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The Timbre of Moonlight: Won Il on bringing traditional instruments to a modern audience

Won Il

I meet Won Il (원일, 元一) in the reception area of an apartment hotel near the Barbican. He’s hanging out with some of the members of the National Orchestra of Korea, chatting. All 60 orchestra members managed to get booked into the same hotel within easy walking distance of the concert hall where they would make their London debut the next day. Today is a rest day – and the musicians, having caused something of a traffic jam at Heathrow immigration yesterday, are being tourists. Some of them are visiting the London Eye; others are making a pilgrimage to Bicester Shopping Village to stock up on Burberry. Won Il, who is now a regular visitor to London, is relaxing and getting ready for an interview at Radio 3.

I apologise to him in advance for the basic level of some of my questions: a diligent interviewer will always try to do plenty of research in advance, but in Won Il’s case there is very little available on the internet in English.

“Ah, this is a very important interview, then, for English speakers” he joked, thus setting the tone for our conversation – relaxed and friendly.

I read the edited highlights from the only thing I have had to go on – a brief biography provided by the concert promoters, Serious.1

Born 1967 … Puri … Baramgot … Uhuhboo Project

“Ah, yes, Uhuhboo” he laughs again, as if almost apologising. But as yet there is no Wikipedia entry on Won Il, one of Korea’s most versatile musicians.

We settle down at a functional table in the coffee area of the hotel reception. Kim Young-sook, the orchestra’s chief administrator, is listening in, taking notes.

LKL: What started you on a musical path? When did you realize you wanted to become a musician?

WI: When I was at elementary school, I think I was a very sensitive boy – all sound was interesting to me. I was sensitive to all sorts of sounds: bird song, the sound that different materials made when you hit them – this material sound (he knocks on the table, on the wall, demonstrating the different sounds produced by wood, plaster). I used to get together with my friends. We’d each have a different material – wood, rock, metal, an empty Coke can – and I’d be conductor and organiser. “OK, everybody … together … let’s play” I’d say. (he laughs again)

So it sounds like from a very early age it was percussion that you were interested in

At elementary school, yes. But Western percussion first.

And in the middle grades, I joined the school Brass Band, playing the clarinet. We played marching band, military music. I was a main member of the band.

So you played clarinet to a high standard?

Many people told me I was a very good player (He laughs again). Always it was like this.

Then one day, everything changed. One of my seonbaes from the brass band who had moved on to the National Traditional Music High School came back to visit. He said: “Hey, Won Il. Follow me!” So I went to see him at the high school. It was a life-changing experience.

“Wow. What is this instrument?” I had never heard those traditional Korean instruments before. My musical environment had always been Western. It was a very big shock for me, and had a huge impact on my musicianship and my musical identity. And that was when I decided – OK, I’ll study there. I was 16.

So, from the age of 16 I was a traditional music major.

I took up the Piri. I went straight to the Piri. The clarinet is single reed, the piri is double reed, but it felt natural for me, and I practised very hard, every day.

And then I fell under the influence of Kim Yong-bae (김용배), one of the original members of Kim Duk-soo’s Samulnori. They used to play at the National Palace music centre, which was near my high school. We automatically got the chance to learn from them. Suddenly I realised: Wow, wow, wow, wow. There was an immediate connection with my musical games, my playing with rhythms at elementary school. Here was a creative bond. This was around 1984.

Kim Yong-bae was a very important person to me. Many people now recall his kkwaenggwari playing as perfect. But in 1986 he committed suicide. It was complicated. He looked out of the window of his apartment and saw mu – nothingness – everywhere. (Won Il at this point seized my note pad and sketched the Chinese character mu, 無). Mu, mu, mu, mu. (Won mimes the act of hanging himself).

This was a big shock to me. He was a great musician (Won becomes thoughtful. There’s less laughter in his voice now)

And what effect did his death have on you? Did it make you more determined to focus on percussion?

His teaching had a huge influence on me. A very important point was that from him I learned creation. From the rhythm. This was a very important lesson I learned from Kim Yong-bae.

And then came Puri.

Where would you place Puri as a percussion band compared alongside with the likes of Samulnori and Dulsori?

