Kyungso Park‘s axe is the gaegeum, the magically tone-bending Korean zither that sometimes sounds like a harp and sometimes like a cross between an oud and a theremin. Or something that might be heard in Jabba the Hut’s space lounge, if that place ever had acoustic music. This past evening at Barbes, she treated a rapt crowd to a wide swath of music for the instrument, both cutting-edge original compositions and traditional numbers.
As serious and meticulous a composer and player as she is, she’s also a very funny, engaging performer, her stern gaze while she played evaporating into an animated grin between songs as she entertained the audience. She’d brought two different instruments, one a large, contemporary model and the other a smaller traditional version. She wryly explained its origins in a medieval dictator’s desire for indigenous instruments and music with a distinct regional character rather than one that looked to China for inspiration. She also took care to explain that her style, both as a musician and tunesmith, are “very, very different” from traditional repertoire and technique.
Her own compositions are very terse, even minimalistic, sometimes employing circular motives and subtle variations on them, in a vein that resembles western indie classical music more than it does much of anything from Asia. Likewise, she eschewed traditional Asian scales in favor of more western tonalities: the evening’s most sparse composition relied strictly on open strings without any of the woozy bends and otherworldly glissandos typically associated with the classical or folk repertoire.
The traditional material was every bit as interesting as the originals. These included a rather jaunty diptych from a sort of Korean counterpart to Romeo and Juliet, along with a tensely crescendoing, rather epic number that resembled an Indian raga but without the reverberating, twangy strings. Park sang elegantly on a couple of songs, narrated another, then right before the end of the show did a thoughtful and remarkably tuneful improvisation with a french horn player that juxtaposed his misty long-tone lines against her steady, bucolic, distantly bittersweet plucked phrasing. Park ended the show with an original composition employing the kind of extended technique that she’s often drawn to, bowing the high strings at the back of the bridge for a rhythmic, feral shriek and squall. Considering how meticulously and dynamically she’d played all night, it was probably the last thing anybody in the crowd expected, a fearlessly energetic way to wrap up one of the most fascinating performances in any New York venue this year. Park is reprising it at 6 PM tomorrow night, August 30 at Pioneer Works at 159 Pioneer St in Red Hook in the middle of an intriguing triplebill starting at 6 PM with bassist Ethan Jodziewicz and Appalachian fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, and then Ethiopiques funk band Nikhil P. Yerawadekar & Low Mentality headlining at 8 or so. Cover is $10.