London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2010 Travel Diary #16: A meeting with Hwang Byungki

Tuesday 4 May 2010. Hwang Byungki is probably Korea’s best known performer and composer for the kayageum. When I submitted my proposal to the Korean Culture and Information Service for the stories I wanted to investigate during my visit – of which the main one was the preservation and reinvention of Korean traditional culture – I put in a range of possible interviews, not expecting that many of them would be possible in practice. I even put in a half-flippant request for an interview with celebrity kayageum player and beauty queen Honey Lee: kind of relevant for the popularisation of Korean traditional music for new audiences, but really more relevant for my photograph album. How cool would it be to meet someone who was almost Miss World?

Hwang Byungki

When I received my draft schedule and saw that I had some time booked with Master Hwang, I immediately got a severe case of cold feet. I tried to suggest that meeting so prominent a musician was too great an honour for a humble blogger; that I’d be far too stressed at meeting him to do a good interview. But the KCIS chose diplomatically to ignore my protestations. There was no backing out. I made sure I packed Keith Howard’s book Creating Korean Music for the journey, so that I had enough background information not to come over as a complete fool, and made sure I prepared properly with some half-decent questions.

It was with some apprehension that I am driven to the hilly area of Bukahyeon, Seodaemun-gu, where Hwang Byungki lives. We ring the bell and the external gates roll back. We are ushered in by the great man himself, and ascend the richly-varnished wooden stairs to the upper floor. The windows are open onto the balcony, with views over the valley to the next hill. Birdsong and the distant sounds of dogs barking waft in through the window, along with a cool breeze.

Hwang Byungki

Master Hwang’s 17-string kayageum is placed so that he can gaze across the room and out through the window while he is practising, which he does every day to keep in trim: he still gives regular public performances. He strums the strings of the instrument: a robust sound comes out, completely unlike the sound of a traditional 12-string kayageum. Master Hwang’s instrument has polyester strings rather than the traditional silk: it holds the tuning better and has an incisive sound more suited for modern compositions.

Master Hwang has been an integral part of the preservation and development of South Korea’s traditional music-making for over 50 years. He was the first kayageum teacher at Seoul National University when they established their traditional music department in 1959. And he was the first to create new compositions for the kayageum.

Over the course of his long and distinguished career, things have changed significantly. “When I first studied kayageum,” he remembers, “I learned by rote. There was no musical notation. I went to my teachers almost every day, and I learned by observation and repetition.”

“When I began to teach at Seoul National University, I devised a musical notation and wrote down the melodies,” he continues. This enabled the students to study in their spare time between lessons, so lessons could be less frequent. Master Hwang seems always to recognise that progress has to be made, but that not all progress is good. “Modernisation is not only a good thing. There’s advantages as well as disadvantages,” he says. The loss of a close association with the teacher is balanced by the ability to teach more efficiently.

Seoul National was the first University to set up a traditional music department. Now there are 20. I ask him whether the market can take all these musicians. Are there too many artists for the available audience? “I think it’s enough,” he says thoughtfully.

As well has having composed the first modern music for kayageum, he is the first to have had modern music composed for him. He gave the world premier of Alan Hovhaness’s 16th Symphony, Kayagum, for string orchestra, harp, kayageum and percussion in 1963. “I think it’s beautiful” he says.1 He has composed his own work for Kayageum and Orchestra, New Spring (새 봄) (1990), which has been performed frequently – he recently performed it in Seoul under the baton of cellist Chang Han-na.

We talk more about the traditional kayageum repertoire, the sanjo. “I learned kayageum sanjo from my teacher Kim Yun-deok. Kim learned from Chong Nam-hui. Chong is legendary. But he went to North Korea during the Korean War. I learned his melodies from Kim Yun-deok, from 1952 onwards. Eventually Kim made his own score of the sanjo, and he became an intangible treasure.”

Hwang Byungki (left of centre) with Kim Yun-deok (centre) in 1957
Hwang Byungki (left of centre) with Kim Yun-deok (centre) in 1957

“But I didn’t follow my teacher. I followed my teacher’s teacher, my grand-teacher. I liked his melodies very much. His sanjo lasts 40 minutes. I added to it, and made some changes, and the resulting version is 70 minutes.” He shows me the score, entitled Chong Nam-hui Kayageum Sanjo, Hwang Byungki school. “But I don’t regard that as composition,” he adds. “There was no concept of composer in Korean traditional music.”

