Black String is a unique world music quartet which fuses traditional Korean music with contemporary improvisational music. The group was founded in 2011 as part of a government-sponsored Korea-United Kingdom cultural exchange program.
The group consists of four talented musicians.
Yoon Jeong Heo plays the geomungo, a traditional Korean stringed instrument in the zither family.
Aram Lee plays a variety of Korean wind instruments which include the danso, a notched vertical bamboo flute frequently used in Korean folk music.
He also plays the yanggeum — a hammered dulcimer which has metal strings that are played by striking them with a bamboo stick.
Percussionist Min Wang Hwang plays the drums. He sometimes plays a special drum called a janggu, which features an hourglass-shaped body.
Lastly, Jean Oh plays electric guitar. He also creates unusual sound effects for the group using various electronic devices.
Currently on tour in the United States, on Thursday, January 25, 2018, the musicians of Black String made a stop at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College. Here, they performed a concert for an audience of world music lovers of all ages.
Opening with a composition from their debut CD, Mask Dance, the quartet performs a composition which group leader Yoon Jeong Heo says consists of “complicated traditional rhythms. It is entitled “Seven Beats.”
Like jazz musicians, the instrumentalists move as they create sound in motion.
As the group plays, they create a soundscape which comes across as both traditional and contemporary in nature.
On this piece, percussionist Min Wang Hwang sits on the floor and taps either on the tom tom head or on the side of his janggu drum to produce a metallic sound. Yoon Jeong Heo slowly bobs her head as she plays the geomungo.
The music builds in intensity as the various instruments create rhythmic layers of acoustic/electronic sound both in terms of texture and dynamics. Acoustic and electronic strings sing as percussion steadily keeps time.
Eventually slowing down, the ethereal sound of the bamboo flute takes the spotlight accompanied by an electronica-influenced background.
After a dramatic climax — where all four instrumentalists play their hearts out — the piece deconstructs into a more traditional acoustic sound at its conclusion.
Following avid applause, drummer Hwang leaves the stage so the group can perform its second piece, “Growth Ring.”
Opening with the sound of a pre-recorded bass drone, guitarist Jean Oh adds electronic beeps and buzzes via the use of his iPad to accompany Aram Lee’s recorder-like wooden flute.
Heo plucks the strings of her geomungo with her right hand as her left hand deftly presses on the instrument’s frets. At times, she plucks the natural silk strings with a bamboo stick.
At other times, Heo either strikes the strings with the stick or uses the stick to tap out rhythms on the wooden base of the instrument.
As the trio of musicians continue to play, Lee’s flute trills along with Oh’s electric guitar to the accompaniment of the geomungo and the ever-present drone of the bass.
After large applause, drummer Hwang returns to the stage and Black String performs the title song from their CD, Mask Dance.
The sound of quick and rhythmic electric guitar strumming and geomungo playing fill the room, the powerful drums chanting along.
On this piece, Hwang sings, vocalizing sounds from deep within his soul, sounding mournful and raw.
The wooden flute echoes the piece’s sentiment, vocalized by Lee to change the instrument’s timbre with each breath.
At the conclusion of the piece, group leader Heo takes a moment to chat with the crowd, thanking them for coming to the show.
Announcing that they will now play a trio of three compositions, Hwo reveals that the first piece is called “Song from Heaven” — a number which, Heo explains, “is based on traditional Korean music.” According to Heo, the song’s lyric can be translated as, “Please God, come to us.”
Starting with mellow electric guitar, the melody sounds like a prayer. Once again, Hwang sings, his soulful voice pleading, accompanied by the plucked strings of the geomungo and the windy sound of the bamboo flute.
The second song of the trilogy is “Strangeness Moon,” a song which Heo describes as “very strange,” before adding, “I hope you will enjoy it.”
Lee opens this piece with his flute modified via an electronic effects device to alter the sound, making it seem surreal. Heo scratches the strings of her geomungo with a bamboo stick. She then proceeds to bounce on the strings with the stick creating a unique timbre which is more noise-like than melodic.
Hwang rattles shells and follows that up with frantic drumming which is accompanied by Oh’s rhythmic and distorted guitar playing.
As they perform, the quartet produces an innovative and dynamic piece of music which one must experience and feel as well as hear.
After hearty applause, the group performs the third song of the trio, “Blue Shade,” a piece which is described by Heo as a “blues tune” blended “with traditional Korean music.”
