Philos: traditional Korean instruments used in innovative ways to address issues of modern life

Park Jiha, Philos, tak:til / Glitterbeat, GB077 LP vinyl 12″ ( for release June 2019)

Originally released as a digital album by tak:til in November 2018, this second solo album from Korean composer / multi-instrumentalist Park Jiha is due for a vinyl release in mid-2019. Park plays three traditional Korean instruments on this album: yanggeum (a dulcimer with metal strings played by hitting the strings with bamboo sticks), piri (an oboe-like woodwind instrument) and saenghwang (a mouth organ with 17 bamboo pipes traditionally mounted vertically in a gourd, though modern ones can be made of completely different materials and can feature metal mouthpieces), plus a glockenspiel. Apart from one track “Easy”, set to a poem by Dima el Sayed (who also recites it), Park performs all eight pieces on the album without any other accompaniment or collaboration.

Once you get used to the sounds of the Korean instruments, especially the very piercing and shrill saenghwang, which apparently was rarely used even in traditional Korean music as an instrument in its own right, and was usually played together with other instruments, you will find this album a very beautiful, mellifluous and refined creature in its own right. While the music tends to be repetitive on most tracks, this repetition is also hypnotic and immersive, and serves to deepen and intensify the atmospheres evoked by the instruments individually and in combinations. Opener “Arrival” is an urgent, restless piece with all instruments blaring at once and calling attention to themselves yet still flowing and melodic and never descending into cacophony. The dulcimer provides a delicate and resonant metallic structure to the siren call of the other instruments. The title track is no less insistent with the saenghwang dominating the dulcimer with a slight mournful harmonica sound; an air of desperation and longing is present throughout much of the track. A number of tracks might refer to past memories of life in Seoul and other parts of Korea: “Thunder Shower” recalls sudden showers in midsummer heat and “Walker: In Seoul” combines background traffic and urban landscape field recordings with hammered dulcimer to suggest gritty urban life and the isolation of individuals in endless neighbourhoods of huge high-rise buildings. Likewise the final track “On Water” seems like a meditation on big city loneliness and what one has had to sacrifice in order to get ahead in life.

There is a definite ambience of both ethereal otherworldliness and an insistence on confronting social problems of isolation, the lack of connection in modern society, and loss in its various forms. The one track that features voice, “Easy”, with Park on saenghwang, features Dima el Sayed’s spoken lyrics which castigate the human tendency to want easy (but temporary) solutions to pressing global problems such as waging war on Third World nations to steal their natural resources, the plight of refugees and the commercial exploitation and slave trade of children and women. While darkness and melancholy are present, they are counterbalanced by a steely quality in the music: the dulcimer, bouncing between time-keeping percussion functions and liquid strings, is a vigorous hard-working instrument and both the yanggeum and saenghwang are possessed of a sturdy, determined spirit that may bow down a lot but is never broken. The irony that the problems and pressures of modern life can be confronted and dealt with (if not always successfully) with tools of the past used in innovative ways will not be lost on listeners.

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