Han-Earl Park: Music for the Moment

Ahead of his upcoming performance as part of the Sirene 1009 ensemble at the School of Music, Han-Earl Park speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about improvisation, musical machinery and more.

For the past twenty years, Han-Earl Park has been on a journey in more than one sense: while travelling the world and collaborating with local musicians and sound-artists in cities around the world, his work has progressively endeavoured to explore the boundaries of noise and musicality. Park outlines the questions that lead him to improvise for answers. “The possibility of music in noise, or of noise in music? For performances that border on chaos, exquisite in detail, yet, in the moment, can convince you of such a thing as perfection? Performances that are physical and social at different scales? Ellington. It all starts with Duke Ellington.”

Seldom do the worlds of music/sound-art and officialdom meet, and it’s always a curiosity to see a contemporary musician funded by the Arts Council. How does it affect/ameliorate one’s work in sound and what does Park reckon of the role in public funding of avant-garde and improvisational music? “I tend to agree that what creative people seek (both artists and audiences), and what art organizations are designed and pressured to support are very rarely the same thing, but, as long as you’re not making art to spec, I think it can be a good relationship. In our post-prosperity, neo-liberal nightmare it’s too easy to redefine ‘access’ into an empty promise, but, funding, done right, is about possibilities—allowing folk beyond the independently wealthy, say, to create and experience the imaginative, the boundary-breaching, the left-field, the subversive or the discordant.”

Park’s dedication to exploration of sound’s outer limits haven’t stopped at his own hand: along with collaborators, he has constructed a semi-autonomous robot, styled after b-movie service droids, to “perform” music of (almost) its own compunction. Io 0.0.1 beta++ performs live, with human collaborators on hand to monitor its physical wellbeing, document its output, and discuss its programming. “Who wasn’t that kid dreaming of machines performing the unlikeliest tasks? Occupying the unlikeliest roles? The idea is as old as the anthropology of robots. My machine musician is a descendent of constructions from the Al-Jazari’s automata ensemble to George E. Lewis’ improvising computer programs to Sara Roberts’ virtual families.”

Park is best known in Cork as a facilitator, more so than a lecturer, of improvisation in UCC’s music department between 2006 and 2011. He discusses his experiences and interactions during his time at the facility as a learning experience of its own. “Teaching improvisation – or creating the social space in which students teach themselves – is like going back to school; you learn a lot, both in terms of clarifying what you already know, and about the learning process.”

His lasting mark on the Cork scene came with the foundation of live event series Stet Lab in 2006. The development of an improvisation scene in Cork followed in close order, with numerous improv and drone outfits in its wake, including the Mersk collective, and coincided with the rise of other strains of experimental event, such as avant-garde outpost Black Sun. Park recalls his time running the events. “Stet Lab almost seemed to exist on parallel tracks from all the other goings on in Cork (and not for lack of effort trying to get cross-pollinations). One thing I will say about the Lab’s effect on the scene: ‘improvised music’ as term of currency in Cork, as far as I know, was a direct result of Stet Lab. Incidentally, I think it’s interesting that certain figures have largely been forgotten, or no longer talked about, in Cork. I’m thinking of Rajesh Mehta in particular. A lot of the structures that we now recognize as underpinning improvisative practices and communities in Cork solidified in the wake of his work here.”

Park performs as part of ensemble Sirene 1009 with collaborators and from the sounds of it, the collective is planning something cavernous for their date on May 19th at the Cork School of Music’s Stack Theatre. “Here’s what the group sounds/looks like from where I sit on stage: Dom Lash’s confident and enthusiastic interjections in sound and line; Mark Sander’s unerring inventiveness – leaping any and all obstacles to musicality with gestures small and large; and Caroline Pugh’s pulling in-and-out of musical and linguistic spaces with her spontaneous conlangs. That’s the soup. The question is: how do those particular elements collide on the night?”

The ongoing journey continues for Park, after his most recent stint in Cork concludes, with another ensemble of his criss-crossing the continent, exploring spaces and venues around Europe. “In November, I’m going on a European tour with Eris 136199, possibly tied as my favorite group. It’s a transatlantic trio with the avant-rock guitarist and computer artist Nick Didkovsky, and saxophonist-composer Catherine Sikora. Eris is a little noisier, if just as musical and unruly, as my other projects – it combines melody and dissonance, ideas of counterpoint and idiom in particular ways that I find always surprising and fascinating. Catherine is also performing at the Stack Theatre (with drummer Dan Walsh), if you want to catch a sense of some of that.”

Improvisation has been a non-traditional route into music for numerous musicians on Cork city’s scene today, as touched upon earlier. On a parting note, Park explores the notion of improv as a non-traditional means of exploring one’s own creativity. “Y’know, I’ve never seen anything nontraditional about what I do. At least for me, the ‘musician’ (as a laboring class) still has the possibility of radicalism—in its physicality, its sociality—so it’s not a question of tradition vs. radicalism, but whether the tradition you’re engaging with, and the way you are engaging with it, helps you dream of the possible, or whether it only allows you to see the-way-things-are (the aforementioned post-prosperity, neo-liberal nightmare, for example).”

Sirene 1009 play the Stack Theatre at the School of Music on May 19th. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets at €16 (standard), €10 (concession) and €5 (UCC/CIT music students) on sale now from busterandfriends.com.

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