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BIDAN-SIL/Silken Thread

For solo oboe and nine instruments (1992/93)

BIDAN-SIL is Korean and means thread, yarn, or strings made of silk.

Each melody instrument, if it wants to express the most fragile stirrings of music, has to find its “silken” note, in a way. When I listened to Heinz Holliger for the first time, his playing style reminded me of our traditional symbolism. A single note, if aimed at perfection, is weaved out of an infinite number of components.

The music of BIDAN-SIL has certain links to Korea’s earliest “own” music, which is based on shamanistic traditions. While the educated cultivated court music, the common people were also creating music, but in a more inhibited way. This mostly improvised, tightly-woven music style, called SINAWI, was only played by the musicians for their own pleasure. The various instruments, always played solo each, form a heterophony, like silken threads eventually form a yarn. The slight individual dissonances are the true beauty of it. Each single musician does their part to make the music come alive.

Playing SINAWI usually requires the following instruments: the hour-glass drum CHANG-GO, in tune with the root-note, provides the pace, metre, and basic rhythm. Three stringed instruments – with strings made out of silk – KAYAGUM, A-JAENG and KOMUNGO, closely accompany the drum. The KAYAGUM is played with fingers, while the A-JAENG is played with the peeled branch of forsythia that has been coated in rosin and painted green, and the KOMUNGO is played with a wooden stick. The fourth string instrument, HAEGUM, played by a bow strung with horse hair, is counted among the wind instruments in Korea, and is the closest thing to a female vocal with its silky timbre. The HAEGUM forms a melodic trio with the PIRI (an oboe-like instrument) and TAEGUM (transverse flute), which complete the original set-up for SINAWI.

In BIDAN-SIL, the solo oboe is the most encompassing instrument, which combines PIRI and HAEGUM for me. The other wind instruments, each solo as per SINAWI tradition, form heterophonic pairs with the strings.

The fact that I’m writing the music down means that I’m moving away from the improvisational tradition. To me, it’s not about a restorative effort, about re-enacting something. From a composer’s viewpoint, I don’t think that would be possible, or worthwhile. By distancing myself from SINAWI, I can look at it from a uniquely new and vivid perspective.  After all, we Koreans live at the dawn of the 21st century, too…

Younghi Pagh-Paan (1994)

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