Park Jiha learned to play traditional Korean music as a teenager and then gradually began to unlearn what she had had been taught. Instead of repeating forms from the past, she wanted to express the past – specifically her past – in her contemporary music.
Park Jiha's music is incomparable, and this should be taken literally: to date there is no musical frame of reference for what this South Korean artist has done on her three solo releases. After the limited release of her debut album A Record of Autobiographical Sounds, reviewers of her 2016, independently released album Communion – later reissued by Glitterbeat spin-off tak:til – as well as the second album, Philos, made references to traditional Korean music as well as jazz. However, that is not really correct. Or at least, only to a very limited degree.
Although Park does play the piri (double reed instrument), the saenghwang (free reed mouth organ) and the yanggeum (hammered dulcimer), three instruments which play a central role in Korean national music, so-called gugak, she occasionally also adds wind instruments such as the saxophone (Never played saxophone) to her repertoire. But the instruments alone don’t determine her musical creation: Park’s music is free-form and heterogeneous in itself, gently adrift at times and then building up to intense moments. This style has less in common with the traditional form of Korean music nor jazz but rather with minimal music or the up-and-down dynamics of post-rock, but it cannot be reduced to either. By the same token, it only makes limited sense to look at her music – navigating between different historical periods and cultures – with Jon Hassell and other ‘Fourth World’ music representatives in mind, who attempted something similar with different means as well as different results. Park's music is just much more of an expression of her very own world rather than that of Fourth World concepts. It is a realm governed by its very own temporality.
Not doing what everyone else does
Born in Seoul in the mid-1980s, Park grew up in that new era in the country’s history. After years of military dictatorship, South Korea was democratised in 1987 and hosted the Olympic Games the year after. Extensive political reforms were accompanied by rapid economic growth. Within a short period of time, the country developed into a high-tech industrial nation whose economic momentum continued to increase. This gain in soft power has not only resulted in an ever-increasing cultural export – K-pop, for example, emerged as a phenomenon in the nineties – but also in a new cosmopolitanism. It entered into Park’s family by FM radio. „When I was a child, my mother used to listen to Classic FM radio all the time playing Western classical music all day”, she recalls. „Once a day, they would play world music or traditional Korean music for two hours.”
Park was totally into it. She took piano lessons, but they were too expensive in the long run. She begged her mother to let her try the flute instead and wanted to study it at school. But the competition was fierce at those schools teaching Western classical music: plenty of candidates, very few places. Not to mention the school fees. Her parents advised her to try public schools where Korean Traditional music was part of the curriculum. So Park ended up at the Gukak National Middle / High School in Seoul, where she got training in traditional court and folk music.
During her training, she focused on the piri. It is an unusual instrument for a young teenage girl. „I just didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing and not a lot of students want to play the piri. Especially for young people, it’s really hard to play.” But there is another reason why the instrument is unpopular with her peers. „Also, when you play, you don’t exactly look pretty, which is why a lot of girls don’t like to do it”, Park laughs. She followed her own path, not just in this respect, but soon realised that the much longed-for lessons eventually were too constricting for her.
Park was bored with interpreting centuries-old music according to the same rules and guidelines that have hardly changed since its inception. The curriculum included a composition course which promised greater freedom for Park but failed to deliver that freedom. However, soon after the silver lining appeared on the horizon as she wasn’t the only one who disliked the school's compliance with formality. Not only South Korea was modernising as a whole, but also its cultural life. “One of my professors, Won Il, was one of the first people to propose an experimental approach to traditional music, and he invited me to perform with his team as a guest. That’s when I realised that I can really do whatever I want with my instruments and that different approaches to traditional music are possible.”
Breaking with traditions
In 2007, Park founded the duo 숨[suːm] together with the gayageum artist Seo Jungmin. What all those Western listeners think they can hear in her solo work today was the starting point for the two of them, to create a form of music that is meant to bridge the gap to the zeitgeist. „When we started 숨[suːm], I was still heavily influenced by traditional Korean music. We improvised a lot, but it was still very much rooted in traditional forms”, Park remembers. But its character is different. “The music that we learnt to play in school didn’t really connect with the lives that we were living. There was no progress, just rules that you had to stick to.”
Following their joint international tours and the release of two albums with 숨[suːm], Park went solo. She, who had never had any real composition training, abandoned the principles of composition altogether. “There are no defined structures, I just go with the flow”, she says about her creation process. “My solo projects offer ways to translate feelings and thoughts into music without thinking much about the composition side of it.” When she has an idea, she quickly records it and takes it out into the world with her. „I will listen to it in different environments – at home, on the subway, on a walk – and new ideas will emerge thanks to being in a different environment and a different emotional state. That’s how I compose, little by little.”
This breach with traditional forms carried out by traditional instruments did not please everyone in the days of 숨[suːm]. „Back then, a lot of the professors and people from the scene for traditional music were really critical. For them, it was about learning the instruments, joining an orchestra and then becoming a professor in the end – about repeating what’s been done before.” Nowadays though, she adds, it’s a different story altogether. Increasing state funding for new approaches to the formal musical language and the Gugak instrumentation has led to an emerging array of band formations and projects in recent years, and Park’s music is frequently compared with them. There is, for example, the internationally known avant-rock band Jambinai, the gayageum trio Hey String or the Ensemble Black String – formations who partly use the same instruments as Park. „We obviously have the same background”, Park acknowledges. “We are being compared a lot, which I don’t have a problem with, but the music is extremely different.” There is no such thing as a scene for this type of music, even if the sheer number of these different artists has resulted in a widespread acceptance by those who previously rejected Park's iconoclastic approach.
When Park talks about her music and what defines its genuinely modern character, she primarily refers to two aspects: feelings and time. A Record of Autobiographical Sounds was her debut release as solo artist in 2014. It was the soundtrack for an even larger project: a multimedia exhibition with videos and 133 seos – her piri mouthpieces – she had played on in the past until they needed replacing. In this way, Park captured her personal past as a piri player and simultaneously opened up a new chapter. „I started checking all the videos that I had made when I was abroad and stumbled upon a recording of when I was on a boat. It was just a video of water flowing”, she recalls the starting point for her first solo album after 숨[suːm] split. „It made me want to create music that reproduced this feeling.”
The recollection and preservation of feelings and of past times and her current state of mind also characterised her album Communion, which she released independently in 2016. „I think that’s best explained with the title of one of the tracks, ‘Accumulation of Time’. My pieces are always an accumulation of what I have gathered throughout time and my albums express my states of mind over time.” She repeated this approach on her second major album Philos from 2018, just as much as she differentiated from it. The ancient Greek title is no mere coincidence. „If you combine ‘phílos’, love, with ‘sophía’, wisdom, you get ‘philosophy’.The philosophy of music consists of constantly repeating the same sounds and focusing on tone and different layers”, Park explains. Devotion and knowledge unite, the sound begins to think and live – little by little.
Unlike Communion, the album Philos was largely recorded solo, with a guest appearance by Lebanese lyricist Dima El Sayed being the only exception. Other than that, it's as stated in the credits: „Park Jiha plays the piri, saenghwang and yanggeum, as well as layers of sounds derived from time & space.” These layers are snapshots of time in audio format – field recordings. „If I feel like something is interesting, I will record it, whether it’s a bird or people on the street. If I don’t come across anything that interests me for six months, I will also not record anything for six months!”, Park laughs. “More than field recordings I use the opportunity to record myself when I rehearse in a really nice space in order to preserve my ideas and the feeling of it – to give myself a way to remind myself of it.”
This is also how to interpret Temporary Inertia, a commissioned work Park created in a meditation hall designed by Japanese architect Andō Tadao at the SAN Museum in Wonju. “What’s really interesting about this space is that you see the sun through an opening in the roof, which means that you can see the light moving the further the day progresses,” she explains. “That’s why the piece is divided into three segments that are moving through time, lighting situations and instruments.” Accompanied by a performer, this work is based primarily on improvisation, but Park doesn't use amplification and instead tries to give her audience a opportunity to experience the sound of her instruments in space and time that is as little mediated as possible.
Such concerts, as well as the accumulated time in the shape of music on her albums, should always be interpreted as an invitation, as tickets to Park’s world. She is currently pursuing further projects with other artists from Korea combining contemporary music with traditional elements, but also including video and light art. Park will soon release a joint project with Roy Claire Potter on Otoroku, the in-house label by the London venue Café Oto.
It was produced at the invitation of BBC 3 and first aired on the show Late Junction .”I have no clue what Roy Claire is saying! We had never met before and the people at BBC told us to communicate beforehand and prepare something for the show. We sent some emails forth and back, but in the end decided to just meet and try it out”, Park recalls. “We hardly understood each other but it felt like we had been working together for months. Roy Claire is doing poetry and mostly talks. Her voice to me is just like an instrument that I was playing with.”
Apart from these various collaborative projects, Park Jiha is currently working on her next solo album with her little-by-little approach on her own, her musical world by no means being a monad. On the contrary, it is an archipelago in which different cultural traditions and private memories, musical forms and tonal idiosyncrasies intertwine across space and time. Not a closed system, but a constant movement.
Kristoffer Patrick Cornils