Park Jiha on the yanggeum.
Park Jiha on the yanggeum

Park Jiha creates accessible soundscapes from traditional Korean instruments

Think Korean music and the uninitiated will sadly think K-pop. Thank goodness for the London Festival of Korean Music which, until 18 November, is treating the local Shoreditch neighbourhood and beyond to a blend of traditional and contemporary music to educate and entertain but, most of all, to showcase the rich mix of music that there is on offer from this most fascinating of countries.

Park Jiha prepares to play the piri.
Park Jiha prepares to play the piri

And speaking of rich mixes, tonight we were blessed at the Rich Mix with the presence of Park Jiha, a multi-instrumentalist who is best known for creating modern soundscapes from traditional Korean instruments, namely the piri (a double-reed instrument), the saenghwang (a free reed mouth organ comprised of 17 vertical bamboo pipes) and the yanggeum (a type of hammered dulcimer either plucked or played with two different types of stick).

Park Jiha plays the saenghwang.
Park Jiha plays the saenghwang

As is the practice these days, this was in essence a live performance of the artist’s latest album. Park Jiha played live most of her second Glitterbeat release “Philos”, apart from said album’s opening track “Arrival”, but interspersed it with four other tracks: “Borrowing Scenery” (the opening track from her “A Record of Autobiographical Sounds” album, available online), “Throughout the Night” and “Sounds Heard from the Moon” (both from her 2016 album “Communion”), as well as “The Way of Spiritual Breath”, a marvellous unreleased tune played on the yanggeum which possibly should have been the closing song, accompanied by an attractive overtone stringed background track, and which for these reviewers was one of the best songs of the whole performance.

The haunting sound of the yanggeum, as played by Park Jiha.
The haunting sound of the yanggeum

But let us start from the beginning. “Borrowing Scenery”, one of the non-“Philos” tracks, introduced the audience to the piri, a delicious combination of an Armenian duduk, saxophone and clarinet rolled into one. Her capable playing moved between the timbres of these three instruments with ease.

“Throughout the Night”, performed on the saenghwang, a very attractive-sounding instrument, permitted great expression that was well appreciated by the attending public.

Park Jiha on the saenghwang.
Park Jiha on the saenghwang

After a few tracks from her latest album, interpolated with some short speeches and poetry, Park Jiha then played the title track “Philos”, one of the highlights of the night, played on the yanggeum; a song reminiscent of a John Carpenter soundtrack that really engaged and excited the listeners. “Walker: In Seoul” furthermore showed the flexibility of the yanggeum and how it can be played with the fingers as well as the sticks, demonstrating Park Jiha’s superb ambidexterity.

Park Jiha finished with “On Water”, the only other track to feature the piri and the final track on the “Philos” album, which also featured the yanggeum in a prerecorded background track.

Park Jiha about to play another tune on the yanggeum.
Park Jiha about to play another tune on the yanggeum

On the whole, the music was very attractive and approachable. If we had one criticism, it would have been that we had hoped that there would be no background track and that there would have been more looping, so that we would have heard her play everything live. But this is a minor issue. To sum up, this was a very special evening indeed, demonstrating how traditional Korean music can indeed be very accessible. If the sold-out audience reaction was anything to go by, this was a gargantuan success.

It all bodes well for the rest of the K-music festival, though sadly this is the only event to feature at the delightful Rich Mix.

Please check for the rest of the festival’s eclectic and well-curated programme.