Went to a concert last weekend. It was a show at which Kang Tae Hwan and Park Chang-soo performed.
“How did you know about him?” my girlfriend asked me, after the show. I had to be honest and admit that I have no idea how I first learned of Kang, but I know that anyone who’s searching for local free jazz in Korea is finally going to encounter his name. His name, but not his CDs. They’re very hard to find (more about that later).
Kang’s approach to the saxophone reminds me of nobody else, really. Imagine taking the amount of control of an Anthony Braxton, the techniques required of the more “out” French classical saxophone composers’ works, and the weirdness of Ryo Noda’s work, and then give them to one saxophonist. Then get that saxophonist to sit down on the floor, crosslegged, and have him play mostly without moving his fingers, by manipulating his embouchre and throat to get all kinds of sounds out of the instrument: multiphonics, overtones, bent and sliding notes that pretty much ignore the idea of tonality altogether. Oh, and give him a frightening amount of skill in the technique of circular breathing.
That’s what you get with Kang Tae Hwan, at least that’s what I got at his show. It’s not really so much like saxophone as it is like a whole different instrument, one more suited to a temple or a psychedelic house of meditation and medication. Endless wobbling lines of sound, with other tones sliding into and out of existence. It’s as far from what most people think of as jazz as ghost-worship is from Catholicism. In some ways, the manipulation of “sound” and timbre and the very rough approach to voice, tonality, and melody seemed to me like a more effective adaptation of pansori to saxophone than the one I myself have for years been envisioning.
So for me, seeing Kang live was something of a revelation. But it was not the only one of the night, for the venue at which he played was also startlingly unusual, and to my mind somewhat cool.
I don’t know how or where I came across the House Concert website, but only that at some point a few weeks ago, I ended up noticing that Kang Tae Hwan would be playing there soon. The venue is, well, as it sounds, it’s this guy’s house, just a regular — though very nice — house in Seoul’s posh Yeon Hui district. You pay twenty bucks at the door, and then go upstairs, where you find a largish room with proper lighting and a grand piano offset by shelves full of books and DVDs.
The owner of the house isn’t immediately apparent when you arrive, but he’s basically this quiet, mild-mannered guy who says a few words before the performance. There’s something there about every two weeks or so, ranging from mind-blistering free noise-improvisation to straight classical music and even some pop-styled stuff. The show I saw started with some kind of visual art film — not really my kind of thing, but I didn’t mind since it was a cool, weird not-my-kind-of-thing display, a bunch of computer-designed images — followed by a long show involving Kang and the owner of the house, one Park Chang-soo, performed some really out-there music.
The audience was a very cool one, and I got a sense of familiarity and even community among them. Young and old gathered together — on one side of me was a granddad in hanbok who welcomed me to sit beside him so I could have a good view, and on the other side of me was a young man commiserating about out the bad view from the back. Lots more people were there, were attentive, and were listening than I imagined one could find in Seoul for a show of this kind. Meanwhile, during the video presentation, a woman and her kid were in the back, where the view was bad, playing, and an older guy joined in. It turned out the older guy was Kang himself, and I was blown away by that: playing with a kid — maybe a grandkid –just before going up and blowing his sax (and our minds).
Lime turned up late, and she noticed the same thing — how people seemed kind of cool and friendly and relaxed. When she came looking for a seat, someone smiled and her in greeting — a stranger, which sadly is in Seoul something worth comment. I think one thing that adds to the atmosphere is the fact that attendees sit on little floor mats on the floor. That makes it feel more like a gathering, a kind of free space in which to hang out and really listen, and less like a “concert”. And that’s a good thing.
As you can see if you visit the link above, the show ends with some wine and cheese. I’m from a place where wine-and-cheeses are a little hoity-toity, so to be honest, when I was living in Jeonju and people would have “wine-tastings” or wine-and-cheese nights, I was never much interested. I can always drink a good wine at home without having to go to what is, in the end, a foreigner-party, where I can listen to a bunch of foreigners who are so isolated from the place they live that sometimes I feel like I’m living in another country than they are. But of course, it was a little different at The House Concert, more like a kind of cute, imported lagniappe. The wine isn’t even that good — it’s Black Tower — which to me makes it even more enjoyable, because the focus isn’t hoity-toityness, or even appearance. The point seemed to me to be giving people something to do while they hang out and chat with one another, so that there isn’t just some kind of weird sudden exodus after the music stops.
Yeah, Lime and I were pathetically shy afterward. We just kind of hung out together, and then, famished, left to hunt down some dinner. But I think next time, I’ll at least try to talk to a couple of people. There were some honkies there who looked like regulars, and I’m sure I can try my crappy Korean speaking ability out on a few people. I’ve never found it that hard to talk to people about music.
Now, about hunting down more of this music. Googling around the Net brought me to the very interesting Sato Yukie’s website, and a discussion of free jazz in Korea, which, yes, seems as limited as I thought. However, there were some very good names recommended on this page, and after some very friendly and helpful discussion with Sato by email — we’re to meet when he returns to Seoul — I found that the place to go to buy this kind of music is After Hours, Seoul’s biggest jazz music shop, which is just around the corner from Purple Records in Hongdae (mentioned here). Looking around Sato’s site, I discover that he even started Bulgasari, a free music concert series.
(A long time ago, my friend Jason and I gave Bulgasari a shot. I don’t know if our experience was normal or unusual, but we left with ringing ears and a sense of frustration. We’d gone hoping for “improvisation”, live music of a kind you never see in the cleaner, more profitable jazz clubs in Seoul, but what we’d found was mostly loud, aggressive electronic noise-experimentation. Experimentation I’m all for, but aggressive and loud electronics aren’t my thing at all. However, your mileage may vary, and I’ve only gone to one show. Maybe people with instruments feature more in other shows, as it’s kind of a series of performances and not a strictly regular group or set of ensembles. I’d be willing to go again to a show in which more instruments were likely to be in-house.)
So anyway, after a frustrating attempt at online ordering, I made my way to the shop to pick up the CDs I wanted in person. (Happily, records of my attempted order were in the system and the helpful vlerk dug out with a quickness everything I couldn’t find myself.) So now I have a stack of Korean free/weird music to listen to:
- Kang Tae Hwan, Seven Breath (2002)
- Kang Tae Hwan/Miyeon/Park Je Chun, Isaiah (2006)
- Choi Sun Bae, Freedom (1999)
- Kim Dae Hwan, Black Rain (2003, recorded 1991)
- Kim Seok Chul, Final Say (1997)
- Sato Yukie, 비 (It’s a Rainy Day) (2003)
(I also picked up a copy of Sadao Watanbe’s Birds of Passage because it was on sale and I’ve never checked out thew famous Japanese altoist before.)
Lime once commented that the famous Korean fashion designer Andre Kim “is full of weird.” Now, my ears happily have a lot in common with Andre Kim.