Ancient Asian Instruments
Commonalities, Subtleties & Purpose: 7 Musicians Pushing Ancient Asian Instruments Into The Future
When DoYeon Kim told someone what instrument she played, he spit out his drink. During her inaugural week at the New England Conservatory in Boston, she thought she'd make friends with a community of fellow Korean students. When she brought up that she played the gayageum—a traditional Korean zither—what resulted was a reaction straight out of a Saturday-morning cartoon.
"It's ridiculous," Kim tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom while on a two-week lockdown in South Korea, where she was born and is currently visiting. "[This Harvard student] drinks something and says, 'Oh, what do you play?' I say, 'Gayageum.'" She then mimics spewing a beverage onto a table. "They probably thought I'd play some classical instrument."
Granted, the gayageum isn't a typical sight at NEC, a private music school specializing in jazz and contemporary improvisation. In fact, Kim was the first gayageum player to be admitted to the institution. But to think that a centuries-old instrument doesn't belong in contemporary music is flat-out bogus. In conversation, Kim displays an intimate understanding of her instrument's origins while also connecting them to 20th-century innovators like Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton.
This sentiment isn't exclusive to Kim or traditional Korean sounds. While innumerable practitioners of ancient instruments exist, a group of musicians and artists is currently bending these traditional musical tools to their will and pushing them into the future: tabla player Samir Chatterjee, pipaist Min Xiao-Fen, suona player Yazhi Guo, percussionist Susie Ibarra, komungo player Jin Hi Kim, koto player Miya Masaoka, and DoYeon Kim herself.
Ranging from a piercing Chinese horn to a languid zither to communicative pitched gongs, these instruments, like their players, couldn't be more different. But what binds these seven creators is their willingness to explode the cultural boundaries of their crafts and find new corridors of expression and meaning.
Didn't think an instrument from the Ming Dynasty could sound fresh in 2021? Let these brilliant minds tilt the ethnomusicological timeline.
A Projectionist Of The Collective Unconscious: Samir Chatterjee
Samir Chatterjee | Photo: Samir Chatterjee
Where has the average American heard the tabla? Probably on Beatles songs, like "Within You, Without You" or "The Inner Light." Since the tabla is struck, whereas the sitar is plucked, it may be easy to think of the former as a mere percussion device. Still, given the instrument's sheer breadth of its emotional capabilities, calling a tabla a pair of drums would be like calling a piano a drum.
On a purely physical level, tabla master Samir Chatterjee has nothing but affection for his instrument—the way he can manipulate tensions and produce innumerable notes in return.
"It serves the purpose of creating the rasas," he tells GRAMMY.com, evoking the Sanskrit term meaning "juice, essence or taste." "That's what we try to do in our raga presentations: evoke the emotions and the sentiments."
Myths abound about the tabla, a pair of bowl-shaped hand drums dating back anywhere from the 18th century or even before. One prevailing origin story is that a drummer, in his anger, drew his sword and cleaved one drum into two. Whatever baggage the tabla carries, though, belies that it's an impossibly rich, modern tool for self-expression.
While Chatterjee considers the tabla "a complete instrument," one memory comes to mind in which he brought 32 musicians together—using 45 drums—to perform a tabla symphony at the Met in New York City.
As the tabla players sent soundwaves 100 feet into the rafters, the audience, comprising mostly laypeople, had intense visual reactions. In empty space, some saw mysterious figures taking shape.
"The director of the museum went up to me and said, 'You transformed this museum into a temple,'" Chatterjee remembers. "I won't leave it as fantasy or imagination. They were visualizing; a sound can manifest into that."
Chatterjee also sees the tabla as applicable to any kind of music; he's collaborated on Bach pieces and with Celtic musicians. "It was not as timekeeping, but almost like a fiddle or a guitar," he says of the latter. "I leave my identity as a tabla player aside and become more of a musician."
In the end, it's Chatterjee's students who most enrich his perspective. "More and more, they receive music as a universal language," he says. "The commonalities, the subtleties, the purpose."
A Pipa Master Wielding Command Of The Blues: Min Xiao-Fen
Min Xiao-Fen | Photo: Jiang Bingqing
Look up Min Xiao-Fen on YouTube and you'll find a somewhat odd dichotomy. On one hand, she's performing traditional Chinese songs, like "Spring River Flower Moon Night," using the pipa, essentially a Chinese lute dating back to the Qin Dynasty. On another, she's plucking tunes from (and influenced by) Count Basie and Thelonious Monk.
