For the second summer in a row, the streets of London are filled with the sounds of Seoul. Last year, South Korea’s musical ambassador was the K-Pop and YouTube sensation Psy. His surprise hit “Gangnam Style” might almost have been an experiment to determine whether being sung in Korean would be a bar to global success for a song with a catchy chorus, cosmopolitan dance beats and a viral-hungry video.
This year, London is hosting the K-Music festival to give a wider picture of the music of the Korean peninsula: last night the National Orchestra of Korea played its first concert in the UK; later this week Ahn Sook-Sun, one of Korea’s officially designated National Living Treasures, brings pansori, a form of folk opera; and Seoul rock bands play two concerts at the Scala.
One of the most intriguing groups playing in the festival are Geomungo Factory, one man and three women who met as students in Seoul. The geomungo – pronounced with an initial hard G – is a six-stringed zither played while seated. Its strings are struck with bamboo sticks and its sounds never quite resolve into a single note. Like the west African kora, the geomungo is a centuries-old court instrument, and Geomungo Factory are reinventing the traditional repertoire.
They have constructed variant after variant – the cello geomungo, played with a bow; a portable version; an electric version; a xylophone geomungo. The interlocking patterns made by the instruments have prompted comparisons with Steve Reich, but, instead of Reich’s smooth shimmering pulse, Geomungo Factory have a more grainy texture and their rhythms are often angular and unsettling.
The band spoke to me from Seoul through their manager Soojin Lee. “The geomungo has a long history,” says Jung-seok Lee, “but not many people study it in Korea today. It is hard to learn and to play at a good technical standard.” But for him, the secret of the instrument’s attraction is plain. “Even though it’s hard, the style is epic!”
Their other instrument is the gayageum. “The right hand plucks, the left hand bends,” explains Sun-a Kim, who plays it. “It is a different style, like vibrato.”
It is flatter and less resonant than the geomungo, and plays the higher melodies. The band use the new instruments to push forward the geomungo repertoire. “For a long time we studied traditional music; now we compose and make our own,” says Jung-seok Lee. “We improvise together, discuss, play and chat. Writing it down is the very last thing.”
For all their love of traditional Korean forms, each member has differing tastes in western music, and their ambition is to synthesise the traditional and the exotic. The western model is most clearly heard on “Byeolgeumja”, which interpolates the melody from The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” with the group’s leader Mi Young Yoo playing bell-like notes on a xylophone geomungo.
Sun-a Kim admires George Benson and Paco di Lucia – hence, perhaps, the flamenco coda at the end of “Jeong-jung-dong”. And Jung-seok Lee drops the names of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke.
This does not align them with their country’s most visible musical exports. “They’re not part of K-Pop,” says Soojin Lee, before adding, unconvincingly, “but they really enjoy it. Geomungo Factory make music and art. K-Pop is entertainment, it’s a very industrial product.”
Not so this group, despite their name. This is a factory in the Warholian sense of a workshop or atelier, not an assembly line. The idea they might sell some of the new geomungo variants produces shock. “Only for Geomungo Factory!” They are the only people in the world to play the cello geomungo or the electric or the xylophone geomungo. “Maybe some day,” offers Soojin Lee.
Geomungo Factory play at Cadogan Hall, June 19. www.serious.org.uk/events