When Japanese musician Sato Yukie first moved to Seoul almost 10 years ago, he was afraid to answer the phone. Hiring a language teacher didn`t seem to help matters. "I met a teacher a couple of times but we just ended up getting drunk," he said, chuckling. "I learned how to speak everyday Korean by living here. And I had to sing my songs in Korean so I studied hard." In the midst of making language and cultural adjustments since moving from Tokyo in 1995, Yukie, 41, has found the time to create a stir in Seoul`s small experimental music scene.
Yukie is the gregarious and long-haired lead vocalist and guitarist of his 1980s revival band, Gopchangjeongol, and the founder of Bulgasari, a live concert series devoted to unearthing Seoul`s less conventional musicians. The concerts were originally dubbed "SCUM in Seoul," an acronym for Small Circle of Unknown Musicians.
Gesticulating wildly and occasionally reaching for his air guitar, Yukie discussed how Bulgasari got its feet off the ground in February last year.
"My friend came to visit me from Japan and asked if there was any kind of underground scene in Korea. And I started to think, aren`t there any young people interested in experimental music? So a couple of people met up and we started playing together," he said.
Most of the concerts take place in bars near Hongik University or Yukie`s home in Sinchon. The mainstays of the Bulgasari troop include Joe Foster, an English teacher; Alfred Harth, an experimental musician from Germany; and members of the Seoul Frequency Quartet, an electronic music group comprising Choi Joon-yong, Hong Chul-ki, Jung Eun-joo and Yang Yong-joon. The concerts also feature Yukie`s friends from Japan. The last Bulgasari concert, which took place April 13, had Yukie`s Tokyo-based friend Qinggeltu (who is originally from Inner Mongolia) performing a repertoire on the "Morin Khurr," a traditional Mongolian stringed instrument.
After listening to the Bulgasari compilation album, it`s not hard to see why most people think of free improvisation music as being "difficult." Korean radio broadcasts cut through slow electronic beats while a single note from a trumpet wafts through one of the CD tracks.
"Here, when people hear that there`s live free improvisation music, they all leave," Yukie said. While hard to define, free improvisation music is a no-holds-barred kind of music where traditional melodies, rhythm and chords can dissolve into an atonal score or scatter into chaotic noises. Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane`s later works, such as his 1965 album "Ascension," could be described as a foray into free improvisation.
Wearing a momentary look of elation, Yukie described free improvisation as being "freer than Miles Davis. There are no rules - it`s music that is totally free." While free jazz and improvisation don`t enjoy large followings in Korea, he said the Seoul music scene had produced a handful of artists from the 1980s who had a relatively large fan base in Tokyo. According to Yukie, saxophonist Kang Tae-hwan, trumpet player Choi Sun-bae and percussionist Kim Dae-whan, members of the Kang Tae-hwan Trio, played a decisive role in creating an experimental music scene in Korea. The three were playing at a time when anything other than pretty, patriotic melodies would have been considered subversive.
Yukie said the underground music scene among a younger generation of Koreans didn`t pick up until the mid-1990s, when punk, electronic and house music started to infiltrate the burgeoning clubs around Hongik and Sinchon.
"Indie bands started to form around 1995. Before that, people thought that if you wanted to play music, you had to become a professional musician only. There were no amateur bands before then," he said.
Although restrictions on music have become considerably looser, most listeners tend to favor the easier melodies of K-pop. Yukie hopes that by introducing new forms of music, he can help Korean audiences appreciate the merits of a wider spectrum of tunes.
"These days, there are a lot more young people who can appreciate this kind of music," he said.