But how does Xiao-Fen thread ancient sounds into 20th-century American standards?
"You know, there are a lot of similarities," Xiao-Fen recently told GRAMMY.com of the commonality between music from the East and the West. "Blues and bluegrass reminds me of what I studied in China! Talking blues reminds me of a Chinese [form] called pingtan. It's music from the Southeast that I grew up with."
Like any innovator, Xiao-Fen started by merely practicing the form. "I was a pure traditional musician," she said. But upon moving to America from her native China, the company she kept steered her in new directions. "I learned all kinds of genres and styles of jazz on stage, because I work with so many great musicians."
With her 2012 debut album, Dim Sum, Xiao-Fen established herself as an original composer—one of the swinging variety. "I was thinking, 'I want to do something for myself.' Just spontaneous," she added. "I thought I would start to improvise on swing notes and see how it goes."
Needless to say, the gambit paid off: Xiao-Fen makes music that is caught between the earth and the ether. She's even started to score films; her upcoming album, White Lotus, out June 25, is a soundtrack to the long-lost 1934 Chinese silent film, The Goddess.
A New, Old, Exuberant Category Of Pop Maestro: Yazhi Guo
Yazhi Guo | Photo courtesy of Yazhi Guo.
Yazhi Guo is all grins over Zoom, goofing around with his daughter as she translates his comments, playing a joyously blaring melody on a small horn. Actually, two contrasting melodies: One is bobbing, fluttering traditional Chinese music; the other sounds more like a late-night band during the closing credits.
The suona, he means to say, can do both.
"The suona is very special in folk songs. It's a popular instrument," he explains of his instrument, which is the Chinese permutation of the ancient Iranian sorna. "[But] I'm recording for movie soundtracks, television and pop music. It's different than traditional [usage]."
Physically, the suona is most analogous to a trumpet; aurally, it's probably most like a bagpipe. And much like that Scottish woodwind instrument, which is common in military and state settings, the suona tends to soundtrack big events: weddings, funerals and so on.
From Guo's description, this instrument seems to come from everywhere at once: Since its beginnings in South Arabia, it's enjoyed 1,500 years of history and innumerable regional styles and dialects. "The suona's tone is very iconic, in a way," he says, "and it has its mark in historical culture."
The son of a Chinese opera teacher mother, Guo came up playing the French horn before honing in on this particularly hard-to-play Middle Eastern counterpart. Other than film soundtracks and the like, Guo often plays jazz with the suona—albeit with a Chinese twist.
Above all, what does he wish to impart to the world about his bright, brassy tool for self-expression? "I want to tell people that the suona is like the saxophone or trumpet," Guo stresses. "It's a very popular instrument. It can do anything!"
A Percussionist Sounding Tuned Air, Stones & Water: Susie Ibarra
Susie Ibarra | Photo: Ryan Lash
Susie Ibarra, a percussionist and composer who often focuses on the kulintang, knows a few folktales surrounding her instrument of choice.
"One of the folk stories was that a princess pulled out of the water these beautiful stones, and they were pitched. Eight of them," she tells GRAMMY.com. "She started to play these pitched stones, and the story is that a prince heard this and wanted to emulate this beautiful sound.
So it goes that the prince recreated the stones, making metal gongs. Ibarra's work on the kulintang is serene and aqueous, less inspired by nature than a natural extension of it. And her album, Talking Gong, which came out in early 2021 and features Claire Chase on piccolo and various flutes, emphasizes the dialogic nature of the kulintang, agong and gandigan.
In the dialect of the gong, "You can say, 'How are you? What are you doing? Are you coming?'" Ibarra explains with a hint of awe. "This beautiful language is also very melodic."
Ibarra expands on her traditional toolbox with a sense of limitlessness; she makes use of numberless Filipino instruments made of wood, bamboo, brass, and copper. Why should the average person unaware of this musical heritage care?
"I'd just say to keep an open mind with it, because sound is beautiful," Ibarra says. "When we are open-minded, we can enter what we hope art and music can do, which is [to] allow each of us to enter a space that we normally don't get to every day."
And when it comes to Ibarra's music, that space is one of mental, intellectual and emotional purification.
A Musical Philosopher And Radiator Of Electricity: Jin Hi Kim
Jin Hi Kim | Photo: Ken Howard
As traditional Korean instruments go, the komungo is very similar to the gayageum—with one major exception. Whereas the gayageum has movable bridges, Jin Hi Kim tells GRAMMY.com, the komungo has frets. "It's almost like a gigantic guitar," she adds.
