Geomungo Factory Songlines Profile .pdf

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° th e

alae v

f a m i ly °

modern history
L
Simon Broughton meets Geomungo Factory, a groundbreaking quartet from
Korea creating a new sound world for one of the country’s distinctive zithers
ike Konono No 1 and Hanggai, the music of Geomungo Factory
sounds very contemporary and very ancient at the same time. In all
these bands, traditional instruments take on a new perspective,
sometimes electrified and given a compelling new twist. The roots
may be deep in the Congo, Mongolia and Korea, but they all speak to a
contemporary audience today.
When I first saw Geomungo Factory last year, they were in traditional
mode, playing acoustically in a Seoul palace pavilion. They performed some
powerful traditional repertoire, but it was the new pieces – sounding like an
Oriental version of Steve Reich – that really impressed. The sound was
rhythmic, muscular and very compelling, unlike anything I’d heard before –

www.songlines.co.uk

throbbing, percussive and trance-like.
I catch up with the core members of Geomungo Factory – Yoo Mi-Young,
Jung Ein-Ryoung and Kim Sun-A, three women and one guy, Lee Jung-Seok
– at a Seoul restaurant in September. “Most people think traditional music is
very boring,” they agree, and say they want to make geomungo music “that we
can share with people and is fun.” They each came to the instrument in
different ways, but it was the remarkable sound of the geomungo that was
what lured them all in, like some ancestral Korean Siren. If you want an
unsettling soundtrack for the sonic power of the instrument, listen to
‘Groundless Fear’, a dark but fascinating piece featuring a bowed, cellogeomungo that is like a sad, lonely mermaid alone in a vast and scary sea. »

Songlines 41

“I was fascinated
by the deep sound
and its rough,
percussive quality”

From left to right: Kim Sun-A, Yoo Mi-Young,
Lee Jung-Seok and Jung Ein-Ryoung

Korean music is remarkable for its extraordinary range of zithers. There’s
the gayageum, a 12-string plucked instrument with moveable bridges
(derived like the Japanese koto, from the Chinese zheng) which is effectively
the national instrument and by far the most common in Korean music. Then
there’s the ajaeng, a seven or eight-string zither played with a bow. It’s
powerful and profound, but an acquired taste. The geomungo lies
somewhere between the two. It’s a six-string zither played with a stick, which
hits and plucks the silk strings with its up and down strokes. The strings are
stopped by pushing them down hard with the left hand over high frets. The
notes can be bent with a powerful vibrato. With a deep, cello-like sound, the
instrument is more masculine-sounding than the rather decorative gayageum
and more accessible than the scratchy ajaeng.
Lee, who started playing violin aged nine, grew up with Western classical
music and only heard geomungo aged 15: “I was finding classical music
boring and was really impressed by its deep sound.”
Yoo, the bouncy, smiley one, started playing the geomungo when she was
12: “I really liked my teacher, I’ve been with him for 17 years.”
Yung, the quiet, serious one in the band, was only interested in the
geomungo from the very beginning: “I was fascinated by the deep sound and
its rough, percussive quality. The difference between the up and down
42 Songlines

strokes is really powerful.”
Kim, the fourth member, plays gayageum (although can also play
geomungo) and is one of very few – the others tell me – who can play
gayageum so it integrates with the sound of the geomungo.
All the Korean zithers derive from Chinese instruments and the first
records of the instrument in Korean music go back to the fourth century AD.
But while the qin and zheng plucked zithers are still played in China, Korea is
unique in having the bowed ajaeng and struck geomungo. This deep,
muscular sound, both percussive and melodic, is at the heart of Geomungo
Factory’s musical world.
South Korea has a knack of juxtaposing the old and new and creating
something special. The Korean alphabet – Hangul – was invented by king
Sejong (and maybe some scholarly advisors) in 1443. It was specifically
designed to be easy to use and accessible to ordinary people, not just an
educated elite, unlike the Chinese script used at that time. Not only is the
alphabet easy to learn – which means Korea has a literacy rate of virtually
100% – but it is simple to use. In a remarkable meeting of ancient and
modern, king Sejong’s script from the 15th century is a key ingredient in the
South Korean success in mobile phone technology and why they always
come first in speed texting contests. A shame the Seoul games in 1988
November/December 2012

° geomun go

factory °

“You can’t make
innovations if
you don’t know
the tradition”
were too early to introduce SMS as an Olympic sport. On a Korean handset,
consonants are on the left, vowels on the right and the fingers alternate so
fast you can barely follow them. It’s a cognitive and ergonomic miracle –
and, of course, an economic one. Just watch everybody in action on the
Seoul metro. Geomungo Factory are an equally successful fusion of
ancient and modern.
The band started in 2005 when ten geomungo players gathered together to
experiment. It was about half the young generation of geomungo players in
Seoul! Different people had different ideas and priorities, so it eventually
settled down to the four musicians in the group today. The geomungo is
capable of a surprising range of sounds – plucked, bowed, bell-like, flute-like,
delicate and wide vibrato and with the rhythmic bite that comes from the
stick which strikes, plucks and scrapes the strings. The melodies are mostly
played on just two strings while the others add resonant drone and
percussive effects. The band often described the sound as something close to
‘agressive’, although they didn’t like the sound of that word when translated
back into Korean.
As well as composing new music, they have developed several new
instruments, including the delicate xylophone geomungo, with a ringing
tone; the cello geomungo with a dark ajaeng-like sound; and the electric
www.songlines.co.uk

geomungo with wah-wah pedal, played by Jung Ein-Ryoung.
One of the showpieces for electric geomungo on their album
Metamorphosis is ‘Fly to the Sky’, a piece by Yoo Mi-Young inspired by
Eleven Minutes, the novel of sexual awakening by Brazilian writer Paulo
Coelho. Inspired by a diary written by a prostitute called Maria, the piece
depicts a tropical bird, at first in captivity and then set free. It ends with a
soaring guitar-like melody line (on a metal-string, rather than silk-string
geomungo) over a rhythmic plucked ostinato and a low bowed bass, like a
distant ocean.
All the Geomungo Factory players still perform the traditional repertoire.
“You can’t make innovations if you don’t know the tradition,” says Lee. And
an earlier album was a homage to some of the great masters of the
instrument and their repertoire. But it’s their new music that’s likely to get
them widely noticed – not just in world music circles but beyond because it’s
a genre-breaking sound. Geomungo Factory could quite easily play at
WOMAD, at a contemporary music festival and at Glastonbury.
REVIEW Metamorphosis is a Top of the World review – track 5 on the CD
DATES Geomungo Factory play a showcase at WOMEX in Thessaloniki on
October 20, followed by concerts in the Netherlands and Germany
Songlines 43


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