It’s impossible to think of anyone other than Seungmin Cha who could make a tiny dinner bell sound more menacing than she did at her first-ever New York solo concert last weekend. Or for that matter, who could get as much sound as she did out of a single Korean daegeum flute, sometimes serene and verdant, other times acidic or even macabre.
“Can I check out your rig?” an interested concertgoer asked her before the show.
“Sure,” she replied. On the floor in front of her were a couple of large pedalboards’ worth of stompboxes, hardly limited to reverb, delay, disortion, chorus, flange and an envelope filter. Hardly what you would expect a virtuoso of a centuries-old folk instrument to be playing her axe through.
“This is a guitar rig,” the spectator observed. “Is that a volume pedal?”
“It’s a total guitar rig,” Cha smiled. “That’s a distortion pedal. For my vocals.”
But this wasn’t a rock show. Instead, Cha invented a brand new kind of music right there on the spot. This particular blend of ancient Korean folk themes, western classical, jazz improvisation and the furthest reaches of the avant garde might have only existed for this one night.
She began by slowly making her way in a circle around the audience. It took her a good fifteen minutes, playing subtle, meticulously nuanced variations on a gentle Korean pastoral theme. On one hand, this might have been a welcoming gesture, a comfortably lulling interlude. More likely, Cha was getting a sense of the room’s acoustics for when she really cut loose.
Which she did, eventually. At one point, she was getting two separate overtones out of the flute, without relying on the electronics. As it turned out, she’d been talking shop with her special guest, clarinetist Ned Rothenberg, before the show and he’d shown her a couple of overtones. Which, maybe half an hour after learning them, she incorporated into the show. Can anybody say fearless?
As Cha built her first improvisational mini-epic of the night, a mist of microtones wafted through the space, sometimes light and tingling, sometimes mysteriously foggy. Slow, judicious bends and dips flowed through a mix that she eventually built to a dark deep-space pulse, the flute’s woody tone cutting through like a musical Hubble telescope somewhere beyond Pluto but unwilling to relent on its search for new planets. Yet when she sang a couple of resigned “my love’s gone over the hills” type ballads, her vocals made a contrast, low and calm – until she hit her pedal to raise the surrealism factor through the roof.
As it turns out, Cha can also be very funny. She began an improvisation inspired by a snakelike Alain Kirili sculpture on the floor in front of her with a sort of one-sided Q&A…then decided to pick it up and play it as if it was a flute. Grrrr!! This thing is evil!
Rothenberg joined her for a lively duet to close the show: he tried goosing her with a few riffs early on, and she goosed back, but it became clear that she wanted to take this in a more serious direction and he went with it, adding judicious, mostly midrange, confidently bubbling motives while Cha took a slow, similarly considered upward path. It was a playful way to close what had been an intense and sometimes harrowing journey up to that point. You’ll see this on the Best Concerts of 2017 page here later this year.
Cha flew back to her home turf in Seoul the next day, but a return to New York is in the works: watch this space.