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Something Inexplicably Subtle: Intercultural Lateral Thinking from Heaven to Earth

By Bruce Crossman

"something so inexplicably subtle that it can only be felt deep in the heart…[it] comes down from heaven to stay in the human mind...It touches the heart of everyone…and activates his spirit"
(Gayageum master, Hwang Byung-ki, 2002, ‘Philosophy and Aesthetics in Korea,’ in R. C. Provine, Y. Tokumaru, and J. L. Witzleben (eds.), The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea, 7, p. 814)

"a misty compass for creation in the core of my being"
(Naito, 2014, Hiroshi Naito 2005-2013: From Protoform to Protoscape 2, p. 49).

Vincent Tay, Joe Tabua, Mitchell Hart, Yoon Ha-young, Bruce Crossman, Waldo Garrido at Western Sydney University, Recording Studio, Penrith (Kingswood) Campus, 19th October 2020 (photo: Alex Frendo)

Vincent Tay, Joe Tabua, Mitchell Hart, Yoon Ha-young, Bruce Crossman, Waldo Garrido at Western Sydney University, Recording Studio, Penrith (Kingswood) Campus, 19th October 2020 (photo: Alex Frendo)

I am struck by the intimate rumblings of sound as heaven touches earth in the imagined and spiritually felt aesthetics of Korean master Gugak musician Hwang Byung-ki’s gayageum sounds, as paralleling East Coast Australian Sydney bush sounds, where its alive stillness surprises me—angular branch rhythms shimmer in the still pond momentary ripples and frogs’ boisterously lopsided rhythmic exchanges cut chunkily through the air. As creatives we move from the mysterious “misty compass” for our spiritual, or ‘affective feeling’ expressions within the materiality of sound, crossing landscape borders of Japanese architect Hiroshi Naito’s figurative and literal landscapes, into the territories of Hwang’s “inexplicably subtle,” felt-spiritual dimensions of life expressed in sound.

These creative interactions where heaven touches earth were expressed in a series of online forums and workshops in 2020-21 involving a creative exchange between Seoul National University and Western Sydney University in a series called Heaven-to-Earth Inspiration: Gugak Performers and Australian Composers and New Creativity: Korea and Australia Music Collaboration Seminar, at the 2021 SNU Online Winter Music Festival. This series was a collection of creative ideas across the time-space of Korea and Australia relationships, centred in discussions between London-based leading young-generation Korean Gugak and jazz musician Hyelim Kim, Korean composer and cultural organiser, Sngkn Kim—also the founder of the Tongyeong International Music Festival, Yi Ji-young, a Korean official master (yisuja) of the Intangible Cultural Property No. 23 Gayageum Sanjo and Byeongchang, renown Australian poet Kate Fagan, the Director, Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, and myself as a composer and cultural organiser.

It came out of our collaboration—Heaven to Earth Border House—which we recorded through file-sharing across Sydney-Seoul-London in 2020 during the first strike of the pandemic crisis. Just as recent Korean architects of the post-war generation currently rebel (Hong 2016) against the necessity mass high-rise housing architecture of their predecessors to create bespoke, low-rise, repurposed traditional hanok-house dwellings where, as Seoul-based architect John Hong observes, ‘unrelated individuals’ share intimacy within new flows of social space, so to, the traditional Korean musical form of Sanjo can be repurposed with unrelated ‘intercultural individuals’ ideas from Korean and Australian creatives. It worked across free-jazz, bluesy-spectral colour gestures, contemporary chromatic and modal compositional palettes, expansive heaven to earth encapsulating poetry, and gritty Western Sydney Mulgoa Nature Reserve tangling branch imagery, whose macrocosmic collective purpose fostered new creative interconnections between Australia and Korea.

We invited into these intercultural rooms of exchange our respective postgraduate students from Seoul National University and Western Sydney University and allowed them to feel the creative stirrings between each other’s cultures—a type of intercultural version of Korean mot where “when we come in contact with the object, our spirit by some means seems to enter into the spiritual rhythm of the object” (Hwang, ‘Aesthetic,’ 1978, p.30). Here, traditional Korean Gugak sounds of gayageum bends and almost sand-paper bluesy grit of haegeum tangled with Diaspora-folky blues gayageum and noise-graduated crawling electric guitar entangled noise sounds, as if within a Mulgoa Nature Reserve’s tangled branches, or a Seoul Pansori-style throaty mountain-practice singing.

