Interview: Jiha Park – A ‘Communion’ Between Traditional and Experimental (April 2018)

Jiha Park, a multi-instrumentalist from South Korea, is the leader and founder of duo 숨[su:m], as well as a solo performer and composer. Her debut solo album Communion was released in the worldwide in March and was previously presented in London at the latest K-Music Festival last October.

We were lucky enough to have the chance to catch up with Park and interview her to better understand her practice, her music, and the concept behind the album.

Your debut solo album Communion was finally released here on 2nd March on tak:til. However, the album was originally released in your native South Korea in November 2016 and showcased at a number of international events between then and now, including London’s K-Music Festival closing concert last October. How do you feel about finally having it available worldwide? What can we expect from the album?

I’m very glad that my album has finally been released worldwide. As you mentioned, I released it in Korea first. I was happy then that I could share my music with people, but now I can share it with even more people, and beyond Korea. I just want to share my music with as many people as I can.

You are a multi-instrumentalist able to play a number of traditional Korean and Western instruments. In this album in particular – I dare say throughout your musical career – you have made the communion of different sounds and traditions your trademark. Why this choice?

For nine years I worked in a duo called 숨[su:m]. At that time, I wanted to make music with only traditional Korean instruments, so I tried many experimental sounds using traditional instruments. After that I wanted to extend my music; I wanted to be free and wanted to learn from different things, and to try to make new sounds. I wanted to broaden my musical horizons.

Most of the instruments you play are unknown to Western audiences. Could you describe them, and is there an instrument that is the most important to you and your music?

The piri is a very small bamboo oboe with a reed and only eight holes. Nevertheless, its sound is very loud. I think it is both a very primitive and very sensitive instrument. The shape is very simple but when I play the piri I have to control many unexpected variables. It’s always hard for me, but because of this awkwardness, I feel attracted to the piri.

The saenghwang is a kind of mouth organ that consists of lots of bamboo pipes – mine has 24 pipes. It has a mysterious sound, sometimes sounding as if it were electronic, but it also has a very natural sound. Most Korean instruments cannot make a harmony, but saenghwang is the one instrument that can, so when I am pressing the keys or closing the holes in the pipes if I press several keys I can make harmony.

The yanggeum is a hammered dulcimer. It’s like the Indian santur or the Hungarian cimbalom. Recently I like this instrument more and more, despite not learning it in a proper form. I just wanted to use the sounds from the yanggeum, so I tried to do it by myself. Now I’m just playing it in my own way –  through this process, I can find different sounds. It’s not the proper way but I think it’s cool.

What is your musical background? And what are your musical influences?

I learned to play western instruments first, such as piano and flute, in my childhood, and I liked singing also. I always liked music very much, so one day my parents suggested applying to Gukak National Middle School, a traditional Korean music school. Traditional Korean music is referred to as ‘Gukak’ (Hangul: 국악), which literally means ‘national music’.

Upon entering Gukak, my major instrument was the piri, and I stuck with that until graduate school, when I started making my own music. I just wanted to make different sounds, so I learned the saenghwang and the yanggeum by myself.  

I don’t have a musical family, but my parents always listened to various types of music. In my home, a classic FM radio channel was on all the time, so I could hear many types of music naturally; traditional Korean music as well.

My musical influences come from my life, and I think music comes from being human; a person’s music is ultimately representing that person. I know for sure that have been living sincerely when I make music.

You started your music career by founding the duo 숨[suːm] with Jungmin Seo in 2007. Together you have released two albums, Rhythmic Space: A Pause for Breath in 2010, and [suːm] 2nd in 2014. What can you tell us about the experience of working in a duo? What made you decide to go solo?

The difference between 숨[su:m] and my solo work isn’t really that big. I am still making music through my instruments, with the same way of playing. Time has passed and I started 숨[su:m] nine years ago, so I just wanted to change and expand my music. When I am doing my solo work, I am more relaxed than I was in 숨[su:m].

You have already experienced success outside of South Korea with 숨[suːm]; you were invited to SXSW and WOMAD, and you have performed on important European and American stages. How was it to perform outside of South Korea? Do the audiences react differently to your music?

Many Korean people think of my music as ‘Gukak’ because I play traditional Korean instruments, but when I play abroad, people have an unbiased view. It’s just new sounds and Park Jiha’s music to them.

Can we expect to see you perform in the UK anytime?

I really hope that it will be soon because I have good memories of last year’s K-Music Festival closing concert.

What’s next for Park Jiha?

I’d like to work on a new album soon. I’m making some new music now and I have some tour dates this year. I just played the Rewire Festival in The Hague in early April, and I also played in the Czech Republic. There will be more dates in the fall: Brazil, the US, Portugal, Sweden…

Photo ©: Kim Jaewoo