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Guelph 2014: Lee Pui Ming and Dong-Won Kim astonish the audience (review)

Lee Pui Ming and Dong-Won Kim in intense conversation at the Guelph Youth Music Centre. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Lee Pui Ming and Dong-Won Kim
2014 Guelph Jazz Festival
Guelph Youth Music Centre
Sunday, September 7, 2014 – 10:30 a.m.

The Guelph Jazz Festival rarely deals in the obvious or the tried-and-true, but its 2014 closing concert really confounded the audience's expectations.

Lee Pui Ming is an improvising pianist, composer, and vocalist, who combines classical, jazz, and Chinese traditions, and is active in Toronto's new music community. Dong-Won Kim is a percussionist, composer, and vocalist from Korea, trained in the movements and instruments of that country's traditional music, but with a strong improvising bent,

On-stage was a Yamaha grand piano, and Kim's instruments: the jang-go, an hourglass-shaped drum with hide-covered ends; the buk, a round leather drum; and two hanging bronze gongs.

So piano and percussion, right? Not exactly.

Ming opened the concert with a long ululating call, sung into the piano. Her vibrating vocals rose and fell, filling the entire room, and sounding eerie and almost desperate. Kim sang a response, lower but equally strong, and they continued in a fluid, wordless duet, challenging each other, for several minutes.

Then Ming struck the piano body with her hand, letting it vibrate. She raised the keyboard cover and pushed it back and forth, while Kim clapped his hands and lightly hit a gong. Ming then hit the piano with the flat of her hand, lightly and then harder. You could hear it vibrate in return: a very light sound. Then she moved to the keyboard and played simple repeated sequences of notes, gradually adding sustain and making the notes sing, while Kim occasionally tapped his gongs.

The effect was gentle and airy and thoughtful, with no wasted notes.

And then just as the audience was relaxed and receptive, Ming startled them again with a vibrating screech, angry and abrupt, and followed by more start and stop piano figures. Kim responded on the jang-go: repeated echoing fast hand percussion, followed by drumming with four splayed sticks in one hand, allowing him to simultaneously hit the drumskin at different points.

The piano took over again, at first restful and melodic, then more emphatic with many repeated notes. Partway through, Kim walked slowly and gracefully over to the piano, and then pressed on the back sounding board, adding his own vibrations to those Ming was producing on the keyboard.

And then they suddenly stopped, and there was dead silence for almost 10 seconds as the audience absorbed that the piece had really ended, before clapping enthusiastically. And that was only the first 15 minutes.

Introducing the next piece, Ming noted it was Sunday morning, and that both she and Kim had attended Christian church as children. So while she produced hard, aggressive wordless vocalizations, yelling and even buzzing, Kim sang simple hymn-like melodies in contrast.

Ming and Kim had met for the first time at a rehearsal the previous day, and as became obvious, were as capable of surprising each other as the audience. In the next piece, Ming started playing phrases that could have been written by Debussy, accompanied by light hand percussion from Kim on the buk. But then she switched to treating the piano as a drum, hitting both its top and bottom at once – causing Kim's eyes to widen in astonishment. That turned into an extended and energetic percussion duet, with Ming clapping and jumping. Ming then started singing, and Kim invited the audience to collaborate in a joint long tone as Ming sang over and under, and then the two built to a extended wordless crescendo of bird and wolf-like calls.

The next piece featured prepared piano and Ming playing inside the piano on its strings, a harsh metallic sound which contrasted with the mellow sound of Kim's gongs. When Ming moved to the piano keyboard, the mood continued abstract and echoing even as it increased in speed and intensity.

After a partial standing ovation, they returned for a piece which combined light percussion and sibilant chanting, sounding like the wind blowing over the Prairies, followed by more percussive vocals. Kim forcefully hit the buk, letting it sing out, and then picked it up and crossed the stage, producing an infectious fast rhythm with small variations for several minutes before closing the show.

The five short improvisations Ming and Kim performed together included moments of utter beauty, moments of easy communication and impressive musical sympathy, and moments (at least for the audience) of total amazement – and laughter. It was a mind-stretching concert, guaranteed to wake up even the sleepiest listener.

The Guelph Youth Music Centre, with its low noise floor (minimal HVAC and no outside street noise to muddy the sound) and clear acoustics was a particularly effective location for this type of music, allowing even the most miniscule musical gesture and its long, quiet decay to be heard clearly, and substantially enhancing the intense experience for the highly attentive audience.

Audiences in southern Ontario will have more opportunities to catch Dong-Won Kim this fall, as he will be at both Guelph University (the Improviser-in-Residence for the ICASP program), and at Wilfred Laurier University. He will be working with local orchestras, dance troupes, and other musical groups; conducting masterclasses in percussion and Korean music; and every second week, speaking on musical topics and then playing with local musicians in a series at Silence, a small avant-garde music club in Guelph.

    – Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: The Guelph Jazz Festival assisted Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage in finding a family who very generously billeted us in Guelph, so we could afford to report on the festival.

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