While a growing number of people learn to adjust their ears to experimental music, Yukie has finally adapted to one of Korea`s cultural quirks, what he calls "Korean time." "In Japan, everything is like clockwork and things must be scheduled months or years in advance. In Korea, people tend to disregard time. I used to get so impatient when someone showed up 30 minutes, an hour late. But then I figured it out - this is Korean time! So now I`m late all the time too." Bulgasari`s next concert will be held May 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Rush Bar in Sinchon (Line No. 2, Exit 3). Take a right from the exit, past Starbucks, right at the second stoplight. Keep walking up the street toward Ewha Womans University; Rush is located in a basement space. Tickets are 5,000 won. For more information, call (02) 362-6842 or visit www.bulgasari.com.
(email@example.com) By Iris Moon
Iris Moon's article on Bulgasari in the Wednesday, April 28 issue, "Don't run away from Bulgasari improvisational concert series," was a very welcome acknowledgement of an overlooked but burgeoning experimental music scene here in Seoul, but in providing the background to the series sponsored by Sato Yukie, the Herald missed out some other very important developments in free improvised music here in Seoul. Kae Soo-jung, a pianist chosen by the great multi-reed instrumentalist, Anthony Braxton, as interpreter for his piano works has recently returned to Korea and performed last week with the new Jeep Quartet, featuring Alfred Harth, Choi Sun-bae, and Chris Varga, at the Seom-yu Center in Samsung-dong. Kae is a brilliant improviser, and as one of the few women participating in and challenging the scene, deserves greater recognition and documentation. The legendary pianist, Park Chang-soo, has been holding regular free music performances at his house concerts in Yeonhee-dong, often several times a month (you may see listings of events at his website at: http://www.free-piano.com/). Park begins a significant tour of Japan in May. Bulgasari most recently sponsored a series of performances with three of the founding masters of the "onkyo" branch of electroacoustic improvisation--Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, and Ichiraku Yoshimitsu--here in Seoul in early April. They played in solo sets, in various combinations with Bulgasari players, and as their stellar trio, ISO, which played one of the most delicate and understatedly intense concerts I've ever seen at the Samilro Chango Theatre. Otomo Yoshihide has recently recorded with Park Je-chun and his wife Mi-yeon on the superb compact disc, "Loose Community," released on the Improvised Music in Japan label, but virtually impossible to find in music stores in the city. Otomo, Sachiko M, and Toshimaru Nakamura performed last September at the Buam Art Hall with Park and Mi-yeon for a concert that had nearly a full house with nary any publicity. Otomo has also used samples of Korean taepyungso master, Kim Seok-chul, in his brilliant Consume Red project with his former band Ground Zero. Alfred Harth is one of the most renowned tenor sax improvisers in the world, but one who now makes his home in Seoul and deserves far greater recognition by Korean audiences. Two of the more important younger Korean players in the Bulgasari concerts are Hong Chul-gi and Choi Joon-young, a duo sometimes know as Astronoise, and one that is seriously challenging boundaries and conventions in their use of tape, mixers, prepared CD players, and other electronic techniques. They've recorded several CDs in a variety of contexts with the label Balloon & Needle. Joe Foster, another important member of the scene, has sponsored tours to Korea of important west coast musicians, including young innovators from growing creative locales like Portland, Oregon. In addition to his work with the Bulgasari series, Sato Yukie is also responsible for organizing the recent performances in Korea of Damo Suzuki's Network, led by the legendary vocalist of the krautrock band, Can, and including Kawabato Makoto and Hiroshi Higashi of the well-known Japanese psychedelic rock band, the Acid Mothers Temple. An impressive cross-pollination of Korean, Japanese, and western improvisation is now taking place in Korea and circulating around the tireless work of Sato Yukie. Not only should audiences be grateful, they should start paying serious attention. I hope to read more on these pages and am gratified to see Ms. Moon making the effort to make potential audiences aware of this edifying musical experimentation.
One sad note, however, is our loss of the great Korean percussionist, calligraphist, and miniature artist, Kim Dae-hwan, one of the fathers of free improvised music in Korea and was mentioned in the article. Kim passed away in early March and will be sorely missed.
Bill Ashline Department of English Yonsei University Seoul