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[whitespace] New Music for Old Traditions

At New Music Works the Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea wedded old instruments to modern compositions

By Scott MacClelland

WHILE THE WORLD is full of oral-tradition music, much of it has gotten lost in the inexorable crush of commercial pop. In almost any city in the world, one will encounter a disco or rock band playing the local equivalent of latter-day American or British pop music. And who consumes that music, often to the exclusion of any other kind? Young people.

Is it any wonder that oral-tradition music has found itself an endangered species everywhere? With that as a backdrop, Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea, a quartet of disciplined young musicians, has dedicated itself to preserving and even expanding the ancient values of Korean courtly and folkloric music, the classical music of a highly cultured and refined tradition.

The ensemble's visionary leader, zither player Ji Young Yi, has taken the notion that revitalizing this venerable art means encouraging contemporary composers to write new music for these distinctive instruments, their unique timbres and colors, and their time-burnished modalities and procedures. She and her colleagues enjoyed a warm welcome by the hosting New Music Works and an audience whose enthusiasm only grew during a Sunday night performance at UC-Santa Cruz' Recital Hall.

For the event, New Music Works music director Phil Collins hastily composed Harvest Moon Rain for Korean zither, transverse flute, drum and percussion. Collins' piece changed tempos and textures, and seemed to take subtle cues from Lou Harrison, whose 1961 arrangements of stately Korean military and civil homages to Confucius opened the program. With a confident hand, Collins added his own rhythmic propulsions, lending a Western flavor that wore perfectly well.

In his own piece, Harrison used the bowed zither, reed pipe (bamboo oboe), drums, pipe bells, two intoning voices and the percussively articulate wood slats.

Composer Hyo-shin Na got the lion's share of the evening with two large-scale works, Blue Yellow River for zither, Western cello and contrabass and wind chimes, and Chung Ji-Hyang for Korean instruments only. The former, slow and circumspect, gave primary focus to the plucked silk strings of the zither, whose tones gained added expression as Ji Young Yi bent the notes with the pressure of her fingers and later massaged the strings for a ghostly effect. The Western strings, especially the cello, were sent to the extremes of their compass.

The second piece was fiercely dramatic, the zither being strummed violently while the flute sang with widely expressive vibrato and the mouth organ groaned a uniquely sweet dissonance.

Yuji Takahashi's Kayageum Nado Asobi deployed a large complement of Korean instruments, violin, cello, contrabass, clarinet and voice spatially around the room. But for all its ensemble potential, the composer opted for aphoristic utterances, mostly at pianissimo.

Bonu Koo's Canti di bocca chiusa e melisma used an ensemble of eight, including a piano, but focused (as the title makes clear) on the vocalisms of Sook-kyung Hwang. The latter piece, which closed the program, required Collins to conduct.

Traditionally, Korean music sought to imitate the sounds of nature; insects, birds, water, etc. This was demonstrated last Thursday in programs given by CMEK at public schools in Monterey and Marina. Ji-eun Jhon of Scotts Valley, who coordinated all of CMEK's activities in the Monterey Bay region, joined the ensemble as translator for those appearances.

Save for the Harrison piece, all the other works on Sunday's program were composed within the last two years. The success of this concert should provide inspiration for practitioners of classical traditional music of other non-Western cultures. And where better to find such fertile soil than in Santa Cruz?

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From the February 7-14, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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