Hammered instruments appear like across most musical cultures and have always struck me as being buried deep within the musical archaeology of the world. Having said this, the limit of my archaeological knowledge comes from Tony Robinson and his team of soil-based time bandits. There is an ethereal yet base quality to them, from the cimbalom to the Appalachian dulcimer, with doubled strings creating that chorus-y, rattle-y, staccato-y pulse. Having little knowledge of Korean folk instruments, it was fascinating to hear the yanggeum played by Park Jiha on her latest album Philos. This is alongside, primarily, two other instruments; the piri, a sort of oboe-esque instrument, and saenghwang, a free-reed mouth organ. All three are wound around each other in droning, sliding and fizzing interlacing on this record that feels courtly, sci-fi, pastoral and urban all at once.
It feels easy to say that this is a relaxing, ambient collection of tunes purely because of the tonal qualities of the instrumentation. To me, there is more at play. For example, the fourth track entitled “Pause” could suggest at first a moment of reflection, but it sits uneasily like a pause after a trauma or a pause in reeling from news that hasn’t sunk in. Sure, it’s demure, but there is an intriguing restlessness in the itching, impatient drive of the strings.
Philos feels over very quickly. It doesn’t let you get too comfortable. Most progressions drip down a cascade of minors, where the hypnotic quality of the repeating lines is only occasionally interrupted rhythmically. The intensity never becomes unrestrained or chaotic but feels like it is bubbling up to something more violent. This measured sensibility is the larger victory of the album, in its instrumental terms.
The glue of this record, for myself, is the (what I assume are) field recordings on each track. I believe that there is an intention for Park Jiha to root the melodies within a context, but it never takes over or intrudes. I liken the experience to listening to quiet music on headphones while walking, with parts of the world being aurally smudged and blurred. This gives the listener a feeling of the interior world as very separate and very personal. The poem on track three, written and read by a Lebanese artist called Dima El Sayed is the only track that breaks this mood. While the poem, and performance of it, are fantastic (reminding me of the brilliant Laurie Anderson), I feel this could have sat better as an introduction or an ending. In fact, the stand out track for me is the finale of “On Water”. At once it reminds me of the more plaintive, less showy moaning of Miles Davis, the delicate parts of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack and the darker parts of Cinematic Orchestra’s mixed musical satchel.
Philos is sparse, contemplative, urgent, sad and restrained, and within its own terms is incredibly beautiful. On top of the poem being, in my opinion, poorly placed, the album’s small weakness is that it leaves you far too quickly and without making the huge impact that I felt was coming. Nevertheless, what you get leaves you wanting more from Park Jiha and I was eager to investigate her back catalogue and see how she performs this amazing, disruptive folk music.
Park Jiha live in London as part of K-Music
Thursday, 17 October 2019, 8pm
at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA