Je-Chun Park/Miyeon/Ge-Suk Yeo

Sound Skipping - Sori Numgi
Sang-Joong Ha Music

By Ken Waxman

July 19, 2004

Possessing a profile so low as to be practically invisible, Korean improvised music isn’t often heard in West — or anywhere else for that matter. However discs like Sound Skipping prove that, just as in many other so-called out-of-the-way places, determined musicians are forging new musical paths that draw on traditional, notated and improvised sounds.

This limited edition CD came into existence because of one of these pioneers. Ge-Suk Yeo, who now lives in Hamburg, Germany, turned from singing as a lyric operatic soprano to vocalizing improvised music in 1999. Since that time she has performed with European and American improvisers including New York reedist Blaise Siwula and Baltimore bassist Vattel Cherry.

Although she toured Korea with those foreign players and others in the summer of 2003, this session resulted from a performance where she joined forces with an established Korean improv duo: pianist Miyeon and percussionist Je-Chun Park. Park, who uses a unique percussion set-up encompassing Korean and Western instruments, also organizes an annual Korean free music festival. He has played with Japanese musicians like guitarist and turntablist Otomo Yoshihide and sine wave specialist Sachiko M., Swiss electronic percussionist Günter Müller and Americans, such as percussionist Gustavo Aguilar and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

His partner, pianist Miyeon has composed soundtracks for Korean television and films, as well as playing free music with Yoshihide, Müller and Americans, reedist Ned Rothenberg and drummer Gerry Hemingway.

So after putting it into context, how does the CD sound? Like ferocious, concentrated free improv. Textures on this searing session are pummeled with all the energy you would have expected from, say, Cecil Taylor and Sunny Murray in the 1960s. For the uninitiated Occidental, though, there doesn’t appear to be much distinctly Korean about it.

Sound Skipping does get its original tone from the vocalizing of Yeo, whose dramatic, wordless outpourings are definitely in the Shelly Hirsch- Ellen Christi tradition. Being a trained singer, however, means that her output includes echoes of Bel Canto as well as soundsinging and Dada.

Meanwhile, Park appears to be hitting everything he can get his hands on, during the five-part live recital that is this CD. Making more use of rattling chains than you’d hear outside of the soundtrack for any film featuring a haunted castle, Park’s percussive outlay ricochets from East to West. It includes wood block thwacks, glockenspiel peals, rumbling temple blocks, cymbal scratches, throbbing drum heads, a collection of Western techniques on the traps, and occasions when he seems to be throwing around metal utensils to see where they land.

Oddly — or perhaps purposely — enough, his accompaniment to Yeo’s vocal exhortations and Miyeon’s stop-time interjections on Part IV is a combination of rim shots and hand drumming that’s as much African polyrhythmic anything else. Then on Part III, his response to the pianist’s piledriver keyboard rambles are beats that could have arisen from Native American Indian drummer, and certainly aren’t generic to the Korean peninsula.

Miyeon’s piano patterns range from this-side-of-romantic rolling arpeggios to Free Jazz-like glissandos, power chording and splayed two-handed tremolo lines that slide up and down the scales. Sometimes she creates contrasting accents during a marathon race along the keys. Other times she consolidates her hand movements into evocative single notes that suggest bell ringing. These noises then evoke percussion sounds from Park that sounds like aluminum pie plates being struck, plus wordless enunciation from Yeo, which includes comic opera soprano warbling, conspirational alto whispers, confrontational bellows and commentary gurgled from her throat.

Undulating and ululating held notes, Yeo surmounts any clamor produced by the two instrumentalists, no matter what intensity they bring to their performance. Classical training pays off in soprano lines that vibrate on top and among other noises. Then there are times, likely as burlesque, when Miyeon and Yeo spend a few moments creating a playlet that finds one impersonating a coloratura soprano at a recital and the other feeding her the sort of chords the piano accompanist would provide in that situation. Still elsewhere, Yeo propels a keening vocal line that is just loud and sharp enough to add dramatic highlights to her role within the trio improvisation.

There isn’t much chance of finding this CD in your local chain record store. But its ingeniousness and originality make it an object d’art to trawl for in specialist shop or on the Internet.