Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Jung Jaeil c Young Chul Kim LMTH05 0628
Nine Songs
Jung Jaeil

The award-winning composer of the Squid Game and Parasite soundtracks takes Max Gayler through the weird and “classless” taste of a world music advocate and cinephile.

10 February 2023, 13:00 | Words by Max Gayler

Can the sounds of silence and metal coexist? Is there a melody in every noise? Jung Jaeil asks the big questions and answers none of them with a mind obsessed by how different music can be.

Not many artists can say they’ve been a professional musician since the age of 12, but Jaeil isn’t like other artists. He started playing piano at the age of three before falling in love with the guitar aged nine and then formed a touring band before he was even a teenager. Growing up in Korea, he was able to build a life funded by sounds despite his mother’s doubts.

Since then he’s built a library of symphonies, ballads, and performances in his mind that span the entire world. Obsessed by harmony and a self-taught orchestrator, Jaeil has taught himself skills that other people work their whole lives to achieve. After learning every instrument on Metallica’s album, Master Of Puppets, he then studied Mozart’s “Requiem” as his learning curve for composition. A divine appreciation for nuanced subtleties and obnoxious critique have formed his approach to crafting music. The result is something he describes as “classless”.

The other side of being a full-time musician in your teen years means there’s no time to go to a conservatoire, study and join the thousands of starry-eyed dreamers who hope they get their chance at stardom. He was already seizing his. Combining his natural gift for melody with a grit for digging through the sonic universe, Jaeil was able to write some of Korea’s biggest number one hits with artists like 3Racha (Stray Kids sub-unit), Park Hyo-shin and IU.

When you hear Jaeil’s solo music, it’s really no surprise that he found himself building soundtracks and partnering up with one of the most daring directors in Korea, Bong Joon-ho. It’s symphonic, soft, loud and ambient, but isn’t afraid to be something you’ll listen to over and over.

There’s no doubt that his mind is fascinated by cinema. The pace of Jaeil’s music matches that of experimental dance performances, intentionally stumbling over itself to ebb and flow as it helps paint pictures in your mind. His new album, Listen, is led by his work on the piano, adding minimal strings to maintain something hard-hitting even though it may seem like the bare bones of some of his grander compositions.

The thinking behind Jaeil’s Nine Songs selections reflect the fork in the road he finds himself at when he’s composing. “It was natural because it’s not my recent playlist, but a very important list of songs from my whole life,” he says. “It was natural to choose these songs.”

His admiration for classical composers like Bach is often warped by his urge to do something unexpected like one of his heroes, Ryuichi Sakamoto. Spanning thousands of years, multiple continents and the most hidden YouTube links on the internet, this could be one of the most diverse Nine Songs we’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing about.

“The Revenant Main Theme” by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Well, Mr Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of my heroes. I've admired his work so many times for so long. And I love this film director Alejandro González Iñárritu. He's done so many amazing things like 21 Grams, Babel and this film, The Revenant. I was just shocked when I heard this music, because it has very orchestral sounds mixed with electronic elements.

He just ordered Mr Sakamoto to make very accumulated sounds with the orchestra. He made that happen and there are many fragments of orchestra, not just melodies or harmonies or rhythms. Many fragments are placed, and there are many empty spaces and different stylings.

The silence could be music. When I look at ancient Chinese Ming dynasty pictures or Qing dynasty pictures, I can feel it. Skies, mountains, or rivers, they all make you feel that empty space. But you can see the river in the empty space. When I look at Chinese paintings, I feel that way. This score did the same thing to me. Wonderful harmonies in silence. That's why I was so shocked when I first listened to this.

BEST FIT: Sakamoto was part of Yellow Magic Orchestra and you're a big fan of that band, so I was expecting a song from him. But why not some of his earlier work that inspired you when you were younger?

With this score, the way I orchestrate has changed. I had to choose it because it was so influential. To be honest, I found the score first, the score, then the film. But even with just the score I felt the film. So when I finally saw it, I recognised everything. I felt 100% of the film with just the music.

There are so many other films that don't do this, but The Revenant is so well partnered with the music. There are hundreds of beautiful songs from Sakamoto but this one is the most powerful inspirations for me.

“St. Matthew Passion” by J. S. Bach

Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian film director, made a film called The Sacrifice. That film has this song at the beginning and the end. In the movie there is no score, no music. This is the only piece of music in the entire film. I was speechless when I first watched it. It's two hours of film without any background sound, but when the music comes out, you start crying. I think this is one of the best scores in film history.

