Intangible Asset No. 82 (DVD) – In the Sprocket Productions, 90 minutes
Daorum (CD) – Kinmara Records
Review by Des Cowley
Simon Barker has long been one of my favourite Australian drummers. Rest assured, he would have earned that place on the strength of his drumming in Mark Simmonds’ Freeboppers alone, without consideration of the extraordinary body of work he has produced since. For me, the Freeboppers’ album Fire (1993) remains one of the cornerstones of Australian jazz: four musicians – Simmonds, Scott Tinkler, Steve Elphick, and Barker – interlocking with a ferocious and burning intensity, their music exploding like a supernova.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I would catch every Melbourne performance by the Freeboppers – at the Limerick Arms, the St Kilda Bowling Club. These were the days before Bennett’s Lane, Uptown Jazz; you caught jazz performances whenever and wherever you could. The band, with each successive gig, seemed to surge further into telepathic dimensions, playing as one mind and body. Simon Barker already had his trademark style, brow furrowed, his eyes locked onto his fellow musicians, all concentration and fixed intent. It was grit and determination and facility and technique that allowed Barker to keep pace with the endlessly snaking lines and patterns laid down by Simmonds and Tinkler, as he shadowed their every move.
Intangible Asset No. 82 is a beautiful document that sheds light on Simon Barker’s on-going development as a musician. Directed and filmed by Emma Franz, this award winning documentary follows Barker’s journey to South Korea in 2005 in search of master musician Kim Seok-Chul. Having heard his music on a rare recording some years earlier, Barker resolved to track him down and meet him. Designated as Intangible Asset No. 82 – or living legend – within Korean culture, Kim Seok-Chul remained an elusive and shadowy figure. Despite numerous trips to South Korea over seven years, Barker’s investigations went nowhere. For the first part of the film, we follow Barker as he wanders aimlessly around Seoul, trying to pick up leads. Just when it looks hopeless, he receives a mysterious phone call, the voice relaying a simple message: “The process has begun”. It could be the beginning of a Paul Auster novel.
Barker’s guide into the underworld is musician Kim Dong Won. At first suspicious of Barker’s motives, he keeps him at arm’s length. Barker, in turn, plays the role of disciple, and it’s one of the strengths of Franz’s film that she so beautifully captures the developing friendship between the two, as Kim Dong Won gradually embraces Barker as a spiritual and musical equal.
The film segues into a road movie, with the two musicians driving through Korea, meeting and picking up characters along the way. It’s never clear that Kim Dong Won is taking Barker to meet Kim Seok-Chul; in effect, Barker is being put through a series of tests, aimed at determining whether he has achieved the level of spiritual understanding required to meet the master musician.
Kim Dong Won takes Barker to meet pansori singer Bae Il Dong, an irrepressible character whose life story demonstrates the ultimate commitment made in the service of music. Traditionally trained, Bae Il Dong spent many years in isolation in the mountains, practicing the p’ansori art of singing before waterfalls, for up to eighteen hours a day, developing his voice against the crashing sounds of water in the forest. He joins Barker and Kim Dong Won on part of their quest.
What comes across most powerfully in the film is the wide-ranging role that music plays within Korean culture, its deep roots. For the musicians Barker meets, music is not just entertainment, it is integral to every aspect of life, from birth to death. On their road trip, Barker meets shamans and musicians, is given rare opportunities to observe rituals and performances, watches musicians and singers as they commune with the living and the dead.
The drummers who share their experiences with Barker demonstrate to him that percussion involves not just the hands or arms, but the whole body; it is akin to dance, to breathing, a spiritual activity and journey that takes a lifetime to master.
In the final part of the film, Barker is driven to house of Kim Seok-Chul, and given an audience with the great musician. It is a profoundly moving moment, a testament to Barker’s single-mindedness, his pursuit of a dream. Finally, after so many years of searching, he is granted privileged access into the private domain of the master musician he has long sought out. As viewers, we experience the moment through Barker’s reactions, the incredulity etched on his face; to have arrived, after so much journeying, at this moment.
