Culture Magazine

Three Performances by Henry Lau [remix, Korean Style]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Having presented some of Henry Lau’s work with young musicians, I thought I’d take a look at the kind of music that made him a K-Pop star. Be warned, I know almost nothing about K-Pop. I heard about Psy’s “Gangnam Style” back in the day, but if I watched the video or heard it, I don’t remember. I’d never heard of BTS until I posted a TwoSet Violin video where they parodied BTS, with Eddie Chen doing the dancing. Afterward I went scouting for a BTS video and saw them dancing in Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

So there’s a sense in which I don’t know what I’m seeing and hearing. Which is fine. But, as a consequence, I might say something that’s silly and/or stupid because I don’t understand the cultural context. But that’s the kind of world we live in these days.

Monti’s Czardas and Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean

This video is from 2014. I’m guessing this is not typical of K-Pop, as it consists of a violin and piano duet. They start out playing a classical piece, Monti’s well-known “Csárdás”, transition through something I don’t recognize [1], and then on to something I do, Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”.

Henry(Super Junior) & SHIN JIHO (Violin and Piano Perf.)

I’ve heard “Billie Jean” many times, though I’m hardly a Michael Jackson fan. Back in the 1980s you couldn’t avoid it unless you were dead. I even thought about arranging it for a band I was in, The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band.

I’m more familiar with the “Csárdás”, which I practiced for many hours as a young trumpet player. My first music hero, the great Rafael Mendez, arranged it and performed it:

I mastered (more or less) the first part. But I never quite got the hang of the second part (starting at about 2:02), the fast part (with those lyrical interludes). It involves a technique known as double-tonguing, which is tricky. Mendez’s double-tonguing boggles the mind – at least if you play a brass instrument and so know how difficult it is – it is so sharp. Note, however, that while I was astounded by Mendez's technique, it was his passion that attracted me to him, a passion that lived even in his astonishing virtuosity.

Is that what attracts Lau’s fans to his music? his passion, for passion is certainly there. And those dance steps, they go through Michael Jackson back to Bill Bailey and Cab Calloway. There are many worlds flowing through this music.

One of my favorite performances of this csárdás (the general name for a type of Hungarian dance), however, is one where Victor Borge, comedian and musician, accompanies a violinist named Anton Kontra. Borges knows the piece but has never performed it and doesn’t have any sheet music. What does he do? He does what Henry Lau teaches his young protégés to do, go free style and play what you feel. Borge makes it up.

Watch how the two men interact with one another. There are points where one or the other doesn’t know what’s coming up. So they have to look at one another to coordinate. From about 3:04 to about 3:09 Borge improvises a simple counter melody. Then he plays some elaborate sounding ham-handed nonsense while Kontra is sawing away on the fiddle faster than the speed of sound. And then, at 3:22, he gives us another little counter melody.

The moral of the story: when Lau and Shin Jiho mix Monti’s “Csárdás” with other musical material, they’re simply doing what musicians have always done, mix things to suit their performance needs.

Getting released from Carmina Burana [Trap]

헨리(HENRY) 'VIOLIN INTRO + TRAP' Live (PUBG Mobile Club Open 2019)

While this performance is from 2019, the song dates from 2013.

As it opens, Lau is standing on the hood of an over-sized military-style vehicle (a bit like a HumVee) he’s playing electric violin. We get a 20 seconds or so from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” as background, which pretty much everyone has heard at some time or another. We get this fragment of the lyrics:

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis

Which translates as:

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable.

That’s how this song about being trapped opens.

Now we’re left with the problem – for that’s what it is, an aesthetic problem to be solved – of making a transition to Lau’s original conception, which opens with him playing piano. This transition takes awhile, a bit over a minute. Lau plays the violin for awhile, and then at about 1:39 the stage goes almost dark for a minute (so Lau can get off the hood of that stage prop?), music continues, dancers get started (about 1:50), and then once again the stage goes dark, the music stops and...We hear piano chords (2:13), the lights come on and we see Lau seated at the piano. He plays a bit, starts singing, then grabs the microphone and jumps up onto the piano and continues singing.

At this point the performance becomes much like the original 2013 version. Where that version began with Lau playing a short piano prelude this version begins with the elaborate “O Fortuna” violin tableau. Lau sings and also dances, along with background dancers. In the 2013 he shares the vocal, while he carries the vocal alone in this version. The choreography is different in the two versions, but the performance format is pretty much the same. In both versions he finishes back at the piano.

Beyond this, well, figure it out for yourself. As I said up front, I’m not familiar with this kind of music, with its conventions and routines. In particular, I’m not familiar with the elaborate staging; the simple presentation in the previous video is more my style.

What interests me is simply the use of “Carmina Burana” and the exploitation of Lau’s abilities as a classically trained violinist and pianist ¬– I'm guessing that most K-Pop stars don’t have his classical training. Something very interesting is going on here. Maybe if I listen to 50 or a 100 more tunes I’ll have some idea of what it is.

Despacito [Fiddle Impossible]

The original “Despacito” had a vocal; this is pure instrumental. Nor is there elaborate staging – no props and costumes – just some (fairly elaborate) lighting effects.

But there is a surprise. At about 1:05 he stops playing the violin and begins dancing to percussion. At 1:11 he plays a trill while the accompaniment plays the “Mission Impossible” beat and backing riffs. He improvises violin riffs, some dancing, and somehow he gets to the melody (1:42), such as it is (some repeated riffs). Riffs and dance moves to the end.

Again, we have multiple sources pulled together, a recent pop song from Puerto Rico and a now iconic movie theme written by the Argentinian composer, Lalo Schifrin. Is this eclectic virtuosity typical of Henry Lau’s music, or of K-Pop? I haven’t got the foggiest idea. But it has me intrigued. 

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[1] [later] If I'd just read the onscreen text before I wrote, I'd know what that that unrecognized stretch was. Actually, it's two pieces. And, yes, I sort of recognized the second one, I just didn't know what label to stick on it.

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