Name: Park Jiha
Nationality: South Korean
Occupation: Composer, multi-instrumentalist
Current Release: Park Jiha's Philos is available via her bandcamp store.
Recommendations: ‘BLU TERRA’ by Carlos Maria Trindade / Nuno Canavarro; ‘Novelist as a Profession’ by Haruki Murakami
If you enjoyed this interview with Park Jiha and would like to find out more about her work, visit her website. She is also on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Starting to actually produce or write my own music came later. I can’t really think of one particular event that marked the start of it. I think it just progressively entered my life, as I was always attracted to playing differently and experimenting with the instruments I was using.
When I was younger I did listen to a lot of classical music home which I think perhaps did have an influence on me. Rather than a passion, music felt like the thing I wanted to always do from a very early age onward.
As far as I recall I got very much drawn in by movie scores, which got me really interested in learning ‘Western’ classical music. But that’s another story …
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
For myself, learning was a long and fastidious process. I entered a traditional Korean music school at a very young age and followed it through a very strict and competitive process. This took me all the way to university graduation.
For me, there are definitely two phases to formal learning. The first taught me how to feel comfortable with the instruments around me and their sound signatures. The second phase then really took me away from them. I wasn't a complete reject, but I did free myself from the traditional way of expressing sound through these instruments. It helped me to create something comfortable for me, something that reflected the feelings I wished to express. This transitional phase towards my own artistic expression came from the frustration of feeling blocked within a system for too long rather than a direct inspiration as far as I can think of.
Following this I had a project called 숨[su ːm] for about 9 years. It was a duo and helped me to understand what I wanted to create as well as being humanly quite an experience. Up until the final stages of my first album ‘Communion’ I think it marked a larger transitional step in my life of about 10 years.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t think my personal sense of identity is very strong. I tend to observe a lot and think a lot … Though I do not want to force any message or express my identity through music. I would rather musically translate feelings and emotions that feel to me a lot more powerful.
For many people, using traditional instruments and creating music that could be qualified ’minimal’ or ’avant-gardist’ can create the impression that I'm someone with a strong identity, strong thoughts, political messages or cultural awareness. But I personally feel that what I'm sharing is universal. Emotions are dissociated from personal identities.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
At first, overcoming my educational background was an immediate challenge. There is a very strict and formal way to learn, there is a correct and a wrong way to it. Bipolar thinking is a rule. So it's quite hard to go against that when you are young and unsure how far you can take things when you're faced with instruments that are a couple centuries old.
What this traditional music community thinks of outsiders was something to overcome later. By chance, we had some professors that were definitely out there and lighted up my curiosity to see things in a different way. Years went by and after some time challenges did evolve a lot as you said.
Right now, the challenges I face are rather focused on the whole process of making an album. Finding the right team and people interested in the project to collaborate with and creating a synergy around a common effort is perhaps a challenge that is affecting me at this very moment, with the new album I have been working on for the past 6 months.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
That’s an excellent question. I have thought about this a thousand times to be honest. I started with a Piri (which is sort of bamboo oboe) and Taepyeongso, both lead instruments, exploring the limits of them. After a while it brought me to using the Yanggeum (a kind of hammered dulcimer) and Saenghwang (similar to a mouth organ) to Glockenspiel later on. Listing all the instruments up now, this does seem like a lot to me - but over the years, it was just a very natural way to complete and realize what I had in mind for the various projects I had.
It was never about catching up with the latest technology or something like that. It was purely the need of a more complete and satisfying depth in the sounds I was creating. I tend to think that everything needs limits. Having more options does not equal better creativity to me.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I would say that taking part in the mixing and mastering of my albums was the most ‘technological’ influence in the way I create my music. It did broaden my vision and gave me a more freedom in terms of creation.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Through the years I engaged in many collaborations. It started with the long project I spoke about earlier in the interview. This was then followed by the team I worked with on my first personal album ‘Communion’. And it is still going on with all the parallel projects I have going on at the moment.
