Experimental Haegeum Performance Explored the ‘Ritual of Mundanity’

Los Angeles arts nonprofit The Resonance Collective hosted an experimental haegeum performance at the First Congressional Church in Koreatown, featuring Jeonghyeon Joo as part of the organization’s Golden Thread Concert Series. This series explores the ritualistic aspects of musical performances and is part of the organization’s broader vision to cultivate sacred experiences through music. 

Using the traditional Korean bowed string instrument, Joo’s performance examined what it could mean to treat mundane events and activities as rituals, building upon her interests in the embodied experiences of listening to music, as well as her previous work The Art of Bowing. She explores whether sacredness and profanity are truly polar opposites and whether treating something as sacred makes it so. The evening began with a solo haegeum arrangement of Sangryeongsan, a piece that  reflects the Confucian values of self-restraint and harmony and would have traditionally been performed in royal courts. Joo, dressed in a bronze hanbok, brought the audience along into a meditative trance, the waves of sound ebbing and rising like deep, rhythmic breaths. The next piece layered on a recording of Korean singing and drumming, and the haegeum stretched expressively beyond the emotionally controlled framework of traditional court music.

Accompanying each performance was what The Resonance Collective called The Frame, which is a short talk that provides historical, spiritual, and philosophical context about the music being performed. This segment allowed attendees to connect more deeply with the performance and make sense of even the more experimental bits, tying the sounds back to an exploration of the sacred in the mundane.

Joo’s wardrobe change into contemporary garb mirrored the sonic shift towards a modern interpretation of Korean folk music and an experimental approach to sound production. She is joined onstage by M A Harms and Matt LeVeque on percussion, and they used unconventional techniques like rolling a ball around a tambourine or pressing into the haegeum to create an unusual soundscape. The low-pitched rumbling at the beginning resembled the background noise of city traffic, bringing a familiar yet often ignored sound into the ritualistic space of a performance. This illuminated the power of context in shaping the way we perceive something and blurred the lines between the exalted and the profane. The performers’ sonic explorations oscillated between pensive tinkering and frenzied experimentation, and at one point, Joo used the bow attached to one haegeum to play a second haegeum. There was a tenseness as one wondered if the demands on the instrument might damage it, but thankfully, no haegeums were harmed in this performance.

The final piece, performed by the trio and five other musicians, delved most into the somatic experience of sound by bringing together different textures. Perhaps most notable was the use of styrofoam to create the characteristically grating sound. This was in contrast to the clear, ringing quality of the bowed xylophone and Mikaela Elson’s singing voice. To many, the kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument, was the most unfamiliar instrument on the stage. While it resembles the haegeum in its construction and playing technique, it has a darker, rounder sound quality due to its larger soundbox, which Niloufar Shiri makes use of. Rounding out the unique ensemble was Miller Wrenn on double bass, Vinny Golia on saxophone, and Ethan Marks on trumpet. There were pockets of sonorous moments where all the textures melded into one, as well as more tumultuous passages where contrasting textures and dissonance created tension and uncertainty. And despite the unconventional instrumentation, in a way, this piece retained the meditative qualities of court music like Sangryeongsan by allowing the listener to notice the various reactions that arise from the different combinations of textures.







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