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A Quietus Interview

False Idol: Park Jiha Interviewed
Alex Rigotti , October 11th, 2022 00:09

As the K-Music 2022 Festival begins in London, Alex Rigotti speaks with Park Jiha about the nuances of playing piri and the tension between nation and identity in her work

Photos by Marcin T. Jozefiak

For an artist, engaging with the traditional often stems from a desire to react against the modernised mainstream, and for many reinventing the past is a shortcut to creative innovation. Visibly bringing ancient forms of art to the forefront of your music can also become shorthand for cultural identity.

South Korea provides fertile ground for engaging with this issue. As the recent V&A Exhibition on the Korean wave (‘Hallyu’) proves, there is finally a decipherable Korean mainstream for artists to work against. Nowadays, we have Oscar-winning arthouse films, purifying skincare brands, and of course, many K-pop idols to enact their soft power. Delving into Korea’s musical past – gugak, or traditional Korean music – seems like an easy antidote to more oversaturated images of Korean culture propagated by the ‘Big 4’ entertainment agencies.

The K-Music Festival has been running for nine years now, but this edition answers the V&A exhibition with a lineup of underground Korean artists. One might assume that it’s the perfect way of displaying intimate, ‘authentic’ portrayals of Korean music culture. Not for one of its most prominent performers, Park Jiha, who will be performing at Stone Nest this year on 24 November.

Park was born and raised in Seoul in 1985; she entered gugak school as a teenager to specialise in the piri, a double reed instrument. After graduating, she began playing in folk duo 숨[suːm] in 2009. But she’s most known for her critically-acclaimed solo debut, Communion released globally under Glitterbeat’s spin-off label, tak:til in 2018. The innovative blend of jazz, gugak instruments, and minimalism won over a new legion of fans.

She speaks on Zoom, where her husband, Curtis Cambou, translates Park’s words from his record store in Seoul. Park’s philosophy encapsulates the postmodern contradictions of cultural engagement today. Throughout our conversation, she distances herself from gugak, and claims she is not representative of Korean music. “I don’t want to be affiliated with gugak,” she says. “I want to keep people focused on what I do as a musical composition, not something that is related to a tradition. It's just music. It's made with instruments that have a history, but I use it as a way to produce sound that I want to get out.”

Though this year’s K-Music Festival responds to hallyu, Park believes the wave has left her personal artistic process untouched. It seems to have had little effect on underground music, unlike other art forms, such as film. “Most of the movies are only mainstream; investments are pretty large, and they’re made for a mainstream audience. But music is a lot more divided. We have a lot of variety, because we have underground, smaller labels. It’s a lot more difficult for a movie producer to be independent and get to a large scale.”

What value does tradition have for a musician such as Park, who has been shaped by that same system? “I think traditional music has a lot of very interesting points, but it’s not my own language,” she explains. “I can’t get inspired by it, or do something that would be within the framework of traditional music.”

The result is an oeuvre that uses Park’s relationship with her instruments to uncover new emotions. She mainly performs with three instruments: the saenghwang is a free reed mouth organ (and cover star of this year’s album, The Gleam). The yanggeum is a hammered dulcimer; songs such as ‘The Way Of Spiritual Breath’ emphasise the screeching overtones that rattle amongst its woolly, gentle notes. But it is the piri which Park has the longest relationship with; a double reed instrument which hits the spot between a clarinet and saxophone. For a small, simple instrument, it produces a surprisingly deep sound.

The three provide a lot of scope for exploring sonic textures, something that has stayed with Park for a long time now: “When I was young, I was really willing to try something different and more interesting. That's why I was very passionate learning how to use these instruments technically, trying to do something that’s not already been done.”

Park’s creative process is organic; she will usually create a core motif. choosing whichever instrument feels right for the track. She’ll try to explore each instrument and its specific traits. “It's not like Western instruments, which went through a lot of progressions,” she explains. “These instruments are very unstable and imprecise, for example, with the notes. With the piri, between the ‘do’ and the ‘re’, there is a gap that contains all the other notes. It's very difficult to catch them, but if you catch them, it produces a very interesting sound.”

Park’s affair with these instruments has lasted since she was a young teenager; her inspiration and devotion to them is something to be admired. Encouraging creativity, it seems, comes organically to her. “It’s also surprising to me,” she muses, “because it’s been a long time that I’ve used these instruments. I thought maybe after all that time, I might not have got as much creative inspiration, but it’s been very constant.”

One thing that helps is to source inspiration elsewhere; The Gleam is based off a bunker designed by architect Tadao Ando. In the bunker, one observes the light as it moves across the room throughout the day. Her most recent collaborative effort with English poet Roy Claire Potter features Park’s instrumentation, as Potter recites poetry on top. It was an improvisatory effort that points towards an exciting direction for Park, and another way that she connects with other musicians through basic emotion, rather than cultural play. It’s indicative of her overall interest in the flux between minimalism and maximalism.

“You could definitely do something with a lot of instruments and a lot of layers, but stripping down to the main core is something that I feel is more interesting,” she tells me. “That's why you would feel like this is still very minimal, because it's stripped down. But it could also be something that isn’t that minimal, because of the texture. It can be a lot richer because there’s more arrangements than you’d get in most minimal compositions.”

Stripped of embellishment, nationhood, context; that’s the reason why her music has become so popular with global listeners. Unlike Korean audiences, where the expectations of gugak might stifle many interpretations of Park’s work, there’s no background reading necessary; just the ability to be patient and listen.

“It’s not Korean in any way, it’s very universal,” she says. “Most people listen to it via streaming or records, and they don’t actually see the instruments. You don’t need to see them, it’s a supplementary thing. So when you listen to it and focus on it, there’s a deepness, something that is very universal in the emotions you feel. It would definitely be appealing for people that listen to music where they can actually focus on the music, really get deep into it. I think that’s probably the nice of people that appreciate it.”

Modern music culture has a tendency to demand national categorisation of music. On the one hand, it functions as visible reparations for previous eras of cultural homogeny, but it’s also exoticised artists, valuing them only for how radically different they can sound. For a musician like Park Jiha, being platformed in a festival tied to her heritage sounds entirely antithetical to her ethos of universality. Ironically enough, performing at the K-Music Festival might be the best way for audiences to appreciate her music free of context.

“For me, it doesn't imply that I have to represent any sort of Korean music,” she says. “I’m Korean because of my nationality, but I don’t feel like I have to represent Korea in any way for the festival. I’m representing my own music.”

Park Jiha performs at Stone Nest in London on 24 November. For tickets and more information click here. The performance is part of K-Music Festival, which is currently running until 24 November. For the full lineup, click here.