Award-winning musician and scholar Ji-yoon Kim is on a mission to raise awareness of the piri, a traditional Korean double-reed bamboo instrument that dates from the fourth century and whose sound resembles that of the oboe.
Before a recent afternoon concert in the Dolby San Francisco Screening Room, we asked Kim, dressed in a hooped green silk gown of a court style dating back 600 years, whether she had any advice for her audience, who were likely to be more familiar with Western music than traditional Korean music. Speaking through an interpreter, she replied, “Instead of analyzing the music, just listen to it. Just enjoy the sound and relax.”
Her interpreter, Taeho Oh, a senior director in e-media and mobile at Dolby and a native of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), invited Kim to perform at Dolby. “I thought Dolby people would love to hear it,” he said. “It is a unique sound and music experience.”
Kim is the first doctoral-degree scholar in South Korea to focus on the instrument. She’s also a certified apprentice of the person who holds an unusual title: Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 46.
The South Korean government created several categories of cultural properties in 1962 to help preserve elements of traditional Korean culture that were in danger of disappearing. A committee identified cultural “expressions and practices, such as music, dance, drama, folk games, rites, martial arts, handicrafts, and cuisine.” Number 46 on the list of intangible cultural properties is piri jeongak mit daechwita (daechwita royal military march), and the person designated in 1971 to represent that intangible property, Jae-guk Jeong (whose name is sometimes written as Chung Chae Kook), is the nation’s authority on the piri.
Kim, who holds a doctorate in musical arts in Korean traditional music from Seoul National University, has worked with Jeong since 1993. A student of classical piano since the age of four, Kim switched to piri while in high school. She also plays the taepyeongso, a horn that is a foundation for learning the piri. A university and high school lecturer, she has written two theses on piri and an introductory book on piri playing.
“Korean traditional music is hard even for Koreans,” said Kim, so she has begun this year to perform with musicians who play Western instruments more familiar to most audiences, even to those in Korea. “Korean music is categorized into court music and folk music,” she said. Her concert at Dolby included several pieces of court music created about 600 years ago.
Kim said she does her best to give a faithful representation of what the composer intended. “The musician is the intermediary who delivers what composers intended to the audiences. I always try my best to convey the composer’s hidden picture to the audiences, as opposed to trying to put my color on it.”
Kim chose the violin as the companion instrument in her East-West duets because it is “melody-oriented and a very emotional instrument.” That makes it a good complement to piri, which is more “tube-based but also emotional.” Kim feels that the two instruments harmonize very well. For the last few months, she has worked with violinist Shin-hye Kim, who earned a master of music degree in violin performance from the New England Conservatory of Music earlier this year.
Their performance at Dolby began with works by Chopin (Etude Op. 10, No. 3, “Tristesse”; Ballades Nos. 2 and 4). Seven selections of Korean music followed, including several that would have been heard in the royal court, a few folk songs, a piece in which Ji-yoon Kim played before a cinema screen along with a videotaped orchestra, and a contemporary pop piece.
Ji-yoon Kim explained that the piri she used in her concert was custom-made for her by “an authentic piri creator. … I use only his piri since it creates the closest sound that I would like to create from piri.” She explained, “A piri lasts about three to five years. It emanates strong vibrations that eventually tear the bamboo apart.”
(Editor’s note: Our thanks go to the staff of the Korean Embassy in Washington, DC, and to the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, for their assistance.)