Last night I was to Gimhae, Korea for the premiere of a new piece commissioned and performed by the Gimhae Gayageum Orchestra. The ensemble, whose director is gayageum soloist and Seoul National University professor Yi Ji-young, is made up of 23 players plus 2 percussionists. For most recent pieces and arrangements the performers play on 25-string gayageums, making for a grand total of 575 strings of goodness. I’ve always been attracted to groups of like-minded instruments, and this one may very well be my favorite. The homogeneity of the ensemble allows for some complex textures and all-around cool sounds.

The concert featured a wide variety of performances, from “gayageum byungchang” (in which the performers sing and play) to a court dance. Highlights included the performance of Busan-based composer Park Sun Young’s “Outfocusing Love” and a performance of Hwang Byungki’s duo, arranged for gayageum and voice and performed by Yi Ji-young and Ahn Jeong-Ah.

My contribution to the evening was “Mass Migration” (the Korean title is “새들의 비행”, translating to “Birds in Flight”), for the full orchestra and percussion. The inspiration for the piece comes from the movements of large flocks of birds as they travel South in autumn. These birds create fascinating patterns and shapes as they follow each other in looping paths that seem almost musical. Here’s an example:

European Starlings Flock Art 2.

To create the effect of a large flock gathering and moving together, I asked that the performers begin and end the piece by playing with chopsticks on the strings, which creates a soft, haunting tone. What impressed me about this group – besides their fantastic performance – was their willingness and enthusiasm to try something new. Though their instrument has a long history and a wide repertoire, groups like these are still happy to explore new possibilities. So was the audience, who gave the piece a great response without a grumble to be heard. (Though perhaps I just didn’t hear the grumbling.)

Thanks to Prof. Song Hyejin for some of the photos from the day’s rehearsals and the evening concert, and thanks to the Gimhae Gayageum Orchestra for the great performance.