Intangible Asset No. 82 begins with multiple images of Barker playing drums, to a soundtrack of Mark Simmonds and the Freeboppers. Asked in the film why he has travelled to Korea, Barker notes that he started out learning the craft of an American form of music – jazz; but, at the same time, he yearned to develop a musical language that reflected his own region and his own experience of the world.
Barker confesses that, as a young man, he found himself gifted with an extraordinary facility for speed on his chosen instrument. If he has learned anything from his travels to Korea, and other places, it is that he can opt to play less notes, focusing instead on making each one count, searching for depth and feeling. He strives for what he calls a ‘balance between freedom and dedication’, music as fluidity, as a river.
Intangible Asset No. 82 is a film of gentle rhythms, in which silences are as important as words. Throughout, Simon Barker is selfless in the way he allows the camera access to private moments, to capture his nagging doubts. In the absence of a common language with which to communicate, Barker develops friendships based on music, smiles and gestures, thereby giving truth to the maxim that music is a universal language. When interacting with his Korean counterparts, Barker is humble beyond measure; and I found the act of watching the film both a humbling and uplifting experience.
At this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Barker performed with one of the projects that has emerged out of his Korean experience: Chiri, named after the mountain area where Bae Il Dong spent many years practicing his p’ansori style of singing. The performances by Barker, Scott Tinkler and Bae Il Dong were stunning demonstrations of Barker’s East meets West philosophy, combining electrifying improvisations with age-old story-telling in song.
Barker’s other project, Daorum – comprising Barker, Kim Dong Won on vocal and percussion, Phil Slater on trumpet, Carl Dewhurst on guitar, Matt McMahon on piano, and Bae Il Dong on vocals – features briefly in the film Intangible Asset No. 82. There is a wonderful moment, during an outdoor performance by the band in Seoul, when a young Korean child, faced with Carl Dewhurst feedback drone, covers his ears in shock, so alien is the sound. Yet this moment, to me, points to the originality of Daorum: in melding contemporary improvisation with traditional Korean forms, the band produces music that is neither one nor the other, but entirely of itself.
Daorum’s debut self-titled CD, recorded in 2009, contains five extended tracks. The first two pieces – ‘The Calling’ and ‘Sinawi’ – are group improvisations. Matt McMahon strikes the gentlest of piano notes, sounding like water dropping from rocks into a spring; Phil Slater’s trumpet is ethereal and dreamy. These are slow burn pieces; Barker’s drumming gradually builds momentum, until drowned out by Bae Il Dong’s howling vocals. The following tracks – ‘Dishevilled Hair’ and ‘Song of the Filial Daughter’ – are more traditional, drawing upon Korean folk tales. The pieces follow more closely the p’ansori style, dominated by Barker’s drums and Bae Il Dong’s recitations. The album’s final piece, ‘Appearance of the Royal Inspector’, is a fifteen minute epic that marries the new and old. Carl Dewhurst’s guitar and Slater’s trumpet push the music toward a screaming finale that represents the climactic banquet scene from ‘The Song of Spring Fragrance’, Korea’s most popular p’ansori folk tale.
Daorum exerts its musical power in subtle ways. The band gently constructs tranquil phrasings, born out of introspection and spiritual roots. The music combines storytelling with improvisation; twenty-first century sounds with age-old traditions. Is it jazz? The question is entirely redundant; and yet Barker has clearly carried out his aim of forging an improvisatory language that draws less upon American traditions, but instead upon our own part of the globe. It coincides with other recent initiatives, including Sandy Evans’ Indian Project, Melbourne band Way Out West, and the Australian Art Orchestra’s collaborations with musicians from India, Bali, and Ngukurr, in Arnhem Land.
Daorum’s music is built upon Barker’s extraordinary drumming, and upon Bae Il Dong’s facility for screaming his stories into waterfalls. Barker refers to the band as ‘a musical possibility’, one that has grown out of the friendship, admiration and respect the musicians hold for each other; and out of Barker’s visits to Korea and his eternal quest for deep learning. It is fitting that he dedicates the album to Emma Franz, whose film led to the creation of the ensemble. For Barker, the journey continues.
Intangible Asset #82 is available for direct purchase on the film’s website here >>>>
Read our chat with Emma Franz >>>>