Jin Hi Kim performs with komungo

On Feb. 21, despite competing for audience members with Aaron McGruder’s presentation for Black History Month and the panel discussion on the Kashmir conflict, a respectable audience turned out to see Jin Hi Kim give a concert of music for the komungo, a Korean instrument originating from the fourth century. She performed on both a traditional acoustic komungo and an electric komungo built for her in 1999, the only example in the world.

During the first half of the concert, Kim performed on the acoustic komungo, presenting two traditional songs and then three of her own compositions. She came out on stage and spoke to the audience briefly about the instrument, which was about five feet in length, with silk strings strung over 16 frets. Some of the strings were suspended on moveable bridges that allowed for many different tuning possibilities. The instrument was played with a small bamboo stick.

The first piece on the program, “Dasrum,” was a traditional song used for meditation that uses only five notes. Kim introduced the piece by talking about her philosophy of “living tones,” a central premise of which is that “each tone is alive, embodying its own individual shape, sound and subtext deeply rooted in Korean traditional music.” Even with only five notes at her disposal, Kim was able to create a beautiful atmosphere with a lot of different tone color derived from a wide range of dynamics and the use or absence of vibrato and articulation. When finished, Kim noted that this type of piece often lasts for up to 45 minutes, highlighting the use of the komungo as a meditative aid, a way of using music that we don’t often encounter in Western culture.

The second piece on the program, another traditional work, was entitled “Chajin Mori, Sanjo,” a faster and more rhythmic composition that demonstrated a strumming technique featured in some of the other portions of the program. Before performing some of her own works for the acoustic komungo, Kim talked to the audience about her own background as a musician. She came to the United States around twenty years ago after studying the komungo in Korea. In Korea, since the Japanese occupation in the early part of this century, Western music had slowly been gaining prominence over traditional Korean music; today, it is much more common for music students to learn the violin or piano. She felt that by coming to America, she could share this lesser known instrument with a new audience and would have more opportunities to explore the komungo’s possibilities. The first of her own compositions was “Self Portrait,” which moved between strumming and single-note textures and produced brilliant effects.

The second half of the program featured the electric komungo, with which Kim was able to create some incredible sounds and complicated textures. The instrument was very similar in appearance to the acoustic komungo. However, she played sitting on a piano stool, allowing to her to operate MIDI equipment with her feet, rather than with legs crossed on a raised platform, as she did with the acoustic instrument.

The first electric piece was 2000’s “Komungo In & Out.” One of the first effects used was the addition and subtraction of overtones, which made the sound move from a metallic, strident sound, to a rounder, warmer tone. The playback capabilities of her computer let her, in effect, accompany herself. She also created some unique percussive effects by dragging the bamboo stick down the frets. These computerized sounds created an entirely modern aural world while still maintaining the distinctive sound of the komungo.

The next piece, “Saturn’s Moons,” was originally performed in 2000 at MASS MoCA and featured visual animation, which unfortunately was not available on Friday. However, the hypnotic, rhythmic background was highly evocative of the cosmic rotations of the planets, which the music was meant to portray. There was an enormous amount of concentration required to manipulate the programs and actually play the instrument at the same time, but Kim pulled this off with ease. The final piece on the program, “Doduri,” was composed only last year. This composition featured the most experimental sounds, including eerie sliding figures and sections that appeared to describe a UFO taking off.

Kim’s performance of these songs showed clearly that she has been successful at bringing the komungo into the twenty-first century. The beauty and versatility of the komungo, combined with Kim’s informative commentary and masterful performance, took the Williamstown audience on an enjoyable ride to a little-known corner of the music world.