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Korean Classical Spotlight: On 'Yalu Delta' Composer-Komungo Player Jin Hi Kim And Elliott Sharp Meld Musical Territories [AUDIO]

By Jeff Tobias | October 28, 2014 06:43 PM EDT

Even though it's become a dated and cast-off term, the phrase "world music" can be useful when regarded literally. Primarily a marketing term, it was typically used by Westerners describing anything that wasn't, well, from the West.

It is a thoroughly reductive concept: what could the musics of Bulgaria, West Africa and Thailand have in common? Well, they're all from The World. But there's something appealing in its bland broadness. It's a big world, but we're all from here (presumably). Therefore, our musics will inevitably find some common ground.

South Korean musician-composer Jin Hi's beautiful composition "Yalu Delta," a collaboration with American multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, deftly illustrates these streams of similarity. The ways in which these Korean and American performers blur the lines, even with the instruments they are playing, is a testament to music's power to transcend barriers, whether they be geographic or categorical in nature.

As a master of the komungo, a Korean zither dating back to the fourth century, Jin Hi has been a presence in the international avant-garde scene in for several decades. Although she's worked with symphony orchestras and even legendary crossover outfit Kronos Quartet, (Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Björk) she's also recorded extensively with a variety of improvisors.

On her 1991 album "Sargeng," Jin Hi offered half an album's worth of collaborations with Sharp, (on the another half she was joined by guitarist Henry Kaiser).

"Yalu Delta" sees Jin Hi and Sharp delving into languid improvisation on their respective instruments, and the listener may be surprised at how naturally the sounds fold into one another. The title of the piece is telling. As with some of the best improvised music, "Yalu Delta" personifies its watery namesake, offering a flowing, ever-shifting current.

The Yalu River runs between North Korea and China, and while this instrumental piece doesn't make overt nods towards Kim's relationship to that particular body of water, the imagery of a flowing river suits the music.

For his part, Sharp is clearly an avid student of American blues.

The word "delta" is frequently preceded by the word "Mississippi," considered by many to be the birthplace of the artform. As Sharp's slide guitar slithers through the recording, the deep feeling of the blues is summoned, however abstract.

Sharp's use of a slide on his electric guitar allows him greater access to the microtonal spaces explored by Jin Hi's komungo playing. Her ancient instrument isn't tuned to the Western musical scale. So, by using a slide, Sharp is able to mirror or imitate her movement in between the notes.

One is hard-pressed, as the piece develops, to draw a distinction between Jin Hi's wooden-sounding komungo and Sharp's metallic sliding guitar. The two musicians compliment one another perfectly, finishing one another's sentences and criss-crossing musical languages effortlessly.

The song eventually spins itself into a sort of dizzying boogie, a double-time dance between the instruments that brings to mind a pair of friends smiling over a shared meeting of the minds.

Jin Hi and Sharp find not only beauty in their collaboration, but humor and joy. Through their explorations of strings and resonating bodies, the world feels just a little bit smaller.

Check out Jin Hi Kim's "Yalu Delta" RIGHT HERE: 

Jeff Tobias is a composer and writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. As of late, he's been studying the music of Morton Feldman and trying to learn to speak Spanish. 

Tagged :  Kim Jin Hi, Yalu Delta, Elliott Sharp, Sargeng

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