By: Jared Redmond
The dotolim (닻올림) series has been a mainstay of the small but active experimental improvisation scene in Seoul for a good decade. Last Friday’s excellent concert brought together three legends of that local scene, heavy hitters with years of Korea- and internationally-based work behind them: Ryu Hankil, Kevin Parks, and Joe Foster. Ryu Hankil is a household name among experimental music aesthetes in Korea. His large body of work extends from glitchy electro-pop (as early-2000s project Daytripper) to hardware- and object-based free improvisation and digital noise, and he performs perhaps more often in Europe than he does in his home country. Kevin Parks is a composer as well as an improviser, currently teaching music at the Catholic University of Daegu, and Joe Foster, who has been based in Korea for at least 15 years, is well known as a free improviser of music ranging from the very harsh to the very weird (this is meant as a profound compliment).
Their trio improvisation was performed as two sets of about 40 minutes each. Both sets stayed away from harsher ’noise’ territory: although at times the sounds leaned toward the more extreme, that extremity always occurred as the result of the improvisation’s narrative, rather than as a brutality for its own sake. Throughout it all, a studious Ryu at his laptop provided a tasteful backdrop of digital glitches and drones which infrequently even intimated definite rhythm. From within that sonic landscape emerged the processed instrument, object, and hardware sounds of Foster and Parks. At times, the keyclicks of Ryu typing commands became a subtle musical addition unto themselves, his fingers announcing shifts in the underlying digital canvas.
For the first set, Parks spent a lot of time with his electric guitar, carefully working a radically detuned low string to create e-bow drones. Foster took on a decidedly ‘motivic’ approach, using amplified tuning forks and extended techniques on his trumpet periodically, as recurring fragments which created a sense of unity within the stream-of-consciousness flow of sound. In the second set, these motivic impulses found their outlet through Foster’s intermittent striking of claves. Parks complimented the dry and ritualistic sounds with smoother, more atmospheric sounds of his own: amplified and reverberated springs and metal objects which rumbled, creaked, and groaned.
Highlights of the acoustically-generated sounds: Foster’s amplified and processed music box, which when cranked forward or backward yielded either sounds of slow, twisted bells, or foreboding mechanical rattles. And from Parks: ball bearings of various sizes dropped into amplified metal bowls, as great stones into the abyss. In general, the chamber music skills of all three musicians were apparent, although Parks was especially noticeable, his head leaning toward the other performers to carefully sense the right moment to chime in or bow out. In only one moment was the natural flow of the music rather unnaturally stopped and re-started, as if a collective sense of when the improvisation had ‘finished’ had not been equally felt by all three players. But such moments are their own risk and reward in such music: a byproduct of the mental electricity – for the musicians as well as the audience – of never knowing quite what will come next.