Limits of Control

Thanks to a friend who provided free tickets, I spontaneously attended an interesting concert, just around the corner, at the Mapo Art Center (마포아트센터). Only when arriving, I found out that this was the 20th anniversary of 다스름, a chamber ensemble of twelve female musicians playing (almost) exclusively on traditional Korean instruments.

Tokyo, 2009 (via Munhwa Ilbo)

The name is a combination of the verb 다스리다 (to control, master) with 음 (sound). The ensemble can be considered a more fancy representative of changjak gugak (창작국악) or “newly created traditional music” and is internationally known as “Dasrum” (thanks to a rather strange method of romanization).

[Note: As taking pictures was prohibited and I could not find any on the web, I have to rely on various photos and videos from earlier events, which as a result may vary from my description. Source and location, if available are indicated in the captions.]

Dasrum: 20th Anniversary Memorial Performance (via Interpark, PlayDB)

The concert paid hommage to the history of Dasrum which, starting as a high school project in 1990, also included extended touring abroad. Apart from a slightly melancholic slide show that summarized this history and added some personal comments from the members, I listened to a wide variety of songs, including

  • the melancholic “Song of the Father” (아버지의 노래), performed by singer-songwriter GANG Ho-jung (강호중) on the guitar,
  • a collaboration with gagok-singer GANG Gwon-sun (강권순) who looked and sounded a bit like an opera-diva,
  • gugak-version of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa”, conducted by guest composer KIM Seong-gi (김성기) himself, complete with serious countenance and artist’s mane,
  • a Korean take on “El Condor Pasa” and other folklore from abroad,
  • and—most irritating!—a bunch of stepping eight-year-old girls (에쁜 아이들, “beautiful kids”) dressed in dark-blue school uniforms.
Mexico, March 2008

At the heart of this birthday party, however, were several premieres of new works by musical director YU Eun-seok (유은석) as well as some older compositions. While the trio 젖은 옷소매 (“Wet Sleeves”) introduced the characteristical sounds of the most common Korean instruments (gayageum, a plucked zither; haegeum, a violin-like filigraneous instrument with a “whining” sound; ajaeng, a zither scraped with a bow), other pieces employed the full-scale orchestra, creating a complex texture of various rhythms and tone colors.

Palace concert, Seoul, 2004 (via dasrum.com)

Layering various string (gayageum, haegeum, ajaeng) and woodwind instruments (daegeumsogeum, transverse bamboo flutes of different size) with the more-or-less steady beat of a janggu (hourglass-shaped drum), the accordion-like sounds bubbling out of a saenghwa, and occasional metallic blasts from a piri, some fascinating new sounds emerged. For example, when the vibrant sound of the haegeum met a likewise (but differently) pulsating sound of a daegeum, I could literally hear the overlapping waves, just for a moment, then another sound appeared from somewhere, gaining in volume and making the momenteous epiphany fade into the background.

This sea of sound—slowly building up, caught between convergence and a tendency of drifting apart—reminded me slightly of the good old “now gimme a beat, then gimme a bass…”-style charts-techno, or, to put it more sophisticated, minimal music from the 60s (e.g. Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians).

Mapo Art Center, Seoul, 2009 (via OhmyNews)

While the number of musicians and the precision of their performance certainly made these moments especially worthwhile, I had experienced similar acoustic effects in other gugak concerts before (in a very repetitive, energizing way, for example, when listening to the seemingly endless sets of samulnori).

What caught my eyes here, however, was how the props and stage devices made gugak conventions interact with other musical traditions, namely those of classical concerts and pop music events.

Hanyang University, 2008 (via ohzara.com)

On the one hand, all musicians were dressed in colorful hanbok (한복, quite literally the “national dress”) while the musical director wore the same black dress coat that conductors all around  the world sport when rising their batons. Likewise, the ‘traditional’ instruments were presented in a decidedly “untraditional” manner, mounted on metal stands to provide a comfortable height for the musicians sitting on chairs.

On a side-note, this aspect of the concert might be reminiscent of historically informed performances of Early Music which, by attempting to revive different conceptions of music in a modern setting, also showcase the aspiration of ‘authenticity’ by contrasting period instruments with state-of-the-art equipment. In the case of Dasrum, however, historical authenticity was not the point. To me it seemed more like an attempt to prove the modernity of ‘tradition’ in as many ways as possible.

Cheongyang-gun, Chungcheongnam-do, 2009 (via lotteryarts.or.kr)

Because the flipside of the classical coin was the well-tuned lighting that regularly submerged the stage in different colors, making the ensemble appear out of the dark, into the blue. Furthermore, several times spheric sounds produced by a keyboard way back on the stage supported the acoustic instruments and added to the top-of-the-pops-feeling. While the uniform clothing mirrored—albeit in a more folkloric way—the dressing conventions on classical concerts stages, these ‘pop signatures’, as well as the young age of most of the performers and their presentation as kind of a musical family, linked them to the star-searched casts of contemporary Korean pop music.

Calling these well-trained instrumentalists the “Girls’ Generation of the gugak world“, with reference to the eponimous girl group, might be a bit over the top. Nevertheless, Dasrum certainly paddles in the backwash of the hallyu-phenomenon.

The entanglements become very explicit in 바람의 나라 (“Kingdom of the Wind”), a piece for large orchestra.

Kim Jin, Kingdom of the Winds, 1992– (via aladin.co.kr)According to the program notes, “Kingdom of the Wind” uses various jangdan (장단, rhythmic patterns featured in many forms of traditional Korean music) to re-interpret the soundtrack of the popular online game of the same name (some impressions). This piece regularly receives much applause, especially from young listeners.

Published by Nexon (넥슨) in 1996, the multiplayer role-playing game transforms Korean mythology—mostly drawing from the Three Kingdom Era—into a explorable cartoon world and is itself based on the eponimous manwha-series by KIM Jin (김진) that, besides the game, spawned both a musical and a TV drama.

Kingdom of the Winds, KBS, 2008–2009 (via daum.net)

In her insightful essay “Image is Everything: Re-Imagining Traditional Music in the Era of the Korean Wave“, Hilary V. Finchum-Sung (Seoul National Univ.) suggests that “hallyu imagery is currently driving the ways in which traditional Korean music is designed, produced, and presented.” My observations at the 20th anniversary of Dasrum certainly support this thesis.

In addition to the “hallyu effect” (Finchum-Sung), however, the application of more classical conventions played an equally important role in presenting gugak as “something potentially more accessible and, thus, more marketable, to both local and global audiences” or, in other words: something for everyone. Dasrum seems to stretch this strategy by turning into a bit of everything.

Moscow, May 2010

Poster for a South America tour, 2009 (via dasrum.com)

The program notes include an astonishing collage of photos and posters refering to the numerous oversea performances, from South America to Singapore, often highlighting the collaborations and educational activities by Dasrum with musicians of the host country. The self-description as a “Woman’s Korean Music Classical Music Band” (see the credits on the bottom of their homepage) stresses this caleidoscopic identity of Dasrum even more.

Both torchbearers of gugak and part-time pop act, mixing in a bit of easy listening with a touch of world music, these musicians are also ambassadors of traditional Korea to the world, bridgebuilders between national musical traditions—and a small wheel in a global marketing machine.

— 26 Sept. 2010 (日)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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