Broadening the Horizons of Korean Music


Broadening the Horizons of Korean Music

They are called the Near East Quartet (NEQ). Formed in 2010 with Song Sung-jae as its leader, the group has sought various crossovers between jazz and traditional Korean music. They claim to be in pursuit of a “new, future-oriented model,” as opposed to simple combinations or adherence to old ways. The quartet’s first album Chaosmos (2010) featured fresh musical styles and distinctive sounds, and was selected at the 7th Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) in 2011 as a PAMS Choice piece. In 2015, the NEQ scouted Kim Yul-hee, who was named a “next-generation pansori master” by the National Theater of Korea, and released its second album Passing of Illusion. Recently, the quartet received the top award for crossover music in the jazz and crossovers category of the 13th Korean Music Awards. The Apro met with the NEQ, which comprises vocalist Kim Yul-hee, saxophonist Son Sung-jae, drummer Suh Soo-jin and guitarist Chung Su-wuk. Chung did most of the talking.

▲ The author with NEQ © Lee Kang-hyeok

▲ The author with NEQ © Lee Kang-hyeok

What led you to form the NEQ in 2010?

We started working together in 2009. We wanted to try something completely different from what we had done until then. We looked at various genres that we had never explored before. There was gugak [traditional Korean music]. Mr. Son Sung-jae guided us to the world of gugak. Ms. Suh Soo-jin, a talented drummer, soon joined.
We weren’t planning on getting into gugak. We had only been in the jazz scene, but we had grown skeptical about reproducing mainstream jazz, which is basically American music. So we searched for other ways of expression, and came across gugak and traditional percussion. At first, we applied only an experimental dose of gugak to our music. It was after Ms. Kim Yul-hee joined that we could deal with gugak in depth. (Chung)

Your debut album Chaosmos is said to have opened new horizons for Korean jazz. What did you intend to achieve when you recorded it?

We wanted to show something new. The jazz is much more diverse now, but the local scene back then lacked variety. You need brand new things to bring change and richness. Add freshness is just as important as musical talent. After Chaosmos, we became aware of a broader spectrum. Crossover is a genre in itself. The gugak fusion genre grew exuberant. The album was a new attempt to look at jazz from the perspective of gugak and vice versa. (Chung)

▲ <Passing of Illusion> © NEQ

▲ <Passing of Illusion> © NEQ

The NEQ was selected for PAMS Choice at the Performing Arts Market in Seoul in 2011. What did this mean to you?

We have been selected for PAMS Choice with every new album. We are grateful about this. PAMS dug out a record that was not intended for commercial success and gave it new significance. It gave us a sense of duty to keep going. Having the first album selected greatly motivated us for the second album. It was possible because PAMS organizers took in interest in us. PAMS seems to be playing a key role [in encouraging artists]. (Chung) 

What led to the recording of your second album Passing of Illusions?

We learned from what we missed in the first album. We tried to be more faithful to our original intentions when we first started. (Chung)

Ms. Kim, would you share some impression on this new project?

In the world of gugak, ventures outside traditional gugak were rare. No one was interested in overseas performances. If you’re the top gugak musician in Korea, you’re the world’s best. I was too busy studying conventional gugak to think about other things. I had my first chance to encounter other genres when I took part in an event called MosaiKOREA 20141) in Surabaya, Indonesia. Jazz musicians had a different mindset. It felt like they belonged to a different world. While I was confused and culturally shocked, the whole experience was refreshing and made me want to feel free. I received an offer to join a new group. Being young, I was curious about other genres. I was half curious and half doubtful about whether I could do it. To blend with a different genre, I had to change my way of breathing. Unlike pansori, I couldn’t sing powerfully all the time. (Kim)

1) MosaiKOREA 2014, a concert in Surabaya, Indonesia, held in April 2014, co-hosted by the Surabaya city government and Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The event was organized and sponsored by the Korea Arts Management Service, the Korean Embassy and the Korean Cultural Center in Indonesia. Gugak and jazz musicians performed together at the concert, which was a chance to introduce a variety of Korean cultural content outside of K-pop. Kim Yul-hee participated in the event as a gugak artist and Chung Su-wuk as a jazz artist.

Ms. Suh, you joined while you were studying jazz drum in the U.S. What motivated you?

I made up my mind after I listened to NEQ’s second album. It was neither like gugak nor jazz. It was a completely new style. I personally did not like crossover music. But it was still fresh to me. I am not yet sure what I can do, but I hope to create something completely new. (Suh)

Could you describe the musical identity of NEQ? How will you balance gugak and jazz?

It is our goal to create a new style of music that is neither gugak nor jazz. We intend to be like a projector that projects the gugak and jazz we listened to. (Chung)

Can you share any memorable experience as a group – an episode from your overseas gigs, for example?

We went to Coutances in France early this year. It is a rural area in Normandy, about a four-hour drive from Paris. The president of German jazz label ACT took a bus all the way to Coutances to see our performance. We don’t know what the results of his visit will be, but that he came all that way for us was very encouraging. 

▲ Kim Yul-hee (vocal), Chung Su-wuk guitar) © Lee Kang-hyuk

▲ Kim Yul-hee (vocal), Chung Su-wuk guitar) © Lee Kang-hyuk

How do you all go about an impromptu performance?

There is no sheet music for impromptus. It’s different every time you do it. But there is a format. Someone takes hold of the pendulum and puts everything in balance. I think that someone is Yul-hee. It’s different when it’s an instrumental, but when it’s a song, we trust and follow that pendulum. (Chung)

I knew the musical identity and direction of the NEQ, but being a pansori person accustomed to lyrics, I struggled to adapt myself. Frankly, I come under a lot of stress before every practice session. It is not easy to free myself from what I have learned, but I think a lot about how to unwind the gugak songs I have studied. (Kim)

The stress goes away when I arrive for practice. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes it doesn’t. The music we do isn’t something that has existed before. There are times when we think differently. We begin with accumulating the elements of what becomes a foundation, which is simple. But it’s different once the foundation is extended in length and breadth. We look inside and begin to see space. We had a bass in our first album, but in the second album, the drum plays the role of piano and bass. And Kim plays the kkwaenggwari or jing (traditional Korean gongs). (Chung)

▲ NEQ © Lee Kang-hyuk

▲ NEQ © Lee Kang-hyuk

What are your plans for the near future? Do you plan to perform abroad?

We start recording on December 19. We’re making new songs. We have a lot of work to do to incorporate what each of us has in mind. The new album will be our third, and could be our first on a different label. We have a concert in India in December. 

Other countries have the media, audience and venues to share music enjoyed even by a small number of people. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, which was controversial for its strangeness at first, later became a classic. We want to open that sort of frontier. Instead of building on vertical layers of music, we want to widen the horizontal spectrum. To do this, we need to build a culture where seasoned musicians with strong fundamentals perform as session musicians. Naturally, I think more regular platforms like the Performing Arts Market in Seoul would help. (Chung)

Lately, I think that getting people to come from overseas to see us in Korea is more meaningful than performing abroad. It is important to expand our market. If there were clubs where we can do a proper 20- to 30-minute solo, it would give PAMS a boost. It’s hard to see immediate results, but I believe we can lay the grounds for improving Korean music across the board. (Chung)


Ryu Tae-hyung (Member of advisory board for Daewon Cultural Foundation)
Ryu Tae-hyung (Member of advisory board for Daewon Cultural Foundation)