Posted : 2009-05-15 18:21
Updated : 2009-05-15 18:21

Guitarist Denis Sung-ho’s Search for Self, Music

Belgian guitarist Denis Sung-ho Janssens
/ Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Knowing about the player behind the performance may add something more palpable to the emotional experience songs can inspire, but sometimes a rendition of music just speaks for itself.

Some may shake their heads in sympathy when they hear that guitarist Denis Sung-ho Janssens was abandoned in front of Busan City Hall before his Belgian parents adopted him when he was nine months old, and that he has returned as a successful artist, in search of his biological family.

With his playful demeanor, the musician is nothing like the stereotypical image of a brooding adoptee.

``There is this image of adoptees as being sad, but I'm very happy. Adoption is only difficult in a family without love,'' Janssens said in a recent interview in Seoul with The Korea Times. He spoke in his native French while mixing in bits of English and shy pronunciations of Korean words he is learning at Ewha Womans University.

The guitarist smiles, and yet his guitar, a rare Thomas Humphrey, laments.

Koreans may identify ``han'' or the sense of habitual sadness, resonate in some of the more sentimental pieces in Janssens' first Korean album, ``Remembrance'' (Squarepig). This does not mean the album is depressing ― it is in fact far from it, teeming with life, sweeping passions and exhilarating rhythm.

But there is something within the pure sonority that claws at the heartstrings.

There was a period when he felt a little lost in his youth, he said, particularly since his Asian appearance often stood out, but now he boasts a ``strong identity'' that is European as much as it is Korean.``There is han, a lot of suffering in Korean culture. Koreans are very sentimental,'' he said.

One notable track is ``Korean Mountain,'' composed by the guitarist himself. ``I was inspired by Im Kwon-taek's (movie) `Chihwaseon.' It's not very original, with Bach as the base and featuring Brazilian themes, but it expresses who I am,'' said the 34-year-old.

Born in the southern port city in 1975, Janssens starting playing classical guitar at age eight and won Belgium's national ``Young Talent'' competition by the time he was 14.

A 2004 ``Rising Star'' of the European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO), he has held recitals in prestigious halls including Carnegie Hall in New York and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and has three critically acclaimed (European) albums under his belt. His staunch supporters include the great Martha Argerich, and he has premiered works by contemporary composers.

The world's 13th largest economy remains one of the major ``exporters'' of babies, but public perceptions are changing. Janssens, who prefers to be called Denis Sung-ho, a mix of given names (his full Korean name is Shin Sung-ho), can easily be considered part of the ``happy'' adoptive cases along with American ski champion Toby Dawson and Aaron Bates, who inspired the film ``My Father'' starring Daniel Henney.

The search for self is a challenging process for any individual. For Denis Sung-ho, the pursuit for ``ma rascine (my roots)'' continues, but it seems to be music itself, in addition to the local culture, that brings him back to his birthplace.

Denis Sung-ho is lactose intolerant like many Koreans and relishes in the local diet. In particular he loves ``sin'' kimchi or the super-fermented variation of the quintessential Korean dish that even locals find to be an acquired taste.

``Artistically, Korea is much more exciting and dynamic than Belgium, where things are very slow. The level of musicality here is fantastic and I love the fine arts. There is also an extraordinary number of young, talented artists,'' said the artist.

Ever since visiting Korea for the first time as an adult in 2006, he has returned numerous times for concerts and masterclasses.

``The guitar was popular in the 1960s but it went down. Now it's coming back,'' he said. Only recently have classical guitar recordings begun to resurface, such as those by Kaori Muraji and Sharon Isbin. Denis Sung-ho's new CD features an eclectic blend from Verdi-inspired music by Tarrega to Astor Piazolla's ``The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires'' (`Summer' and `Winter') ― a fine addition to the rather limited range of classical guitar music available in Korea.

What lies ahead? ``It depends on the time of the day. Sometimes I'd like to live alone on a small British island. Other times, I imagine myself as a family man, coming home to my wife and children at 8 p.m. sharp,'' he said. But no matter what scenario, his guitar ― his ``companion'' ― will undoubtedly accompany him.

Denis Sung-ho will perform May 20 tracks from ``Remembrance'' at Mapo Arts Center. Tickets cost from 10,000 won to 30,000 won. Special packages including the CD are available for 30,000-40,000 won. The hall is located near exit 2 of Daeheung Station on subway line 6 or exit 5 of Ewha Womans University Station on line 2. Call (02) 3274-8600.

For more information about the artist, visit (Korean, English, French).
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