As I always said, there is a very strong energy you get from other artists when working together and jamming. But on the other hand, it is also a very energy-consuming process, as you're dealing with different personalities, characters and desires. I do feel most comfortable working on my own, I think it is just my state of mind at the moment and the main reason why I have been creating my last album ‘Philos’ and the upcoming album with a more personal approach.
I still get very surprised sometimes. I did a live jam with a writer, Roy Claire Potter for the BBC last year. It was the first time we ever met and even if my English is far from being comfortable, we did improvise and I think the result is really fun and feels very natural. It turned out to be an inspiring collaboration and we are working on releasing it soon.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
A totally random blend. I am really not the studio nerd type, music has to be instinctive and shouldn’t feel like work. At least when it comes to creating …
A typical day would be an early wake up by habit, eat breakfast, go out for a bit of sport, get back home and work on my emails, do a bit of housework. Then take care of my instruments, some of them, like the Saenghwang, require special care.
So on the days I do music, I would be creating pretty much all afternoon, taking breaks and thinking as well. It also happens that I do not work on any music for days. For me, these periods in between are very important. When I was younger, I would practise for up to 10 hours each day as part of my routine. Now I award a lot more importance to thinking and just living. I think it brings depth and maturity to my sound, while I used to be more technical in some ways in the past …
The end of the day is usually reserved for listening some music at home, reading or going out for long walks around my area. So I would say that I rather blend music and personal life.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
A few events come to mind.
A first couple or events during a similar period would be the ‘2017 WOMEX (Worldwide Music Expo)’ and ‘2017 Classical: NEXT’. It was a turning point in my career. For me participating in these music events was already quite a huge thing, adding to the fact that these were my first representations as Park Jiha and not through the 숨[su ːm] project abroad. We had the opportunity to meet lots of great people including the guys at Glitterbeat Records who offered us to release the album worldwide. It did work very well and opened up the opportunity to tour a lot, exposing a larger audience to my works.
The second event is radically different. It took place last year at the Museum San in Wonju, Korea. The space was designed by Ando Tadao and the organization of the event was complex. There was something very special, starting with the amazing acoustics of the room and the very particular atmosphere brought about by the natural light movements within the space. It had a strong influence on my new album and also opened up doors to new perspectives in how to conceive performances, working with different set ups and with a more immersive experience.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Interesting question as well, I also had the thought a few times. But the answer I can give isn’t as artistic as one might imagine. For myself, it is rather an accumulation of experiences and works that with time become coherent and form a whole. I am naturally quite stable in my daily life and until now I have always felt a coherence in works I have done within a particular period of time. I think they kind of reflect my feelings and emotions in that particular period in my life.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
For me personally, the music I create helps me to heal a lot of emotions I hold. Sometimes it comes from a certain melancholy that I will try to express in a beautiful way, sometimes it will be memories of places or people. In my own experience with music, I think I’ve mostly tried to heal the hurts through it, trying to soften it with a certain form of beauty to the sounds and textures I create.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think this is a long running debate that is quite superficial in some respects. If music is the thing that matters, there is no need to identify what would be an appropriation or an exchange … At the end of the day, it is just a human being creating. The actually important criterion should be whether or not that creation is interesting or not.
This is also the reason why I am not interested in promoting myself with any element of cultural identity, gender identity etc …. It's just myself creating.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
This is a struggling point for me as well. There is a lot of emphasis on the visual aspects of a musical work. For me, it used to be quite important to make sure no to be identified with the traditional music movement and neither did I car about the visual identity of my works. My thoughts have, since then, evolved a lot as you will see on my new album …
I see the link between the sense of hearing and the rest of our senses with a lot more distance I think – even though it's one of the main subjects of the new album that was conceived around the role of ‘light’.
The main performance we did at Museum San was a meditative session that combined movements, a focus on surrounding sounds and the path of light through the space. Getting the audience to use a combination of senses while I was playing live. I think it was quite a unique moment.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I think my approach is a lot more naive. I am more interested in the human dimension to music. My way of expressing myself as an artist is to give a musical expression to what I feel, trying to connect with people through these sounds on an emotional level. Nothing political.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Just so much … Words cannot express the complexity of what we feel. Music does not try to explain - it makes you feel.