To understand 숨[su:m] you have to understand their music. On the one hand 숨[su:m] is one of the most forward-looking embodiments of traditional South Korean culture. On the other they are a breath of life, gentle and delicate, able to clear and brighten up the inner weather of a mind.
We were lucky enough to meet them for a light chat just a few minutes before their performance on the BBC3 Stage at WOMAD. On the surface, like their compositions, the group members are affable and charming. But during this interview we were given the chance to delve further into their music when they led us through a rabbit hole into their hidden world – and the outcome is intriguing!
Rhythm Passport: First of all, many thanks for this interview, we know that you will play soon on the BBC3 Stage and we don’t want to take up too much of your time. So, coming from South Korea, you are arguably two of the artists who have travelled the most to reach WOMAD. What’s it like for you to play here in the U.K. far away from your country?
Ji-ha Park: The first time I came here in the U.K. to play my music, I played in front of too many people and I felt dizzy. But lately, we have played many times in Europe and I’m enjoying it a lot more. I’m really looking forward to our performance because it is the first time that we play during this festival and I’m very happy to connect with people from different countries from all over the world.
Rhythm Passport: There are also some cultural distinctions between the two audiences. What are the differences between the South Korean and the European public?
Ji-ha Park: European people are more concentrated to our music. That is why we really like to play in front of European audiences.
Rhythm Passport: Unfortunately, here in Europe South Korean music is mainly known through its more commercial aspect: K-Pop, when in reality it has a lot of other faces. What can you tell us about the music of your country?
Ji-ha Park: Yes, also in Korea the most popular genre is K-Pop. But next to it we have an important traditional scene and also our contemporary music is well renowned.
Rhythm Passport: It is possible to affirm that your music is hanging in the balance between these two genres: traditional and contemporary? In addition, you’ve been trained as classical musicians, but then you have decided to move towards a more traditional style, and finally to modernise it. If you’d have to define your music, how would you describe it?
Ji-ha Park: Our music and our compositions directly reflect our story. They are our life, our experience, and our environment….
Jung-min Seo: Our emotions
Ji-ha Park: Yes, our emotions too. Our relationship. Also the nature is really important in our music.
Rhythm Passport: Do you also try to reflect South Korea when you compose and play your songs?
Ji-ha Park: Yes, once a year we spend some time in the mountains. We go there, we bring our instruments and then we spend four or more days in isolation, just playing our music. We turn off the lights and we light up candles. We spend days of meditation, recreating an atmosphere.
Rhythm Passport: Do you consider nature and the environment around you as your main inspiration?
Ji-ha Park: Yes, nature mainly.
Jung-min Seo: Nature…and our inner…
Ji-ha Park: …our inner life too, our feelings.
Rhythm Passport: Considering the unified way you answer our questions, you seem really close to each other: not simply music partners, but also united by a strong friendship. How did you start to play together and how is it to work side by side?
Ji-ha Park: We met at the end of our university and we weren’t too close before. I don’t know why. But one day she came to talk to me and she told me: “I want to play music with you”. So we’ve started and here we are, still working together, sometimes fighting, but we are becoming closer and closer. Music is not the only thing that brings us together. Now we meet almost every day, even just for a talk, and we really know more each other.
Rhythm Passport: As we said before, you started as classical musicians playing the piano and then you have decided to play traditional instruments. But when did you first get in touch with music?
Ji-ha Park: Most of the Korean people play piano since they are young. Then, during my Middle School years I’ve started playing Korean traditional instruments. I chose to play the piri first, then the saenghwang. Jung-min Seo: I started playing music when I was in the elementary school. Now it is more than 15 years that I’ve been playing the gayageum
Rhythm Passport: How do you compose your music? Is it a collaborative process?
Ji-ha Park: We just improvise. We play a lot of improvised tunes. Then we listen to them, we talk about them and finally we choose and keep the good parts. It is a selection from our improvisations.
Rhythm Passport: We are wondering what your name means. Because we’ve read so many different definitions of su:m that we don’t know which is the right one.
Ji-ha Park: 숨[su:m] is a South Korean ideogram which means breathe. Breath is related to the way we play our music, because breathing is really important, but at the same time it is natural. We don’t even realise to do it. Also music is very important to us and natural too. So there is this relation between breath and music.
…and a deep, contemplative musical breath is what the audience inhaled minutes later. 숨[su:m] led their listeners through the introspective labyrinth of their compositions, recalling their South Korean roots, their seven years spent playing together displaying awe-inspiring musicianship.
Alternating the incisive sound of the piri and the saenghwang to the dilated atmosphere surrounding the 25-string gayageum they transposed quintessential images and sounds of South Korea on the WOMAD stage, for the joy of the unconventional sound seekers. Improvisations, repetitions, structural fractures, pulsating beats, harmonic highs and lows, and solos acted together to create a melodic continuum, a unique soundscape only interrupted by the short songs introductions given by Jung-min Seo.
The duo’s performance was a memorable experience, one of the most illuminating souvenirs you can possibly receive from a country five thousand miles away.