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8 May 2009

Ring of Fire: Six Australians in Tongyeong and Seoul

Asian-Pacific composers in Tongyeong (from left to right): Yuan Peiying (Singapore), Scott McIntyre (Australia), Bruce Crossman (Australia), Ji Yun Lee (Australia), Hung Ming-Kin Christopher (Hong Kong), Emily Koh (Singapore), Andrian Pertout (Australia) Image: Asian-Pacific composers in Tongyeong (from left to right): Yuan Peiying (Singapore), Scott McIntyre (Australia), Bruce Crossman (Australia), Ji Yun Lee (Australia), Hung Ming-Kin Christopher (Hong Kong), Emily Koh (Singapore), Andrian Pertout (Australia)  

Bruce Crossman gives his impressions of a recent trip to the Asian Contemporary Music Festival and the Tongyeong International Music Festival in Korea.

Korean Kayagum (zither) master Hwang Byung-ki speaks of the philosophical focus of beautiful transitions of colour in the after-tone of a plucked note, and courtly Aak music’s stirring of the heart to make connections between heaven and earth. The places on earth for this string stirring within the Asian Contemporary Music Festival were the poetic beauty of the port city of Tongyeong, ringed by water and gentle hills, and the reserved bustling of inner city Seoul. Six Australians' musical and spiritual presence at the Tongyeong International Music Festival and Asian Contemporary Music Festival in Korea formed elements of an Asian-Pacific resonance with their colleagues from the Rim of Fire—from China to New Zealand through to Canada. Their presence moved forward the idea of situating Australia as not only geographically a part of the Asia-Pacific but culturally bound to this place.

At the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul, Eve Duncan’s The Titans wove a beautiful tapestry from the sounds of Korean kayagum with Western flute and cello. The music’s momentary gestures seemed to emerge as a whole stroke of sound with subtle inner workings of kayagum vibrations protruding into after-tone movement, through the skill of Se-Yeon Park’s non-plucking hand. Interestingly, Seoul-born Australian Ji Yun Lee’s Bu-Hwal (Resurrection) had a similar concern for the after-life of sonorities but presented the sonorities more in chordal wafts than in single tones. Gently placed discordant clusters and p’yongjo mode-laced interval colours sat still in the air as if imitating the gentle, fading, gong-like resonance of the deep ching sound from within a Korean Samulnori percussion ensemble. Single-note points of sound were savoured like kayagum single-string attacks but within grace-note processional-like rhythms of Nongak (farmer’s music and dance) percussion bands. Amongst these sonorities arose the gentle stasis of lyrical threads of the p’yongjo mode, subtly altered with chromatic shifts; the translucent lyricism with vigorous invention demonstrating a distinctive Korean-Australian voice.

Scott McIntyre’s more modernist-focussed String Quartet No. 1 received a disciplined performance with the work’s distilled Mahlerian lyricism creating a moment of distilled beauty that hints at a parallel to an Asian melodic translucent quality, heard in Hwang Byung-ki’s kayagum compositions. The sharp gamelan-like prepared piano sounds intersecting with accelerating quirkiness of South Indian ‘Carnatic’ classical music influences in Chilean-born Australian Andrian Pertout’s Rishis and Saints provided a riveting sound within a resonant acoustic. The strong masculine linearity of the cello line created a Sculthorpe-like beauty but with the splintering of timbre in a myriad of directions pushing the lineage further—the gamelan-like refractions of colour, intersecting Indian rhythms and South American warmth providing evidence of an eclectic Australian aesthetic. In Tongyeong, at the Night Studio concert by Japanese ensemble Next Mushroom Promotion, the splintered dissonances around Korean court music fragments of my own Fierce Tranquillity were given a vigorous interpretation. The musicians worked the materials in a sculptured way, with contrasting sound and silence heightened by interpretive lengths, as well as exploited the colour spectrum of the vibrating string from noise to pitch.


The identity of this Asian-Pacific sound-spectrum, colours and translucent lyricism drawn from or resonant with Asian traditional music values, was an issue that arose at an interesting forum in Seoul. The forum was provocatively entitled Them, Us, Music of There and Yesterday and took place at the Seoul Arts Center. The keynote speaker Choon Mi Kim of the Korean National University of the Arts spoke of Korean compositional identity traversing through Korean traditional masters such as Hwang Byung-ki’s reinterpretation and extension of tradition, to conscious renditions Korean culture within composition, through to an emphasis on Korean aesthetic and individuality, and out into the latest eclectically focussed generation. Kim questioned the aesthetic basis of this last group which was an issue taken up by Shyhji Pan-Chew of the Taipei National University of the Arts. Pan-Chew carefully put this issue in a broad cultural confluence perspective and gently called for a traditional Asian cultural root to nourish this creativity—this idea being a graceful extension of her mentor's, renowned Chinese composer and scholar Chou Wen-chung’s, ideas.

In this context it was good to have the voice of John Davis, CEO of our own Australian Music Centre, and president of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). Davis saw the Korean sound and search for identity as having some parallels with Australian music; I interpreted this to mean that both shared an evolution of a sonic-identity from conscious identity issues through to a cultural confluence or sea of ideas. He called for an Asian-Pacific regional unity and strength to take forward this unique Pacific voice into the European focussed ISCM forum as a means of leavening it and presenting the value of our own region.

Bruce Crossman is a Senior Lecturer at the University Western Sydney. In May he will be a visiting composer in residence at the Californian State University of San Bernardino at 'A Confluence of Cultures: Music of the Pacific Rim' and is currently working on Not broken bruised-reed for Ensemble Offspring at Creative Explosion in the West (2009).


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