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[Herald Interview] Ji Pyeong-kwon’s gugak crossover resonates in ballet ‘Korea Emotion’

Music director grateful his artistic endeavors finding purpose

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Feb. 13, 2024 - 17:39

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Music director Ji Pyeong-kwon (Courtesy of Ji Pyeong-kwon) Music director Ji Pyeong-kwon (Courtesy of Ji Pyeong-kwon)

In a poignant duet of daegeum and pansori, vocalist Kwon Song-hee, a member of the alternative pop band Leenalchi, sings achingly. An orchestral blend of Western classical string instruments, daegeum and pansori plays out in a strangely harmonious manner with waltz-like rhythms that brighten the mood.

Against this backdrop of crossover music, two ballet dancers gracefully move under the silvery moonlight.

Acclaimed ballerina Kang Mi-sun, a principal dancer at Universal Ballet, earned the title of best female dancer at the prestigious Benois de la Dance last year for her performance of this particular piece titled "Mirinaegil" (Milky Way). The accompanying music was also featured in the soundtrack of "Guam Heo Jun," an MBC historical drama series that aired in 2013.

The composer behind this captivating score is music director Ji Pyeong-kwon, known for his rich portfolio of compositions built over two decades, including the Korean drama series soundtracks for "You Are My Destiny" (2014), starring Jang Hyuk and Jang Na-ra, and "Full House" (2004), starring Song Hye-kyo and singer-actor Rain.

"I wrote this music to embody the emotion of crying and laughing at the same time," said Ji in an interview with The Korea Herald last week. "I wanted to touch on the themes of going off to war, leaving someone behind, and the sentiment of longing for the loved one."

Yet as the piece progresses, the rhythm takes on a lively and exuberant quality. Ji said his intention was to infuse not only the Korean sentiment of “han” (a word referring to a combination of sorrow, loss, anger and resentment) but also a sense of hope and anticipation.

Four of the nine pieces in the Universal Ballet’s neo-classical ballet “Korea Emotion” -- “Mirinaegil,” “'Moonlight Young,” “Bee Yeon” and “Gangwon, Jeongseon Arirang 2014” -- feature Ji’s music drawn from the album “Daul Project 2nd” (2014).

"Bee Yeon," featuring a soprano and pansori duet, also served as the main soundtrack for the MBC drama series "The Duo" in 2011.

“It was also a challenge. Pansori and soprano? Everyone said the two wouldn't be able to harmonize.”

Rather than combining the two voices, Ji sought harmony in a “spatial” arrangement.

"Pansori has a resonance that leans forward, a quite straightforward voice, while a soprano utilizes the back and upper space," explained Ji. He figured the pansori, with its sound extending forward, and the soprano's reverberation echoing backward would complement each other.

Likewise, breaking away from the conventional use of traditional Korean music in historical dramas, Ji pioneered a new approach of incorporating diverse genres like ballad, jazz and hip-hop into period drama soundtracks.

Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform “Gangwon, Jeongseon Arirang 2014” in “Korea Emotion.” (Universal Ballet) Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform “Gangwon, Jeongseon Arirang 2014” in “Korea Emotion.” (Universal Ballet)

Having majored in classical composition and French horn, Ji said his interest in Korean traditional music was quite serendipitous.

The pivotal moment came at an expo in Shanghai in the mid-2000s when Ji watched a contemporary reinterpretation of a traditional Chinese dance performance. Ji wondered what could be something quintessentially Korean, possessing an essence that could undergo repeated reinterpretations.

So he thought of "Arirang," a lyrical folk song. Ji believed that the iconic melody had the potential to resonate worldwide. While "Arirang" is now reinterpreted in various genres, Ji recalled that, at the time, traditional versions predominated.

"I added a fantastical element to the tradition-rooted melody. … But the music remained obscure as no one used it, leaving it to simply languish."

But one phone call changed its destiny. In late 2010, ice-skating choreographer David Wilson expressed an interest in incorporating the music into a program for the Olympic figure skate gold medalist Kim Yuna. Ji's music was used in Kim's free program titled "Homage to Korea" in 2011. Additionally, the score was featured in the Universal Ballet’s "Gangwon, Jeongseon Arirang 2014."

Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform “Mirinaegil” in “Korea Emotion.” (Universal Ballet) Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform “Mirinaegil” in “Korea Emotion.” (Universal Ballet)

Ji noted that all three scores -- "Mirinaegil," "Bee Yeon" and "Arirang" featured in "Homage to Korea" -- were not commissioned pieces. He had created them driven by genuine passion. They were part of his personal project, “Daul Project,” a crossover endeavor for the globalization and popularization of Korean traditional music.

“They weren’t written with a specific purpose, just out of my curiosity and enjoyment of the creative process. Fortunately, they eventually found their purposes. I think it’s the nature of creative art -- success often comes after 99 failures."

Ji's “Daul Project” remains an ongoing venture.

In 2021, Ji released "Daul Project -- Jeongga," delving into traditional court music, designing it as soothing and relaxing compositions. He also runs a YouTube channel, creating relaxing music for personal enjoyment, often inspired by natural landscapes through footage he films himself.

"Whenever I have free time, I try out different things. Perhaps, the next project won't have any lyrics (unlike “Jeongga”). It could be a different genre crossover. I'm not sure, but the reason for doing it this way is because I want to carry out the project purely out of passion and artistic inspiration.”