Exploring Korean Music Old and New – Tradition and creativity

by Philip Gowman on 28 February, 2006 updated 26 August, 2018

in Conference reports | Event Notices | Event reports and reviews | Korean traditional music

SOAS, 24 February 2006

Many thanks to Dr Keith Howard of SOAS for putting together a fascinating half-day colloquium on Korean music. Presentations were as follows:

  • Simon Mills’s (SOAS) subject was the rhythmic drum patterns (Changdan) used in shamanistic ritual on the East coast of Korea. He focused on the startling digressions (Tokkaekki changdan) which are sometimes inserted into the regular rhythmic cycle, and the way these are linked to the Tokkabbi (goblins) in folklore. Helpfully, the regular cycles and digressions were illustrated by colourful matrices which accompanied the musical excerpts: to me, keeping track of even the regular cycle was like patting one’s head at four beats to the bar while rubbing one’s stomach at five beats to the same bar. The tokkaekki changdan is like doing the above whilst walking at three paces to the same bar. (But then I’ve never been able to work out how the rest of a jazz combo knows when the drummer is about to finish his erratic solo)
  • Rowan Pease (University of Southampton) examined how communist China encouraged and influenced the creation of new socialist folk music in Yonbyon, the Korean enclave in North-East China. The efforts were extremely positive from the perspective of nurturing traditional musical skills. The artistic results were probably more questionable: a melody which on paper looked as if it would not be out of place in a tranquil film by Im Kwon-taek turned out to be designed to be accompanied by full orchestra thrashing away as if playing Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.
  • Hae-kyung Um (University of Liverpool) demonstrated how Pansori is anything but a dying art. Her lively illustrations of this were videos of a 12 year-old girl giving a highly accomplished pansori rendering of Doolie the Dinosaur, while a dude in a black cape and shades, brandishing what could pass as a light sabre instead of the more usual folded fan, gave a spirited performance of the Star Wars pansori. Great fun.
  • Andrew Killick (University of Liverpool) prepared the attendees for the concert of music by Hwang Byungki later that day. He illustrated some of Hwang’s innovative compositional elements (influenced, for example, by Stravinsky) which are refreshing the gayageum and other repertoire for a new audience.
  • Lee Sangkyu (Chunju Education University) introduced the audience to the features of the daegeum in preparation for his lunchtime recital. He emphasized the daegeum’s unique feature: the hole covered by a reed membrane which gives the flute its breathy, buzzy sound.
  • Finally, Keith Howard (SOAS), unfortunately running short of time, gave a flavour of some of the problems involved in the assumption that Sanjo (19th century gayageum folk music) developed out of the pansori tradition.

Lee Sangkyu gave a lunchtime Taegum recital, accompanied by Keith Howard on janggu (drum) and Park Sung-hee (geomungo zither)

In the evening Hwang Byungki and other distinguished performers presented Hwang’s music to a packed and enthusiastic audience at SOAS’s Brunei lecture theatre. For me the highlight was the impassioned performance of singer Kang Kwon-soon, whose breath control as she sustained her long pianissimo notes was simply staggering. Professor Hwang’s other colleagues were Ji Ae-ri (gayageum), Heo Yoon-jeong (geomungo), Hong Jong-jin (daegeum) and Kim Woong-sik (janggu).

There’s coverage of the concert at the Korea Foundation site.

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