Treat your system (and you!) to Korean psychedelic music

Treat your system (and you!) to Korean psychedelic music

Chief engineer/CEO Jung-Hoon Choi of record label Audioguy

Your body is the vehicle you use to experience life. Likewise, your audio equipment is the vehicle you use to experience music, whether on earbuds or a mega-dollar system.

Speaking of your body, there’s one thing you never want it to do: the same movement over and over again, especially for long. Otherwise, it can stiffen and lead to debilitating injuries and chronic pain, such as those suffered by athletes, computer programmers, and hairdressers. Your body needs to move in different directions. It needs to flex. It needs to perform a variety of activities and postures so it can be nimble and perform at its best. If not, it will deaden itself to pleasurable things.

I think this principle also applies to your audio system. I believe that the more varied the repertoire you feed it, the more you allow it to flex its musical muscles, and the more relaxed, limber, and ultimately better it will sound. We may view audio components as machines, but they are not inanimate because nothing in this universe is completely solid and static. In that sense, an audio system could be interpreted as a living organism.

Sanjo practionner Jae-Ha Lee (photo courtesy Audioguy)

If this sounds to you like new-agey baloney, then maybe you’ll believe this instead: listening to a very different kind of music from what you normally listen to will affect your relationship with your system. It will make you see your system in a different light. You will feel differently about it. As they say, variety is the spice of life, and I’d say also of relationships with our partners and possessions.

I recommend healthy diets of listening to different genres to avoid your mind and ears petrifying from being subjected to always the same thing. You listen to classical music? Switch to the blues. You’re a heavy metal headbanger? Put on some electronica—better yet, some ballet. As long as you take the time to listen to an unfamiliar genre with an open mind, you and your relationship with your system can only grow and strengthen. Want a truly radical, genre-busting listening experience that could change your whole perspective on music, or even your life? Then go beyond the limited set of rhythmic and harmonic structures and boundaries on which most western music is based and experience a musical art form that is more… foreign.

The world is full of diverse music that can open a door into your soul that was closed all your life. One such music originates from Korea, my home country. No, I’m not talking about BTS or Black Pink, which I consider western music. I’m talking about a traditional genre that’s been evolving since it was developed over 130 years ago, called sanjo, which translates literally to “scattered melodies”.

A sanjo composition consists of a long instrumental solo accompanied by drumming, typically on the hourglass-shaped janggu. It lasts from several minutes to half an hour. It always begins with a lot of empty spaces, different from the pauses songwriters or classical composers use as intentional devices for dramatic or poetic purposes. The spaces in sanjo are natural pauses without any creative reason behind them. You could call them Zen-like, but that would be to over-conceptualize them.

A western style song or piece more or less stays within the same degree of intensity. Or it has two or more distinct sections where each has its own level of intensity (e.g., Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”). Sanjo is quite different in that its intensity gradually increases through the course of the music.

The closest thing I can compare sanjo to in western music is Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, except that Bolero increases intensity through a long crescendo, sanjo through a long accelerando. Of course, western classical composers also use accelerando but in such cases the composer’s intention is always obvious to the listener (“Hey, let’s step on the gas here”). In sanjo, it’s stealthy. It resembles more an organism growing than a machine accelerating. As the music intensifies, it also gets more complex and mischievous. And it invariably ends with a rapturous, spiritual climax—a liberation, so to speak, for both performer and audience member.

Some people drink wine to Diana Krall. Some smoke pot to Pink Floyd. With sanjo, there’s no need for mind-altering substances because it already has plenty of mind-altering substance. It’s magic mushroom trippy.

As for recommended recordings, I heard quite a few sanjo CDs in the past but none can hold a candle to my new discovery: a handful of albums produced by Audioguy, a boutique audiophile label in Seoul, Korea, founded in 2000 by the company’s chief engineer/CEO, Jung-Hoon Choi. Among the company’s 72 albums released since its inception are a number of jazz and classical recordings with fantastic sound quality, but it was their sanjo recordings that truly redefined the concept of “resolution” for me. I have an eclectic taste in music and have listened to so many recordings in so many different genres, but Audioguy’s sanjo recordings have given me the most ecstatic listening experiences of my audiophile life.

Previously an assistant at a recording studio that produced mostly pop recordings, Choi, a self-proclaimed audiophile, fell in love with the sound of sanjo’s traditional instruments, especially in terms of their resonance and decay. He explained to me that Audioguy engineers try different microphone and recording techniques to capture the unique qualities of those instruments, and that what might traditionally work for, say, a piano trio may not for a sanjo session. The sound quality Choi’s team achieved in their sanjo albums is remarkable. It’s impossible not to hear the result as a labour of love realized.

You don’t have to be Korean to enjoy sanjo, especially when it’s captured with so much immediacy, atmosphere, and respect for the art. All you need is a radical willingness to open your mind and let yourself and your audio system get high on sanjo’s psychedelic charms.

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