Donald WomackThe Sound of Drums Echoes Beyond the Heavens하늘 저편에 울려 퍼지는 북소리Korean traditional orchestra 국악관현악11:002012
The title refers to an ancient Korean ritual, performed over 2,000 years ago, that sought to connect earth to heaven. A solemn ceremony would be followed by days of music and dance, in which it was said that “the sound of drums outreaches heaven.” In composing this piece, I imagined a place beyond the heavens, where the sound of ancient drums is still heard, echoing not only across space, but also across time.

The idea of echoing pervades the piece on multiple levels, from the recurring, almost literal reverberation-like passages, to passages of imitation between instruments — both successively and overlapping — to the many Doppler-effect type sounds that echo across the more foreground material. On the broadest level, the intense opening idea finally returns at the end, transformed by the passage of time and heard anew, an echo of structural proportions.

Stylistically, the piece merges strange and disparate worlds, drawing on elements of traditional Korean music, developmental processes found in contemporary Western music, and the drive of rock and roll, all with careful attention to a rhythmic energy borne of pulse layering, frequent metric displacement and complex syncopation. A recurring technique is what I call “floating rhythm”, in which a rhythmic element temporarily becomes “unglued” from an underlying constant pulse — either heard or implied — resulting in a sense of one rhythm momentarily floating above another.

Most important to the piece’s character are the many Korean elements it embodies. The instruments themselves are essential — the piece simply could not be played by any other instruments. In contrast to Western instruments, the lifeblood of Korean instruments is not harmony (pitch), but instead an acute focus on the subtleties of timbre and the amazing array of colors the instruments can produce. The nearly constant ornamentation (농현) and manipulation of the instruments to produce variances in pitch (시김새) employed by traditional Korean instruments yields a music which, from a Western perspective, “lives between the notes." In simple terms, the pitch is not the focus, but is instead a vehicle to carry the sound.

Other Korean elements essential to the piece are its references to changdan (장단), or traditional rhythmic patterns, as well as to the traditional instrumental forms sanjo (산조) and sinawi (시나외). The piece draws on the innate rhythmic tension and frequent hemiola of Korean changdan, while not literally relying on existing patterns. Likewise, the piece emulates the long building of tension used in sanjo and sinawi, though in a style entirely separate from them. Another sanjo-like element of the piece is its structure, which presents each instrumental section in a solo role at various points, creating something of a mini concerto for orchestra.

All of these elements are re-envisioned and re-contextualized, so that they merge with the worlds of contemporary Western music and rock and roll (themselves disparate). Ultimately, this strange but surprisingly natural combination results in a music that is wholly distinct and distinctive, unlike any other in its straddling of worlds.