A gentle reminder was all it took to enliven the audience gathered last Wednesday night at the World Music Hall.
The first of three performances making up “Sounds of the Fields,” the Wesleyan Korean Drumming Ensemble concert, had just come to a close, the drums still reverberating throughout the now-silent performance space. A brief silence ensued, with audience members still absorbing the intricate rhythms and thunderous volume produced by the six performers and their various size drums. After a few moments, tentative applause could be heard throughout the crowd.
Ensemble director Sang-min Yook then appeared to explain the last performance and introduce the next. Before he did, though, he made sure the audience knew something about the nature of Korean drumming.
“This kind of a performance has no boundaries between audience and performer,” Yook told the audience. “So, for tonight, you don’t have to be quiet.”
It was a sentiment the audience took to heart. Throughout the rest of evening, various spectators would break into spontaneous applause, yell out encouragement, and generally vocalize their pleasure with the lightning speed and technical skill of the musicians.
Ensemble members matched this audience enthusiasm beat-for-beat, performing traditional Korean drumming pieces with equal parts focus and abandon. The concert featured both the ensemble’s beginning and advanced classes, but there was little noticeable difference in either musical skill or enthusiasm amongst any of the musicians.
The concert began with the six advanced ensemble members performing the “Young-Nam Pan-Gut.” The Pan-Gut traditional style, as described in the program, combines “a dynamic mixture of traditional Korean drumming with dance, ritual, theatre, and entertainment.” This particular type of Pan-Gut (according to the program, named after a province located in the southeastern part of Korea) did not strictly conform to the aforementioned style, with the performers sitting in a stationary semi-circle. Lack of bodily movement, however, allowed the focus to remain on the musician’s colorful, richly embellished garments and the subtle shifts in rhythmic pattern and tempo that snaked throughout the piece.
“Young-Nam Pan-Gut” also gave the audience the chance to see the variety of drums the ensemble uses during any given performance. The instruments ranged from the small, shiny hand drum that produced a sharp, high note when struck with a small mallet, to the massive hourglass drums (or janggus) that produced low rumblings that underscored the more ornate rhythms created by the smaller drums.
The musicians exclusively played the janggus in the second piece, “Sando Sul-janggu.” Paradoxically, this uniformity of instruments led to an even more complex sound than the first piece. Much of the performance’s polish and spark came from Yook himself, who played with three members of his advanced class. A tall, lanky man with shaggy black hair and a ready smile, Yook began the piece with a single tap of his janggu. Slowly, the other three drummers joined in one by one, passing the low note around the semi-circle like an electric pulse gaining watts. The piece gradually rose to a crescendo of speed and volume, with Yook’s hands flying across the surface of the drum, a small, concentrated smile creeping across on his face.
Yook’s personal charm and musical prowess delighted much of the audience, but Tzippora Rhodes ’07 questioned if Yook should have been as central to the performance as he was.
“I’m used to teachers taking a back seat,” Rhodes said.
A native of South Korea who immigrated to America in 1985, Yook had knowledge of the pieces that went beyond musical comprehension. Sweat from the performance still dappling his forehead, Yook explained the symbolic significance of the “Sando-Sul-janggu,” with each drum representing an element in a rainstorm. Taken together, Yook said, the different elements musically represented the chaotic nature of the storm, with conflicting natural elements battling one another for supremacy.
This type of controlled chaos found its clearest representation in the final piece, “Ho-Nam Pan-Gut.” Comprised of the 17 drummers in the beginner’s class, the piece matched the relentless musical beat with a series of choreographed marches. Dressed in solid white, the musicians fell in rhythmic lock-step behind advanced class member, Fugan Dineen, a graduate student in ethnomusicology. However, these regimented lines occasionally melted into loose circles, where individual drummers, while keeping with the original rhythms, would break into little jigs and dances, shouting or laughing as they pounded their instruments. The hoots and applause from the audience fed the performers’ celebratory mood.
Audience member Jeremy Costner, a Middletown resident who said he just recently began attending music events at Wesleyan despite having lived in town for four years, described his thoughts on the performance.
“[The performance was] a lively and spirited way to mark the passing seconds of an already wonderful evening,” Costner said.