On this composition, the soft wailing of Lee’s flute opens the piece. Rhythms build with Heo’s geomungo, Lee’s flute, Oh’s guitar, and Hwang’s drums, all four musicians playing together to reach a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.
Following excited applause, Heo introduces her fellow band members to the audience and follows that up by stating, “Beautiful theater, beautiful audience — thank you so much for coming.”
Heo announces that the last tune of the evening will be “Dang, Dang, Dang,” a title which she asks the audience to repeat after her. After having Hwang play on his drum a sample of the “traditional Korean simple regular rhythm” on which the song is based, the piece begins.
Appearing to “beat box” into the flute, Lee plays extremely rhythmically. Soon, percussionist Hwang beats out the traditional Korean drum rhythm the audience heard earlier as the other musicians watch and listen.
Before long, the entire group is playing together, creating a compelling piece of world music which fuses traditional Korean melody and rhythm along with the creative spark of contemporary jazz improvisation.
The audience claps and cheers for this unique and powerful performance before the group responds with their own applause for the audience!
As the members of the crowd make their way out of the auditorium and into the Grunin Center lobby, quite a few take an opportunity to meet the musicians of Black String.
At this time, we take a moment to chat with group leader Yoon Jeong Heo.
In talking about her unusual instrument — the geomungo — Heo explains that “the geomungo has been around for about 2000 years and is played in all kinds of Korean music. The base is made of wood and the strings are natural silk. The striker is a bamboo stick.”
An enthusiast of “avant-guard music,” Heo acknowledges that in order to make her instrument sound more contemporary, she uses “a collection of assorted electronic effects boxes” located on the floor.
As we chat, Heo goes on to reveal, “This is only our second concert in the United States. We played in New York City recently, but this is our first time in New Jersey,” adding, “We are really enjoying out time here!”
Explaining that although — now, in 2018 — the group is currently on a concert tour of America, Heo is excited to announce that “next year — in 2019 — we will be doing a world tour.”
As Heo and her bandmates meet and greet many of the audience members in the Grunin Center lobby, we take a moment to chat with several concertgoers who share their reactions to tonight’s performance by Black String.
First, we chat with Briann from Manahawkin who states, “I really enjoyed Black String — their music is very intense! I felt like it was telling a story.”
“Their first song, ‘Seven Beats,’” notes Briann, “was very complicated. My favorite, however, was ‘Mask Dance’ — I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it!”
Briann’s friend, Brett from Manahawkin, adds, “I had done a little research on Black String and had watched some YouTube videos of the group so I’d know what to expect tonight. What I found is that I really enjoy the uniqueness of their music.”
Revealing that both he and Brianne are members of the Asian Culture Club at Ocean County College, Brett explains, “In the club, we study a variety of aspects of Asian culture,” before noting, “I really like how Black String incorporates aspects of Korean culture into their music and adds to them,” exclaiming, “To me, that’s the coolest thing!”
Next, we chat with a couple from the local community, here tonight to experience a unique presentation of world music by Black String.
Comments Bob from Howell, “The concert tonight by Black String was very different,” acknowledging, “We certainly got an education tonight!”
His wife, Wilma, agrees, revealing, “I knew nothing about Korean music before this show, and I was fascinated by the instruments,” before further adding, “and I could hardly take my eyes off of the geomungo player!”
As we make our way out of theater and out into the evening air, we catch up with two more concert attendees — a pair of smiling Ocean County College students who seem extraordinarily pleased to have been here for tonight’s performance by Black String.
When asked why they appear to be so happy, Victoria from Barnegat explains, “I like all world cultures! I used to study European culture and now I’m studying Asian culture — because I’m part Chinese. I watched Black String’s videos on YouTube and I really liked them, but it was so exciting to see them live,” before noting, “and they were so nice, too!”
Victoria’s friend, Alana from Barnegat, agrees, declaring, “I love Korean culture! I listen to K-Pop and Korean jazz and blues. I’m so happy I got to see this group!”
Adding, “ I even got their autographs and a picture with them!” Alana smiles from ear to ear before exclaiming, “This was only my second concert ever! I’m still shaking from the excitement!”
To learn more about Black String, please click on sori.nyc/blackstring. For information on upcoming performances at the Grunin Center of the Arts — including An Intimate Evening with Rickie Lee Jones on Mar. 22, Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters on Apr. 21, and Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow on May. 11 — please go to grunincenter.org.
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