But where the guitar itself can fit just about any mood—from brooding to partying—the "gigantic guitar" fits a highly specific role. "The komungo is a very philosophical instrument," Kim continues. "The gayageum can make a beautiful melody, but the komungo, not necessarily."
As she tells it, the komungo originated in the fourth century as a Confucian scholar's instrument for meditation. Until the 20th century, it was totally uncommon for a woman to play it. An origin story involving a mythical bird led to the nickname "blackbird zither," which turned into "black zither"—"komungo," literally defined.
While Kim played traditional music back in Korea, "I was not going to just play traditional music here [in America] because that does not function," she explains. "Korean music didn't function well ... Even though I was trained as a traditional musician at the best institute with the best teachers, I knew that this traditional music does not function in that society."
Perforating the barriers of what a komungo player can do, Kim began working with wildly divergent musicians. She also got into the tech world and pioneered the electric komungo, equipped with specialized software.
"I want to reflect my duality," Kim says. "I am a Korean. I have a Korean soul, Korean tradition, because I studied seriously. But then, also, I reflect on where I am. I am in American society, dealing with emerging technology."
A Manipulator Of Lasers Strung In Empty Space: Miya Masaoka
Miya Masaoka. Photo: Heike Liss
When one plays the koto, a Japanese zither, their frantic-seeming movements can give audiences the wrong idea.
"If you play fast or super rhythmically or use your arms, people think that you're mad or angry," koto player Miya Masaoka tells GRAMMY.com. "You're actually just playing energetically. These kinds of things can be interpreted really differently."
This sheer energy output belies a common misconception about the koto, and perhaps all Japanese instruments: That it's fundamentally tranquil and fey. "The stereotype is that it's a soft, feminine instrument, but in fact, it can be a very strong, aggressive instrument as well," Masaoka asserts.
Masaoka studied with Japanese koto masters early on and soaked up the traditional history of her instrument. But as with several of these other instrumentalists, this simply provided a springboard for radical, individualistic expression with her medium of choice.
"Sometimes, I've used improvisational techniques, playing with a bow and extending the techniques," she explains, "whether it's my hand scratching the instrument or moving very quickly in a way it would not normally be played to match some of the rhythms of a drummer."
Much like Jin Hi Kim, Masaoka's work isn't stuck in the past, but harmonious with cutting-edge technology. "I use the computer and different ways of processing sounds," she says. Perhaps most enticingly, this involves a virtual koto strung with laser lights that Masaoka plucks in the air.
Whether analog or digital to an excitingly sci-fi degree, "I feel it has imagination all its own," Masaoka says of the koto, whose ancestry goes back to the 7th century. "Sometimes, I think an instrument speaks to you personally. It has its own energy."
A Broad-Minded Improviser Conjuring Liquid Harmony: DoYeon Kim
DoYeon Kim | Photo courtesy of DoYeon Kim
Turn on alto saxophonist Jim Snidero's 2020 album, Project-K, and you'll hear a jazz combo outfitted with an instrument deeply uncommon to the genre—one lithe, aqueous and ever-shifting. That's the gayageum, which, on a Korean-themed album, Snidero sought for its sense of openness.
"I wanted to have a tranquil aspect to the music, a smooth feeling, a liquid feeling," he told JazzTimes that year. "I felt like with [some] other [traditional Korean] instruments, the harshness would have held me back."
Enter DoYeon Kim, a gayageum improviser coming in hot: Back in 2020, her astonishingly "out" collaborations with drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey at the New England Conservatory made waves. She started on piano at four before moving to the gayageum at 11, connecting the dots to Thelonious Monk's sense of harmony.
On the topic of harmony, Kim is quick to note that Korea has "no harmony concept." (Where Americans might hear harmony in Korean music, they never use the word.) So how does she apply this to the American tradition, which is typically all harmony, all the time?
The answer lies in exploring the liminal possibilities of microtones, and the gayageum is a powerful tool for such. "The notes start from my right hand but end with my left hand," she explains. "So I always think that the note is alive, and about how I'm going to shift it to another note. Cooking it. That's very important."
"That sound is representative of Korea," she adds, mimicking a trembling, crying note. "I think that's representative of Korean grief. We've had lots of wars and were occupied by Japan, so that vibrato is all about history, you know? It's about the [depth] of grief we had."
Even when discussing harrowing topics like hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, Kim is bright, kind and analytical. A young, fearless improviser without borders, who's arguably just getting started—what a counterweight to pain that is.