Posted : 2008-07-15 16:57
Updated : 2008-07-15 16:57

Kim, Zhang Travel New Road With Yo Yo Ma

Traditional Korean musician Kim Dong-won
/ Courtesy of Sony BMG Korea
By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

The double bass and pipa (Chinese lute) bring spontaneous combustion, and the unmistakable quivering of ``chang'' (Korean opera) resounds with the rhythm of Brazilian shakers and dumbeck. It's indefinable, yet deeply rooted with a sense of belonging and culture. It's the Silk Road Ensemble helmed by cellist Yo Yo Ma.

The term ``fusion'' or ``crossover'' is inadequate to describe this international music group, which claws at something deeper and thoroughly intuitive, deconstructing our concept of music and culture. ``Man could hear how the lively dialogue between ancient folklore and contemporary music came together,'' wrote music critic David Koch.

The Korea Times recently met two members of the group who participated in the Silk Road Ensemble's second album ``New Impossibilities'' (Sony BMG): South Korean ``gugak'' (traditional music) artist Kim Dong-won and Chinese double bassist Zhang Daxun.

Kim got involved with the project through Korean composer Kang Joon-il. Kang gave Ma a piece for cello, piano and ``janggo'' (Korean double-headed drum) and specifically asked that Kim play the drum. A disciple of ``samulnori'' founding father Kim Duk-soo, the 42-year-old teaches at Wonkwang Digital University. One has to wonder how such an artist of wondrous caliber was hidden from the Korean public for so long.

While unable to meet due to scheduling conflicts, both Kim and Zhang spoke affectionately of each other and the Silk Road project.

``Daxun is such a warm, humble person. He really resembles the double bass ― you know, those kind of people that make you feel good just by being around,'' said Kim. ``He pours so much affection into his playing, and I am truly proud of him as a fellow Asian.''

Ma invited Zhang to join the Silk Road Ensemble after hearing him play for just ten minutes backstage. Violist Richard Yongjae O'Neill, a founding member of chamber group Ditto, also asked the 26-year-old to join after falling in love with his playing. If one has the chance to hear him, it is strongly advised to sit by stage left, where the jumbo string is usually found. One can marvel as Zhang's luscious tunes fill in the hollows of the Earth and allow the sound of other instruments to take flight.

Double bassist Zhang Daxun
/ Courtesy of Credia
``He's wonderful,'' said Zhang, smiling, about Kim. He then did an impression of his ``gugak'' friend's unique vocal technique.

``To share and learn each other's music was really, really eye-opening. All music is folk music,'' he said. Born into a family of double bassists in China, Zhang moved to the United States because its diverse cultures would help him better understand the ``universal language'' of music.

``If you think about the essence of ethnic music, its peculiarity is, ironically, both its source of beauty and hindrance,'' said Kim. The latter is because music becomes set in a traditional pattern that often makes it an acquired taste. But the Silk Road Ensemble, he said, achieves something ``beautiful and extraordinary.''

``It's a liberation of music. These people who don't look like they'll get along come together and make music,'' he said. The Silk Road Ensemble, while still preserving the essence of each culture, establishes a new means of communication.

Along the way the artist breaks down his or her own preconceptions of music. ``The classical cello usually delivers soft vibrato, but Yo Yo Ma said he used `crazy vibrato' to create sounds that the cello was not meant to make,'' he said.

Exploring New Horizons

Zhang got to improvise for the first time through the ensemble. ``If the bass is finally to produce a headliner, the instrument can have no better champion,'' wrote the Washington Post regarding the first ever double bassist to champion the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. He is very open about music ― he likes tuning into the latest Chinese pop music and plays whimsical jazz pieces on the piano.

While the Silk Road project was something new, Zhang is no stranger to innovation. The scarcity of music for his instrument doesn't seem to be a problem and he is always paving a new path for himself by rearranging string pieces originally written for violin and cello. But fortunately there is an increasing number of contemporary classical music for the double bass, he said.

Kim is also busy making something of his own. In his newly released first solo album ``On the Way'' (Sony BMG), traditional percussion beats are spiced with psychedelic bass guitar tunes and soulful Korean narratives take on a new color when delivered in English.

``One can live comfortably as a traditional musician, by feeding upon what our mothers gave us. But I wanted to do something of my own,'' he said. ``It's like I've finally let go of 20 years' worth of luggage,'' he said about the slim CD that wraps up his entire musical career thus far.

The album was fashioned in a way reminiscent of the hit Irish movie ``Once.'' His good musician friends based in Europe offered to make an album in their spare time and many were impromptu creations. While the music is distinctively Korean, it is fluid enough to seep into the hearts of non-Koreans. "It's an inspiration to make music with him," wrote Ma in the album jacket.

``When we talk about a Silk Road experience, we don't mean simply the cultural exchange brought about by caravans traveling across deserts, but something much broader,'' Ma was quoted as telling The Guardian in September 2007. ``Whether the intercultural development of the tang in Argentina or the transport of indigo dye from India to Cape Verde to the Caribbean, to the term blues to the jeans we wear today, the collaboration and creativity of mini Silk Roads have given birth to some of the most extraordinary cultural evolutions,'' he said.

Asia has seen exciting cross border endeavors like the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra led by maestro Chung Myung-whun, which will perform July 29-30 in Korea.

Another venture delves deep into Asia's colorful cultural identity. In December, the Korea-ASEAN (Assoc. of South East Asian Nations) Folk Orchestra will be officially launched at the summit meeting in Thailand. The state-sponsored project is hoped to give way to more artistic activities in the tradition of the Silk Road Ensemble.

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