The Korea Times had a story today which greatly interested me. It featured Jocelyn Clark, an East Asian studies professor in Daejeon who is also an accomplished performer on the gayageum. Korean traditional music is one of my many interests. I’ve tried the instruments once or twice, but when it comes to the old music of Korea, I’m definitely an admirer of it rather than a performer. Professor Clark, on the other hand, has mastered one of the traditional Korean instruments well enough to actually perform in public on it.
The gayageum is related to the Chinese zheng and the Japanese koto. It is made out of paulownia wood and in its traditional form has twelve silk strings stretched over movable bridges. There is now a modernized 25-string variety, which is often used in performances of neo-traditional Korean music. The neo-traditional Korean music is often written for symphony orchestra-sized ensembles made up of traditional and adapted traditional instruments. Also, the famous Sookmyung Women’s University Gayageum Orchestra performs on 25-string instruments. The 12-string instrument is used for performances of traditional music. However, thanks to composers such as the Korean composer and gayageum master Hwang Byung-ki, there is a growing repertory for the 12-string gayageum as well.
I found the article interesting because her first impressions of Korean traditional music were very similar to mine. It seemed like random noises going nowhere. It took repeated listenings on my part to get used to it. (But that is the way it is with any great music!)
You can read more about Jocelyn Clark and her experiences with the gayageum by clicking here.
One of the most important genres of Korean music is that of the sanjo. The sanjo is performed by a soloist on the gayageum and a lone drummer, who plays a drum known as the janggu. There are many different varieties of the sanjo. In the old days, the music was learned by ear. Nowadays, there are scores, but no performer of the traditional music would ever appear in public without the music memorized. There are different versions of the sanjo for different instruments, such as the haegeum sanjo, the ajaeng sanjo, and so forth. Also, it used to involve a fair amount of improvisation. A full performance of the sanjo can last an hour or more, as it is often preceded by a few sort pieces before the performer turns his or her attention to the sanjo itself. The term sangjo means “scattered melodies”. It is very much an abstract work of music. It is made up of many separate movements. However, unlike in western classical music, there is no pause between movements. The drummer executes different rhythmic patterns in each movement. The tempo does vary between quite slow to quite fast. However, the tempo shifts are meant to be very gradual. It starts slowly and eventually moves along quite quickly. I’m posting a video of Hwang Byung-ki performing the sanjo. This is not a complete performance, but it should give you an idea of what Korean traditional music is like.