issue 11 :: July 2005

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REVIEW: Yomillak (Korean Classical Music)

“Yomillak” CD (Edition RZ)
reviewed by Jacob Green
Speaking of the world, another really great record label is Edition RZ from Germany that, like Alga Marghen, focuses mainly on avant garde composers from around the world each with a unique musical language. Recently they put out two CDs of Korean classical music called "Yomillak." I am somewhat familiar with classical music from China and Japan and I listen to a lot of large ensemble music from Indonesia but until I bought this I had only heard folk songs from Korea. Ever since watching Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams gagaku (royal court music from Japan) has been my favorite style of composed world music, so I was very happy to hear this recording of Korean court music, which is surprisingly similar in many ways.
Actually it’s not that surprising since the music on these discs dates back to the 15th century and when Korea and Japan originally broke away from China both countries were of common ancestry. Gagaku is known for being the oldest music in the world because it has survived without change for over 3000 years now so Korean court music is most likely gagaku (with a different name) updated later by Korean cultural differences. The liner notes here say, "Yomillak is the most extended piece of orchestral court music surviving in Korea, and it has for many centuries been used for royal processions and at banquets. The musicians are virtually motionless, and respond to signals given by a senior official who strikes the pak wooden clappers at the beginnings and ends of sections. Barely discernible slow and regularly repeating rhythmic cycles form a structural baseline, marked out by formulaic strikes on two drums (the hourglass-shaped changgo and the barrel-shaped chwago), but the effect is of timelessness, the movements flowing seamlessly into each other. The music is totally controlled, the epitome of Confucian order and decorum." It also says that it was composed to celebrate the establishment of a new alphabet.
"The six dragons from east of the sea fly There is not one of them who is not assisted by Heaven They are the equals of the sages of old!"
Yomillak is in 7 movements and lasts for 84 minutes extending into the first third of the second disc, which includes shorter variants of the piece changed in the 19th century for time and instrumentation. There is a type of double reed similar to an oboe (p’iri), flutes (sogum, taegum), 2-stringed fiddle (haegum), plucked and bowed long zithers (kayagum, kumun’go, ajaeng) and dulcimer (yanggum). Each movement is a variation of the main theme slowly developed and embellished by the individual musicians. These recordings were performed by The Orchestra of The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in 1979 and 1988 but they really do evoke an older mood of stately cultural celebration that is unique in Asian classical music. One of the important differences is the intonation of the instruments and the vibrato that gives it its particular dramatic quality. Even though I have hardly any idea what life was like in 15th century Korea this music really transports me to a different landscape, which is the highest compliment I know.
>>Jacob Green is a multi-instrumentalist living in Austin, Texas. He performs with the Austin New Music Co-Op, Brekekekekexkoaxkoax, Frontal Spanking and the Gates Ensemble.>>

 

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