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Edmund Campion Composes New Work for Ancient Korean Instruments

October 24, 2017
by Andrew Gilbert

As a composer, Edmund Campion has found his sweet spot peering several moments into the future, scouting the indefinite crossroads where new technologies suggest unexpected possibilities for making music.

But his latest piece, “Audible Numbers,” is inspired by and written for instruments that were already ancient when China started building the Great Wall. It might seem like he’s reversed course, looking for sounds and practices located far in the past, but he sees the instruments of the Korean National Gugak Center’s Creative Traditional Orchestra as offering him uncharted territory similar to his futuristic investigations.

“My work has always been interested in how emerging technology influences the way music is made,” says Campion, 60, the director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) and chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of Music.

“When the offer came to work with the Gugak musicians, I saw immediate connections between these ancient instruments and some of the proto-electronic controllers I’ve used. They both have strange limitations or challenges to the way music is conceived as a thing which in some way changes the rules as a way to explore new ground.”

“Audible Numbers” premieres Saturday afternoon Oct. 28 at Zellerbach Hall as part of the Creative Traditional Orchestra’s two-concert Cal Performances residency. The afternoon program is devoted to new works by contemporary composers commissioned by the National Gugak Center. Saturday evening’s concert focuses on traditional Korean court and folk music. The residency also includes a free Alumni House afternoon forum with Campion and five other composers, and an evening Gilnori Parade featuring colorful costumes and an array of traditional percussion instruments.

Edmund Campion
Though interested in Korean culture, Campion didn’t set out to immerse himself in the country’s sumptuous traditions during his 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship research at the flagship National Gugak Center in Seoul. Rather, he investigated the sonic properties of traditional instruments like the piri, a deceptively simple bamboo instrument with a double-reed and eight finger holes.

The 55-piece Creative Traditional Orchestra is structured much like a Western orchestra, with sections devoted to bowed strings, winds, and percussion, however the instruments didn’t evolve to blend with each other. In court and folk music settings, traditional instruments are played mostly solo or to accompany the voice, and when grouped together Campion found that “there’s a lot of microtonal elements embedded in these instruments, these really tiny subtle variations you can’t replicate when you get 55 of them on stage, and therein lies the problem. My inclination is to put myself into those situations that have those problems.”

The title “Audible Numbers” comes from the software that Campion used to write the piece, which is based on Pythagorean ratios. While the score does showcase the virtuosic skills of the musicians, Campion approached the piece “thinking of sound not so much as expressive things, but as numeric relationships. The contemporary view of sound and music is that the instruments exist as something expressive and philosophical, embodying some principals. Another way is to think of the sounds is as pure relationships. It’s a different way to enter into a relationship with these instruments, not as cultural homage, but as a space of exploration and possibility. I wasn’t trying to impose my Western 21st-century view. I was trying to create listenable sounds. I want the musicians to feel they’re doing what they do best.”

Campion is hoping that “Audible Numbers” is just the first in an ongoing relationship with the ensemble, as his imagination is churning with new ways to combine the instruments with various electronic sensors and controllers.

The soft-spoken composer doesn’t come across as a theatrical showman, but he sees the process of creating contemporary music with traditional Korean instruments as, “something like a magician,” he says. “Let me put myself in a situation there’s no way to get out of. Let’s see how you work it. That process fascinates me as much as the outcome. Each composer comes up with different solution. I’m going to let you take away my ability to do these things, and be inspired by what the instruments can do and how they sound, and how does technology connect with that.”

The Cal Performances residency came about through the 2017 Pacific Rim Music Festival, an unprecedented American showcase for the National Gugak Center. Organized by UC Santa Cruz Professor of Music Hi Kyung Kim, the festival runs October 25–29 at UCSC’s Music Center Recital Hall, with five free public concerts of traditional music and 40 world premieres by the 55-member Creative Traditional Orchestra, the Center’s Chamber Ensemble, the Borromeo String Quartet, the New York New Music Ensemble, and Festival Ensemble Korea. Cal is the only place outside of Santa Cruz that the Creative Traditional Orchestra will play in conjunction with this year’s festival.

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