"Global Ear: Seoul"
Coming off a grueling two-week in tour in Japan, I was hardly prepared
for the pleasant surprise waiting for me in Seoul. Günter Müller,
Norbert Möslang, Tomas Korber, Christian Weber (who couldn't make
it to Seoul) and myself had originally planned to only tour Japan, as
part of the Swiss Arts Council's contingent to the World Expo in Aichi.
I'd been in contact with Bill Ashline, an American living in Seoul for
over ten years now, and casually asked him one day if he happened to know
anyone organizing concerts there. Bill immediately put me in touch with
the Relay collective of musicians and two concerts were set for March
16 and 17.
I spent the last night of my Japanese tour in Tokyo's Shimokitazawa district
with my friends Toshi and Kikuko in The Bar With No Name. Going directly
from the bar to the airport the next morning I pretty much sleepwalked
my way into Seoul. The drive in from Kimpo Airport to our hotel passed
in a haze of grey marshlands and the wide expanse of endless cement expressways.
Getting off the airport bus the first thing I noticed was two men in suits
from a nearby store attempting to pry open manhole covers in the midst
of whirring eight-lane traffic. It seemed to me they did things differently
here in Korea, though at this point I wasn't sure if I was dreaming.
The venue for the first concert, Theater Choo, was only a short walk from
our hotel. I began to wake from my post-Tokyo stupor and feel the energy
of Seoul's street life. Everything seemed louder, looked rawer. People
moved at a quicker pace, hollered around more. The street leading up to
Theater Choo looked like a cross between shanty town and open air mall.
Just getting into the theater proved difficult. Everything was under construction
and great puddles of muddy water obstructed our way. We struggled with
our gear through the darkness and found ourselves in a small theater.
Tables and musical equipment cluttered the stage. I finally had the chance
to meet musician Choi Joonyong, my main contact to the Relay collective.
We set up our gear, did a brief soundcheck and then went off with Choi
Joonyong in search of something to eat. We ended up in a soup restaurant
and ordered the house specialty, Beoseot Maeoon-tang (spicy mushroom soup).
Growing up in Los Angeles, Korean food was nothing exotic to me, but never
had I tasted anything like this! I finally began to wake up as the hot
soup got my circulation roaring. Günter Müller's face was slowly
turning bright red and fine beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. All
around us graffiti from recent customers covered the walls. The beer was
flowing and everyone seemed to be in a good mood, reinvigorated and looking
forward to the evening's concert.
We made it back to the theater just in time for the first set with Norbert
Möslang and Choi Joonyong. Norbert's cracked everyday electronics
didn't seem out of place here with Joonyong's eviscerated CD players,
exposed circuit boards and mixer antics. The next set featured Tomas Korber
and long-time Seoul resident Joe Foster on trumpet, microphones, mixing
board and various unidentifiable objects. By this time the theater was
nearly full, which seemed to make everyone from the Relay collective smile.
Apparently, this was one of their biggest events.
As with all concerts organized by Relay, tonight's also had no entrance
fee. According to Choi Joonyong, "If we charged for tickets, nobody
would come. It is also illegal to have foreign musicians in Korea on tourist
visas playing for an entrance fee." One of the main movers in Seoul's
experimental music scene, Japanese musician Sato Yukie, was deported from
Korea for this very reason. Sitting in the audience of a concert he'd
organized in Seoul last year were two plain clothes police officers. Sato
was arrested on the spot and deported for five years. He's now back, thanks
to some good luck and being married to a Korean, but even a recent concert
by Damo Suzuki was cancelled under similar circumstances. This hasn't
made it easy for the musicians in Seoul, but they've persevered and the
Relay collective has even managed to receive funding from the Seoul Art
Foundation. This made it possible for our group to play in Seoul.
Tomas Korber and Joe Foster's set received enthusiastic applause. I was
next up with Jin Sangtae and his exposed hard drives, laptop and shortwave
radios. All the hardware detritus brought a pleasant smile to Norbert
Möslang's face, but he had to ask "Wouldn't it be enough with
just the cracked CD players and hard drives? Why all the laptops as well?"
Maybe the answer lies in Korea's role as one of the world's most computerized
nations? In any case, more emphasis seemed to be placed on the rough hewn
analogue sound sources than on their digital transformations.
Approaching the midway point of the evening, Günter Müller took
the stage with guitarist Sato Yukie, who's musical orientation seemed
more akin to the New York Downtown Scene of the 1980's. What seemed at
first glance like a classic mismatch proved to be an interesting exercise
in friction. Although Sato's musical approach takes quite a detour from
the other musicians in the Relay collective, he has been an important
player in the development of Seoul's experimental music community. According
to Bill Ashline, "Yukie's role has been completely central."
Yukie is best know in Korea for his psychedelic rock band Kopchangjongol
(translating in Korean to "beef tripe casserole"). All the members
of Kopchangjongol are Japanese but Yukie sings in Korean–the first
hybrid group of it's kind in Korea. Yukie has always also been interested
in improvised music and started organizing events in 2003 under the banner
of the Bulgasari group, from which the Relay collective split off later
to pursue a more purely electronic direction. Under Yukie's initiative
players as diverse in style as German saxophonist Alfred 23 Harth and
free improvisation trumpeter Choi Sun-bae came together with many of the
musicians of the current Relay collective for monthly sessions in different
bars and cafés in Seoul. Through his contacts to Japan, Yukie also
managed to invite many Japanese musicians like The Ruins, Kawabata Makoto,
Yuko Nexus 6, Ichiraku Yoshimitsu, Toshimaru Nakamura, Otomo Yoshihide
and Sachiko M. This Korea-Japan nexus has led to some cross-pollination,
with Otomo Yoshihide inviting some members of the Relay collective over
to Tokyo for concerts.
The next set of the evening paired Tomas Korber, Norbert Möslang
and mixing board specialist Hong Chulki. The resulting music is austere,
with Hong Chulki's feedback piercing through Korber and Möslang's
dense sound. Each set has been astoundingly good so far. The music is
fresh, the audience attentive and the sound system excellent.
I find myself playing the last set of the night with Günter Müller
and Relay's main organizing force Ryu Hankil, who has assembled a collection
of dismantled analogue clocks and contact microphones running through
various software patches. The sound of the clocks' ticking, whirring gears
transforms the room into one giant machine. We can literally here time
slowly ticking out, signalling the end of our first memorable evening