Philos is the second release from Korean multi-instrumentalist Park Jiha on tak:til, an imprint of the extraordinary globally-minded label Glitterbeat. The label is an ideal fit for Park’s open-minded and open-ended music, which displays an expansive web of influences and yet manages to sound utterly unique and genre-less. Park plays an array of traditional Korean instruments, and the three she plays on this record are the piri, a bamboo flute similar to an oboe; the saenghwang, a mouth organ; and the tanggeum, a hammered dulcimer. On Philos Park plays alone, building the compositions in the gradually in layers. This marks a change from her practice on her previous release, 2018’s Communion, where she worked with an expanded palette and with other musicians to create a more live and collaborative sound. Philos, while a distinct conceptual work, distils some of that earlier record’s ideas across its eight tracks, in the dynamism and diversity of the pieces and in the subtlety with which the music moves from a sense of spaciousness to claustrophobia.
I first heard Communion knowing nothing about Park, her musical background or the instruments being played. I didn’t know whether the sounds I was hearing were electronic or acoustic, or whether I was listening to a group playing together live or music that had been spliced together digitally. The ambiguity I experienced was well-matched to the blurring of boundaries in the music between genres, between eras, and between indigenous folk idioms and Western minimalism. Park’s music is beautiful, mesmerising, and structurally fascinating, at times sounding totally improvised and at others meticulously arranged. But what makes her music so compelling is how paradoxically futuristic and unfamiliar it sounds.
Still today some of the most alien and experimental music today is electronic, and new and existing technologies are constantly being pushed to their limits or repurposed to create original and unique new musical forms. But we are now so acclimatised to synthetic sounds that most listeners are unlucky to wonder or care whether the piano they hear in a song they are listening to is an analogue instrument or digital recreation. Digital sounds have lost something of their novelty, and where once electronic bleeps and quantised beats sounded irrepressibly futuristic, portents of a new era of artificial machine music, these days such stereotypical electronic sounds come across as relics from the past, as a retro-futuristic vision of future music. Park’s music can be understood in the context of a nascent ‘post-digital’ music, paralleled across other media and artforms.
In ‘post digital’ culture, digital media exist alongside analogue and physical tools and formats, rather than simply supplanting them, as technological optimists and pessimists once imagined they would. To make music either completely or partly digital today is not to make a defiant commitment to making futuristic music, but is more likely just the appropriating of the useful tools available for realising one’s creative ideas. Some old stereotypes about electronic music not being ‘real’ music persist, but these prejudices are slowly disappearing and being replaced by a more porous approach to making and listening to music. Park’s music is a thrillingly unique example of such an open-minded attitude, blending traditional and contemporary musical forms to create pieces of music that defy easy categorisation, and which often have more in common with styles of music created with entirely different tools than they do to do those made on the same folk instruments. Park’s music, despite being played entirely on ancient instruments, sounds so futuristic because it eschews the standard tools and tones that have historically signified the future.
Opening track ‘Arrival’ pairs a repeated, droning motif over a hammered percussive rhythm, an approach Park adopts on various tracks, unfurling simple melodies just enough to create an emotional foothold, but restrained enough to avoid any dissipation of the hypnotic hold of the music’s looping, almost devotional monotony. The most conspicuous track on the record is ‘Easy’, which features Lebanese artist Dime el Sayed reading a fairly anodyne poem, introducing a human disruption to the other-worldliness of the music up to that point. Although the weakest piece on the album, it does not leave the flow of the record feeling disjointed. Followed by a gently dulating transitory two-minute piece simply titled ‘Pause’, the record opens up into a concluding quartet of pieces that submerge the listener in some of Park’s most immersive and mellifluous music. On ‘Walker in Seoul’, a sparse and maudlin melody meanders unevenly, like a distracted pedestrian slipping in and out of sync with the rhythms of the city around them. Like following and final piece ‘When I Think of Her’, it is easy to imagine this music played on synthesisers or as part of a score for a visual work. The fluidity and intangibility of Park’s music makes it easy to imagine in different contexts, and her curious and generous temperament will surely lead to an increasingly diverse body of work and some fascinating future collaborations.