I like it when the songs are chosen by directors. Sometimes composed scores are great, but chosen scores can be much better, because the director has all of their intentions and feelings when they were creating the script. They chose each specific song for each moment. That can sometimes make these scores more powerful than composed ones. There's a film director, Julian Schnabel, he directed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The film is full of chosen scores like Tom Waits or David Bowie and it's so powerful.

BEST FIT: When you try to find this song online, that scene from The Sacrifice comes up instantly. This was Tarkovsky's final film. Can you tell us more about that story?

This was his last work. During filming or during the editing they discovered he had cancer. The film is a little bit sleepy, to be completely honest. But that final scene is so powerful.

“Master of Puppets” by Metallica

I started playing piano when I was four, but it was my mum's intention, she just gave me a lesson. When I was ten, I really wanted to play electric guitars and I just fell in love with Metallica - that love is still ongoing by the way. I can play all instruments in every song on that album.

I practiced guitar for 15 hours a day for years as a kid. You can still feel some of their melodies in my piano or in my scores. Their harmonies are what really inspired me and I'm still finding new fragments of that with each listen.

BEST FIT: How do you go from a piano lesson to learning bass, guitar and drums?

To be honest, my mum didn't like heavy sounds or the idea of me as a professional musician. I started a band, a metal band, and I gratefully made money from music from the age of 12 or 13. Once that started happening she let me play any sounds I wanted. I had a gig in clubs and sometimes I would join new bands. I had a funk band called GIGS, I played bass in that, and the band released an album and toured in Korea. So we were able to make money that way. I was very thankful.

“Volver a Los 17” by Violeta Parra

She is famous for a song which is called “Gracias A La Vida”. Everyone knows it. Joan Baez even sang that song.

Sometimes I feel like I chose the wrong profession, I have to become a choreographer at some point because I love dance, but all I know how to do is music, so here we are. One of my heroes is called Pina Bausch. She's a German choreographer and I've been watching her performances for over 20 years. Her last work is called "Como El Musguito En La Piedra Ay, Si, Si, Si", and it's a lyric in this song, "Volver A Los 17".

Her work is of grandeur and it’s very powerful, but her last work is very small, soft, warm and conversational. This song and this lyric has that kind of feeling. There's this one-hundred-year-old woman who's trying to go back to being 17 years old. "Like moss on a stone, love spreads" is the lyric.

I think about what Pina Bausch and Violeta Parra thought about the arts or their works when they faced death. It was a very powerful inspiration for me and that's why I chose this song.

BEST FIT: When did you find this song and how did it help you discover a love of dance?

I knew a lot of Violeta Parra songs, but I found “Volver A Los 17” through Pina Bausch’s performance which was released in 2009. I think it was performed in London. I saw the performance in the Barbican Centre in 2012 and it was incredible.

Sujecheon, The Music of the Old Royal Court

BEST FIT: This song is over 1,000 years old. How did you end up hearing this and how has it stayed with you?

It's so slow. You can't find any rhythms or harmonies and this tradition is still ongoing. Maybe 25 years ago, Sujecheon was the opening song of the Modern Music Festival in Korea. I went to see very modern music, but when I watched the Sujecheon it was like an out of this planet experience. I'd never heard this sound before. It's a completely different way to build melodies. It was all so new to me.

I'm also not the only one who felt that way. The great Korean composer Isang Yun, who is very famous in Germany, Penderecki, a Polish composer and Sukhi Kang, the Korean electronic music pioneer in Germany, are all inspired by Sujecheon. You can find moments of this in all of their pieces.

BEST FIT: Is there more traditional music that you always come back to when you're composing?

Yes, definitely. Not only Korean music, but from all around the planet. I love Korean traditional, Japanese traditional, Sometimes Raga, India, Kwali, Pakistani, Roman. I'll find inspiration in everything.

BEST FIT: So when people say they listen to a bit of everything is this what they mean?

I think everyone needs to listen to it.

“Beautiful Man Named Human” by Kim Min Gi

He's like the Korean Bob Dylan. He's from the seventies, and he released that album when he was 21 years old. Then he quit music and now he's known as a stage director. I was really into heavy sounds, all those grand and dynamic sounds. I wanted powerful music, but when I listen to his music, music filled with just a voice, a guitar and beautiful lyrics, I realised that's all you need. It's everything.