Chong Nam-hui, Hwang’s “grand-teacher”, has a sad story. Initially, he was held in high regard in North Korea, becoming a People’s Artist and professor at the Pyongyang College of Music and Art. But then things changed. “They respect the traditional instruments in North Korea, but they think it’s bad to preserve the tradition as it is. They must reinvent everything.” The traditional 12-string kayageum was changed and replaced with a 21-string instrument tuned to a Western scale. Those who knew and loved the old music were no longer wanted. “Chong Nam-hui’s late life was a tragedy. Not only him but every traditional musician.”

But the invention of the 21-string kayageum north of the border had unintended consequences to the south. In 1990, Hwang Byungki together with composer Yun Isang organised a “Reunification concert” with musicians from both North and South. It was the first time that southerners had heard the new kayageums pioneered in the north, and they liked what they heard. Being tuned to a western scale, and sometimes played with both hands like a harp, the instruments were ideal for playing Western music. Gugak fusion was born, and North Korea had temporarily found an unusual export product, as South Korea imported the new kayageums either direct from North Korea or from the Yanbian Korean autonomous region in China, or from the North Korean communities in Japan.

Since then, the South has developed the 25-stringed kayageum, which is the instrument played by groups such as the Sookmyung Kayageum Orchestra. Clearly, Master Hwang is not averse to letting the music for traditional instruments develop. The repertoire can expand and move on. But he has his reservations. I ask him about gugak fusion bands such as Sorea, which are bringing traditional instruments to a pop music audience. “I don’t know whether it’s a good thing, but I don’t like it,” he says diplomatically, with half a chuckle. But he pointed me in the direction of a Kayageum quartet, Yeoul, made up of some of his students from Ewha University. One to explore further.

Hwang’s own musical path has been different. Some western musicians describe his music as a Korean take on Impressionism. “I think that comment has some point. Since Impressionism, Western music hasn’t been purely Western,” he says. “Debussy seems to include aspects of World music,” he explains. He does not deny that Debussy is a good parallel with some of his music, and adds Stravinsky and Bartok as other parallels. “But I always try to create original sounds. I don’t follow Western trends.”

Hwang Byunki on ARC recordsIndeed one of his pieces, Labyrinth, was regarded as so shocking that it was banned in Korea for a few years – this was in the Park Chung-hee era, when people could get into trouble for having hair too long or skirts too short. The piece is now back in favour, and is included in the five-CD series of his kayageum music, of which he is very proud.

“They are always in the best-seller list,” he smiles. He shuffles off to a cupboard in the corner of the room and fetches a Western CD release, on ARC Records. “And this one was in the Songlines Top 10!”

It’s coming to the end of my allotted time. I ask about the audience for traditional music in Korea. “The audience itself has changed over time,” he says. “The introduction of TV had a big impact. Before TV, Pansori was very popular in the countryside. But after TV, they all came to like pop music. But after the 1970s and 1980s, the young generation began to like traditional music. Samulnori became popular after the democratisation movement, because the movement unconsciously emphasised the people’s voice, and that reinforced Korean identity. So the young generation began to find out their identity from Korean traditional music.”

Is Master Hwang hopeful for the future of traditional music? “When I first started as a musician, only 10 new kayageums were being made a year. Now it’s closer to 10,000. That’s still nothing compared with the number of pianos, but kayageum and haegeum are increasingly popular instruments.”

Hwang Byungki

A pile of scores and CDs has built up on the table in front of me during our talk. It’s time to tidy them up and hand them back. Master Hwang poses for a photo behind his kayageum, and now I have to leave for the next appointment.


<< Previous diary entry | Diary index | Next diary entry >>

  1. According to the composer, “This symphony is inspired by the beauty of Korean mountains, the sublimity of Korean traditional music, the wisdom and nobility of the Korean people. The painting in the Korean National Museum ‘Mountains and Rivers without End’, painted by Lee Sang-chua, inspired the textures of sounds.” Source: []

One thought on “2010 Travel Diary #16: A meeting with Hwang Byungki

  1. An excellent interview. Sorry, I only just found it.

    I still have cassettes (!) of Hwang’s Silk Road, bought in the 1980s. At least once I played this as background while lecturing on Korea, and told the audience to listen to the music, not me, if they wanted to understand Korea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.