Music without rulesPark Chang-soo and Shuichi Chino don’t so much play the piano as play with it.
Dressed in a plain shirt and washed-out jeans for a recent concert in Sinchon, northwestern Seoul, Chino starts to hit the keys of a grand piano, hard ― sometimes with his fists, or the flats of his hands.
At an upright piano on the same stage, where the musicians sit back to back, Park responds with similar chords ― when they can even be called chords. Park actually wears bandages to protect the tips of his fingers in these performances, because he strikes the keys so hard.
Now and again, Park kicks the piano, hard enough to make the strings hum. Seemingly as the spirit moves them, the musicians abruptly switch pianos. Someone from the audience jumps on stage and plays with them.
Improvisation, of course, is as old as jazz. But this kind of improvised performance doesn’t even necessarily require musical notes. Anything is allowed. They play what they want to play, or kick what they want to kick, depending on their moods. According to the musicians, their pre-show preparation consisted of saying, “See you at the concert hall.”
They call it “free music,” and it can be a strain for first-time listeners. Possibly even for second-time listeners.
For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of melody. Listening with care, however, one can learn to appreciate it. An attentive ear and an open attitude can uncover patterns. After Park, for instance, appears to make a mistake running through a scale, he plays another passage in which he repeats it.
“There can be no such thing as a mistake in free music,” he says.
“Free music,” as championed by Park, Chino and a handful of other musicians in Seoul, is a kind of improvisation that opposes both written music and the recording of live performances ― though some of the “free music” artists have made CDs. It also tends to have a strong performance art element.
“Free music is a form of resistance against the development of technology that enabled the copying of authentic sound from live performances,” Chino explains. “Free music performance shows the process of how the music is made on stage.”
Its practitioners are notably open to mingling with other forms of expression ― dance, computer art, painting, film. What brought Tokyo-based Chino to Korea, for instance, was last month’s Jeonju International Film Festival, at which a free music performance accompanied a French silent film. The performance, featuring Chino, Park, Kevin Norton from the United States and Alfred Harth, a Seoul-based German artist, drew a good deal of attention.
Park traces the birth of Korea’s avant-garde music scene to the 1970s, when the musicians Kang Tae-hwan, Choi Seon-bae and Kim Dae-hwan began performing. These musical pioneers worked at construction sites during the day and played at night. The music was viewed with suspicion; Choi Seon-bae, now 62, recalls the national intelligence agency refusing him permission to perform.
Kim died in March; Choi and Kang Tae-hwan still perform today. Last year, Choi performed at the Seoul Free Music Festival in Myeong-dong, which several hundred people attended. He wants to organize another one this year, if he can find a sponsor.
Time hasn’t changed Seoul’s experimental music scene very much. There are fewer than 10 musicians in Korea who consider themselves free music artists, according to Park.
But outside Korea ― particularly in Japan ― they have a wider audience. Park, in fact, flew to Tokyo Tuesday (with two packs of bandages) for a six-concert stint that wraps up next week. The flyer for the concert series lists some of Park’s major works, virtually unknown in his home country ― such as “24 Hours and 12 Minutes,” in which he played for precisely that amount of time.
Park, 40, started playing improvisational music in the 1970s, when he was in his early teens. A composition major at Seoul National University, he used to hold concerts on campus that he would conclude by lighting a bonfire outside the building. After enough of these performances, Park was visited by police. “Setting a fire on campus was too much back then, I guess,” Park says with a smile. He dropped out not long afterwards.
Failing to get his degree damaged his prospects as a musician, and he struggled for years. Ten years after dropping out, he said, he was considering suicide.
But the pain, he says, led to his breakthrough piece, “Requiem,” which he performed in Tokyo, and which made his reputation. His eyes, his hands and his piano covered with white cloth, he sat before the piano with a fist-size stone in each hand, and pounded the keys.
Park plans to accompany a German silent horror film on June 11 and 12 at Seoul Art Cinema. Such performances aren’t uncommon, especially at film festivals. Some free music artists watch the movie beforehand to gain a better understanding of it, but Park plans to come to it fresh, to remain true to the free music spirit.
Park has begun holding frequent “house concerts” at his home in Yeonhui-dong, northwestern Seoul. These concerts, to which anyone is welcome, feature music of various styles, free music included. Earlier this year, Park says, former President Chun Doo Hwan, who lives nearby, came to the concert, and later called Park to thank him.
Park says he’ll stop pursuing free music when Korea has enough musicians playing it. Alfred Harth, a Seoul-based German experimental artist, describes the current scene as “booming,” and says it has great potential. Once an artist in residence at Ssamzie Space for his visual artwork, Harth decided to settle in Korea rather than move to the United States as he’d originally planned. Since then he’s released two CDs, orchestrating a variety of sounds, from mechanical sounds to Korean traditional music to the sound of wind. “My albums, unfortunately, sell more outside of Korea, through the Internet,” he says.
Yukie Sato, another free music artist based in Seoul, says, “I’m amazed to see the growing number of young people coming to free music concerts.” Sato came to the music from yet another direction ― that of rock. A former Tokyo resident, Sato first visited Korea in 1995, and happened to buy a series of rock albums from the 1960s and 1970s by Korea’s Shin Jung-hyeon. He fell in love with them; back home, he formed a group that he named Kopchangjeongol, after the Korean soup made from cattle intestines.
In 1999, he moved to Seoul, where he started Bulgasari, a free music performance series at a bar called Rush in the Sinchon neighborhood. Anyone can join in these performances (the next one will be in early June). Sato sometimes plays his guitar with a chopstick between the strings, or fires off a toy gun in one hand while playing the guitar with the other.
“There’s no way to define free music, for it’s just free, nothing more or less,” Sato says. Which might be another way of saying that you just have to be there.
by Chun Su-jin
For more information on Park Chang-soo’s house concerts, go to the Web site at www.free-piano.com. For Yukie Sato’s Bulgasari series, go to www.bulgasari.com. CDs by some local free music artists are sold at Hyang Music in Sinchon and Purple Records near Hongik University.