts in her compositions.”

The first piece, “Nong Rock” (nong refers to sculpting tones, rock the outcome of them) is performed with the Sirius String quartet, was originally commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, with Mary Rowell and Laura Seaton on violin, Mary Rowell on viola and Mary Wooten on cello. The challenge that was taken was to combine the western twelve-tone system with the pentatonic scale in between. With a Korean melody, smooth rhythms and interval that stabilize between two worlds, new harmonies are found of this stabilisation point in orchestrated and tonal harmony form. Then new accents are added with the komungo leading, and the String quartet responding with orchestrated grandeur.

The second piece, “Tchong” (=timbre) for daegum, a Korean transverse bamboo flute with bamboo paper membranes, and different flutes by Robert Dick, interacting in an improvisational, somewhat free way. It shows colourful changes and pitches of the flute playing. There’s awareness of duets with dialogues showing tonal differences and harmonies but there are also melodic improvisations.

On “Yoeum” we hear the well-known Korean court-music style by kagok singer Whan Kyu-Nam combined with baritone improvisations and overlapping repetitions in western-operatic style by Thomas Buckner for the western part. The title refers to microscopical textures, while improvising on meeting syllables and vowels with its own time signatures and vocal style variations.

The last piece, “Piri Quartet” is writen for three piri, the 1500 year old Korean oboe, played by three South-Korean players, combined with the western oboe and English horn played by Joseph Celli. It was inspired after hearing the first of three piri virtuosi Chung Jae-Guk playing. The two other players were Park Jong-Sol and Yang Myung-Sok. It is weird but nice to listen to too which has short moments reminding me of a kazoo concert, but goes to lots of directions with indeed a feeling living tones with dialectic and harmonic improvisation and interactive composition, some surprising sounds combined with logival harmonic combinations.

On “Sound Universe” four sorts of compositions can be experienced.

“Unknot (2003) is a beautiful to listen to excerpt of an improvisation on the electric komungo with some wah-wah and echo-repeating effects and some rhythmic parts on drums by Gerry Hemingway. I saw some other demonstrations on this electric instrument. The effect can be psychedelic and the results are always rewarding. “Dong Dong Dari” is another excerpt from a larger, rewarding piece with a theatrical context. The kagok singing with partly live electronic processing on it is beautiful to experience. This is followed by a second excerpt with a theatrical association (1997) with a simple rhythmic group improvisation and a bit of background singing, like an unpretentious group performance for direct experience.

The next two pieces can be categorised in the idea how to combine different worlds and world instruments not to a fusion or crossover experience, but resulting in an enhanced improvisational are, what is called a “no world-improvisation”. “Garden Of Venus” is a strange combination and experience intermingling a Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian approach. It is played by janggo, komungo, pipa, Japanese yokobue, Indonesian gender, sling and voice. In other words, there is a first part with two koto-like instruments and flute followed by gamelan-like instruments and singing with komungo touches, then an improvisation with a more Japanese nature, then some odd combinations or harmonies in the singing, with use of some gamelan-alike instruments. Jin Hi Kim played komungo and janggo, Min Xiao-Fen played Chinese pipa, Michiko Akao played the Japanese yokobue and I Ketut Suryatini played Indonesian gender, sling and voice.

The “no world improvisations” has a really weird voice of whistle instrument nature, which I don’t know from which instrument it comes from. Again Jin Hi Kim played the komungo, Mor Thiam played Sengalese djembe, Adam Plack played didgeridoo, Joseph Celli double reed and mukhaveena.

The last piece is a free improvisation between certain instruments. It is improvised music but where each instrument also has a certain voice or nature. You can hear accordion by Rudiger Carl, daxophone by Hans Reichel and once more komungo by Jin Hi Kim.

This album focuses mainly on the komungo improvisations. Most of them are acoustic improvisations. But there are also included a few fragments of performances with the electric komungo. Electric in this case does not mean electrified but means in fact with live electronic processing, often some reverb and after-effects or altering effects in the reverb parts mostly. One of the excerpts is with a Tuvan throat singer, another one with a Korean kagok singer.

This improvisational album with other artists has a challenge element which makes it either a slightly difficult starter with some open structures from within with something of an improvisational adventure which has free music elements, where each western artist still has his own sonic pallet limited within the range of what his instrument(s) can provide. Jin Hi Kim adapts herself pretty well to that while keeping with her an expanded tradition, which sounds grounded structurally and still has the freedoms the others have. The most challenging things happen with Elliott Sharp (sax/double-neck guitar bass), where Jin Hi Kim plays acoustic and electric komungo. After two more improvisations we hear a komungo solo which in the context of this album seems to adapt rock and blues elements, but perhaps I am conditioned with my hearing in this case. This fits well with the blues influences on Eugene Chadbourne’s banjo contributions on the next track. Other guitarists with whom Jin Hi Kim improvised were Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser (-strange sonic pallet ?-), Hans Reichel and David First, mostly on electric guitar. The tracks were taken from different live performances recorded around the same year.

On this album some duets with “world music” artists were tried out. First we have an improvisation with Adam Plack on didgeridoo, where the komungo plays a rhythm suitable for and within the range of the didgeridoo improvisation. It is not too complicated, but neither are the possibilities of the beautiful breathy drones and rhythmic intervals of the breathing processes of the digeridoo. The second track is first led by Indian sitar played by Rahul Sariputura in Indian raga style. Here Jin Hi Kim beautifully takes over the role of some parts of the tabla or some of the bass strings, then contributes her own role like within a duet frame, like two players directing with the same speed in the same direction, with their own rhythmically transposed intersections. Here she succeeds to play in Indian style with its own flavour, within a close meeting point, which is an achievement. The third improvisation is a combination with a Japanese bass koto played by Hideaki Kuribayashi, followed by a track with an “African” percussion improvisation (by Mor Thiam).

This release is a cooperation or better meeting point between komungo player Jin Hi Kim and percussionist and improviser Gerry Hemingway. Most often, Jin Hi Kim leads the improvisations. Gerry Hemingway does not play like a jazz drummer, but like an (free jazz ? minded or perhaps) differently focused improviser, playing most often in the shadow or in the extension of the komungo leads, not adding a new character or vision of its own, only enriching a bit the strums and sounds of the komungo with accents, and this always within the frames of sounds, and rhythm, never extending beyond this. This makes it so that one tends to listen again. The komungo itself more often is also extended by Jin Him Kim as well, playing it electrically with a few different pedal effects like wahwah. In one track Jin Hi Kim leaves Gerry Hemingway on the lead where she uses a similar approach to add accents, before returning to her own lead voice in the project. I wonder what would happen with more leading jazz vision, the komungo preparations alone are worth the setting as a musical vision.

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