Specifically, the creative exchange we focus on in Korea-Australia Music Exchange, are between Seoul National University and Western Sydney University postgraduate students which ended the season of seminar collaborations with a refreshing joy. Jinju Yang (gayageum) and Soojeong Ko (haegeum) in Married Life, juxtaposed Korean women discussions over bluesy string vibrations and kitchen sounds, whilst composer Robert Moss (electric guitar) worked with Eonhwa Lee (gayageum) in a gritty indie timbre piece, called Two Faces, and the night closed beautifully with lyrical cultural melodies in dialogue within Holding the Gates Between Heaven and Earth with Alex Frendo (guitar/electronics) & Chuljin Kim (gayageum). And Indie rock electric guitarist, Joe Tabua worked with Yoon Ha-young (gayageum) in a drone based music with inside the note electronic pedal and finger wriggling aftertones in Waterways. We will also feature several short films on the collaboration, Heaven to Earth: Korea-Australia Creative Collaborations (2021), by internationally seasoned cinematographer/director, and film lecturer, Vincent Tay, as well as the collaboration between Hyelim Kim (taegŭm) and Bruce Crossman (composer) in Gyeonggye: Border (solo taegŭm and Korean Temple bowl).

Indeed it seemed as if the students’ collaborative joy in working together in this intercultural ‘border house’ within the mutual crisis of the pandemic season, had fashioned a spiritual rhythm of subtle and ecstatic joy amongst the collaborators towards a re-purposing of Seoul sanjo and Sydney Diaspora Korean-folk and Indie traditions. It was as if different flows of time from Hanok-derived architecturally-derived inspiration of “unpredictability” and “process” (Hong 2016) had reached out and tangled from teachers to students as a gritty, vibrating, humorous intercultural joy that surprised and refreshed the spirts of all, subtly. This subtleness of collaboration had elements of inspiration from Gugak master Hwang Byung-ki’s approach—something “felt deep in the heart…[it] comes down from heaven to stay in the human mind...It touches the heart of everyone…and activates his spirit” (Hwang Byung-ki, 2002, p.814).

© Bruce Crossman, Glenmore Park NSW 2745, 30th September 2021

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Track 1: Sound recording

Gyeonggye: Border (solo taegŭm/Korean Temple bowl/chanter)
Hyelim Kim (taegŭm/Korean Temple bowl/chanter) and Bruce Crossman (composer)

Hyelim Kim (solo taegŭm); recorded: London, Stella Polaris Studios, United Kingdom. Recording engineer: Oyvind Aamli; Mastering Engineer: Mitchell Hart.

Gyeonggye: Border was sparked by the organicism of zig-zag organisation of a tree branch, observed during my bush walks in Mulgoa Nature Reserve near the foothills of the Blue Mountains, Sydney. Its organic rhythmics, angular and sharp, jarring things with the rhythm of nature inspired the organicism of the music, as a flow of juxtaposed living colours. It moves from the gentle stillness of the opening’s Japanese temple bell resonances, broken by Judeo-Christian glossolalia chanting entwined with the Korean word ‘gyeonggye,’ and closes with taegŭm breath-drones and emergent flourishes as if signalling heaven. The pulsing juxtaposed colours of the taegŭm are a type of symbolic life pulsing, as spirit crosses from heaven to earth and earth to heaven, as a tribute to my father’s border crossing to heaven.

Photo of Hye Lim Kim

Hyelim Kim (photo: Jinhwan Lee)

Track 2: Sound recording

Waterways (electric guitar/electronics, gayageum)
Joe Tabua (electric guitar/electronics) and Yoon Ha-young (gayageum)

Waterways is a comprovisation originally for gayageum and electric guitar. The term ‘comprovisation' is used here to reflect unity of music, performance and a place where two parts become influential. Though, as the collaboration ventured out it dared to become something quite majestic. My sentiments about "comprovisation" put forward that cross-cultural collaboration is immensely rewarding. So, it is through this collaboration between Seoul National University and Western Sydney University that encourages discourse around notions of composition and performance. As a cross-cultural composer it is necessary to connect with the other. The other is everything to me, for I am the outsider. In fact, we have all been outsiders at some point in our lives. But, through cross-cultural collaboration we can work selflessly for the good of humanity, or at least create music to motivate the anxious amongst us.