It’s more powerful than a 100-piece orchestra, just a voice and a guitar and this completely changed my approach to creating beautiful music. With Kim Min Gi’s work I became a better composer.

BEST FIT: I have never struggled to find a song so much. How is it that an act can be so popular in Korea and untraceable online?

This song is my favourite because of the lyrics, but it's only one album, and it's from the seventies, so it's from a different generation. This song is used in the works of Pina Bausch as well. She made a piece called “Rough Cut” and she used these songs for various movements. I'll send you a YouTube link where you can see that.

“Requiem” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

BEST FIT: This is a very beautiful song that’s been used in so many powerful moments in film. What's your first memory with "Requiem"?

I first heard this when I was a child and it really shocked me.

When I decided to study orchestration, I couldn't go to university or music school, I had to study by myself. I'm a self-taught orchestrator so sometimes my orchestration is classless, it's weird, and it's the opposite of traditional in terms of theory. But I studied with the scores from this song and memorised everything, and that had a huge influence on me. This song marks my first approach to orchestration.

BEST FIT: When you design your own soundtracks and build sounds do you come back to classical music? You used Beethoven in Squid Game as well as Haydn’s “Trumpet Concerto”. Are those your decisions?

Since the beginning, we had to find classical pieces that everyone knows. We searched through so many pieces, like Strauss and Beethoven. So many pieces. But we had to use these in the end.

In Korea they are used in many famous broadcasted shows, so everyone knows those songs. The director and I decided to include them to add some familiarity. To be honest I don't even like those songs! But they're famous, so I had to use them.

“Bachelorette” by Björk

Björk is also a hero for me. She's totally new with sounds, and as an artist her visuals and staging are completely different. I just fell in love with her completely and I decided to focus on electronic elements in my music because of her work.

When I heard this album, Homogenic, I changed the way I made music. She also uses a lot of classical and jazz elements, so that felt comfortable for me to do the same. But it also felt brand new. I can't imagine my compositions without my computer or without synthesizers and Björk is the most powerful inspiration for electronic sounds.

BEST FIT: How do you compare your work which you describe as sometimes being "classless" with someone like Björk who also breaks traditional norms?

You know what? The music video director and fashion designer for this album is Alexander McQueen, the music video directors are Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazer. That was unbelievable... I am speechless. She was working with the cutting edge.

I think to do what people don't expect is what makes your music special. Artists who can visualise their work as well as Björk are very important.

“Ederlezi” by Goran Bregović

BEST FIT: How did you get into Balkan brass bands?

I love ethnic music, and especially Balkan brass bands. It's so dynamic and fast and powerful, but the melodies are so sad. The music is for Roman people. Some people call them gypsies and their histories are very sad. It's pretty similar to Korean traditional music and I fell in love with this style. Goran Bregović is a very famous composer and he scored a movie called Time Of The Gypsies, directed by Emir Kusturica, and “Ederlezi” was the main part of that film musically.

I love that film and I love the score, so I really wanted to collaborate with a brass band of the Balkan state. After many years I got the chance to do it on the score for Okja. The Director Bong Joon-ho likes Balkan music as well, so we decided to make something in that style together. I Googled and I found this beautiful trumpeter whose name is Džambo Aguševi. He lives in Strumica in Macedonia and we composed together. We made some of the scores for Okja together there.

BEST FIT: Before you were working on this film together were you already doing soundtracks? How did this opportunity come around?

Before that film there was a film called Sea Fog, which was directed by another director but the producer was Bong Joon-ho. He said he was a fan of my work and maybe one day we could do something together. So when he started Okja he called me and said that was the one.

BEST FIT: Did you have to stop any other projects in order to make time to work on Okja?

I was working on a side project for a pop singer called Park Hyo-shin, he is quite famous in Korea and we made so many number one hits together. I was working for him at that time, and I really fell in love with somebody around that time. Okja is a love story, so it really inspired me to start the project.

BEST FIT: How did it feel to go from working in the business of number one hits to scoring an international film like Okja?

I'm not a good music composer for films and I had no experience before that, well, obviously a tiny bit, but this huge project was the first time I did it, so I was very nervous. But he really encouraged me at the same time. He really wanted something very new, something very weird and I got inspired by his attitude to scoring.

Listen is released 24 February on Decca Records

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