Joe Tabua, Mitchell Hart at Western Sydney University, Recording Studio, Penrith (Kingswood) Campus, 19th October 2020 (photo: Alex Frendo)

Joe Tabua, Mitchell Hart at Western Sydney University, Recording Studio, Penrith (Kingswood) Campus, 19th October 2020 (photo: Alex Frendo)

Track 3: Film

Married Life (gayageum/soundscape, haegeum)
Jinju Yang (gayageum/soundscape) and Soojeong Ko (haegeum)

Married life is inspired by the stories and music from Korean Women’s folksong ‘Married life song-시집살이 노래’ in Chungcheong province and my daily life experience as a married woman in Australia. The music is the conversation of two women on marriage which has two parts: before marriage and after the marriage with enclosing of Chungcheong province dialect in agreement on what experienced woman has shared. Sound sources in the first part include what women are mostly experiencing in their daily lives, such as cooking and childcaring. Jajinmori rhythm is used in the after the marriage part which presents familiarity of the lives of Korean married women. The two main instruments, 12 string Gayageum performed by Jin Ju Yang and Haegeum performed by Soojeong Ko, represents the women interacting with their married life experiences through music.

Jinju Yang (photo: Alexander Frendo)

Joe Tabua, Mitchell Hart at Western Sydney University, Recording Studio, Penrith (Kingswood) Campus, 19th October 2020 (photo: Alex Frendo)

Track 4: Film

Two Faces (electric guitar, gayageum
Robert Moss (electric guitar) worked with Eonhwa Lee (gayageum))

Two Faces, as the name implies, represents an intersection between Korea and Australia, traditional and modern, acoustic and electric, culturally and demographically diverse musicians, and both sides of the guitar string. While the sound of the Gayageum inspired these spontaneous musical ideas, composing the piece necessitated appropriate Gayageum tuning, techniques, and specific articulation symbols, which Robert created in notation software. Tablature was required to specify the guitar fingering so both sides of the string would sound as intended. An additional guitar pickup was mounted above the nut so both sides of the strings could be amplified in stereo along with the normal guitar sound. The composition was structured so the guitar could be overdubbed after the Gayageum had been recorded, and, as per traditional Sanjo Gayageum and contemporary Western music, improvisation could be facilitated. Eonhwa recorded the Gayageum part so perfectly that the rest of the project was an absolute breeze.

Robert Moss (photo: Alexander Frendo)

Robert Moss (photo: Alexander Frendo)

Track 5: Sound recording & film

Holding the Gates Between Heaven and Earth (guitar/electronics, gayageum)
Alexander Frendo (guitar/electronics) & Chuljin Kim (gayageum)

I created Holding the Gates Between Heaven and Earth, with the intention of bridging the knowledge of the Guitar with the Gayageum, and creating a story with these instruments. Inspired by the name of Bruce Crossman’s new piece “Heaven to Earth: Border House”, I thought of a story that could be represented by the Guitar, Gayageum and Bass. I felt that each of these instruments provided sonic qualities that helped shape the grand yet subtle nature of the ideas of what is Heaven and Earth. The composition is a three-part piece that follows the journey of the guitar and bass through Heaven and Earth. While crossing through the gates, they are met with the Gayageum. The guitar and bass walking gently beside it with some stumbles along the way.

Alexander Frendo

Alexander Frendo

Track 6: Films

Heaven to Earth: Korea-Australia Creative Collaborations (2021)
Vincent Tay (director)

These two films attempt to capture the synergies of multicultural musical collaboration across geographical divides. The filming took place at the end of 2020, in the midst of yet another lockdown in the seemingly never-ending saga of Covid-19, with the associated challenges of risk assessments, gear sanitisation, and socially distanced filmmaking.

I filmed our music students recording their parts with four cameras, assisted by two Screen Media students, and thereafter interviewed them about the project. I used chiaroscuro lighting to create an intimate studio aesthetic.

To ensure that the films were engaging and encapsulated the creative process, I incorporated video selfies of the Korean students talking about their instruments, and Zoom sessions between them and our music students discussing their parts in the collaboration.

Full length videos of the entire studio sessions, interviews, Zoom interactions and Korean student video selfies will be produced as a complete documentation of the project.

Joseph Tabua & Yoon Ha-Young Collaboration

Jessica Irish & Park Si-Hyun Collaboration

Works Cited

Hong, John (2016). Fragments of a New Housing Language: Contemporary Urban Housing in Korea. Seoul: Archilife.

Hwang Byong-ki (1978). ‘Aesthetic Characteristics of Korean Music in Theory and in Practice,’ Asian Music, Vol. 9, No. 2, Korean Music Issue, pp. 29-40.

Hwang, Byung-ki (2002). ‘Philosophy and Aesthetics in Korea’. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, 7. Robert Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru and Lawrence Witzleben, eds. New York: Routledge. 813-816.

Naito, Hiroshi (2014). Hiroshi Naito 2005-2013: From Protoform to Protoscape 2. Tokyo: Toto.

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