Have you ever listened to Puri? (I had to confess that while I had listened to a lot of his later fusion band Baramgot, I had never had a chance to listen to Puri. He offered to send me his two CDs). We’ll be performing again next month at the National Theatre. Our 20th anniversary concert (he’s now laughing again. He shows me pictures of Puri on his Facebook page. And of him playing clarinet in his brass band days).

Puri’s music started with Samulnori and traditional pungmul, farmers music, but sometimes added African music. I think that traditional music is very good, but there is no tension. With pungmul, the whole community gets together and enjoys it. It’s a celebration. But with modern theatre, there’s separation between audience and performer, which gives a source of tension. So I combined traditional Korean music with “tension rhythm”. Suddenly the pulse stops, there’s a pause, then there’s an attack. It’s a surprise. This is what an audience needs sometimes. It’s a moment of creative tension.

And how about Uhuhboo? When did that start?

Uhuhboo… That was a project with my friend Jang Young-gyu. He’s now a big name in film music, and with Ahn Eun-mi’s dance company. And the singer was Baek Hyunjhin – he’s a painter too.2

Yes, we saw Baek in London last year at one of his exhibitions

He’s a very funny man. A different mentality.

We all met in the indie music scene in Hongdae in 1997, in a club called Bacteria. The two of them had started playing together at about the same time. They saw me playing solo percussion one day, and they said, “Hey, brother, let’s play together.” “OK,” I said, “sounds interesting!” And we made a first CD together.

It’s very difficult to find any Uhuhboo on the internet.

That was our first CD. It’s very expensive now! (he laughs).

When was it that you realised that you could compose as well as play?

I first got the feeling at high school. When I was practising Piri. Some days, I’d find myself playing a new melody. “Is that right or not?” I would wonder. “It’s right!” I would decide.

Then at university a dancer or a theatre director would say to me: “I need some music with a foggy mood, or sad, but I want it to be new music. Can you do that?” “OK, I’ll think about it,” I’d say. “How about this?” And they’d love it. That was really the start.

Did you have any formal training?

When I was a freshman, at Chugye Conservatoire, I started composition without any training, but then I took some classes.

Tell me about the National Orchestra of Korea. Does it use very traditional instruments, or are they modified in some way?

We use the modern 25-string kayageum rather than the traditional 12-string, but otherwise our instruments are traditional

The North Korean orchestras have updated haegeums with 4 strings, and the Jangsaenap. Do you have those instruments? Would you use them in the future?

That’s a very difficult question. (He pauses)

Some instruments don’t need to be modernised. (He pauses again, wondering how to tackle this)

Western orchestras are like sunlight. I think our orchestra is like moonlight. Because our colour is different. The materials our instruments are made of come from nature. From the eight elements (he rapidly lists eight Chinese characters, and translates some of them into English: stone, silk, wood, leather…). Our lifestyle follows nature. That is very important.

The Western style is acoustically very modern. The tone is very correct, speedy and accurate. There’s no vibrato or portamento (He hums the wide pitch variations you get on a single note with a kayagum or daegeum). The timbre, the tone colour is very important. With Western music, the three important things are melody, harmony and rhythm. With Korean music, timbre comes first. It’s perfectly different.

Musical relations are very important too. You know the five element points of the compass? Fire, metal, wood, earth, water? (Here the ancient philosophy gets too difficult for me to follow). Creation makes the sound.

Tomorrow I think the audience will get a new sound experience. A different sound.

Tomorrow, the concert will open with military music, with a fanfare, a celebration, with four taepyeongso and six percussionists. Then more instrumentalists will come in. I’ll be layering the sounds, and the audience will feel that this is something very modern.

Have you made any changes since you took over the orchestra a year ago?

When I first met the orchestra members, I thought they were very serious. Orchestra members were like cogs in a machine, as in a Western orchestra. But another Korean musical tradition is  that the player’s instrument is part of the player, and there is direct expression and improvisation – as in sinawi. So one of the first things I did was to break up the orchestra into smaller groups playing in different ways. Now they understand my way better.

So the players used to be very disciplined, but now they’re freer?

Both! I’m a very tough conductor! We have to practise long and hard together. I give them lots of direction: “Hey, you’re wrong!” (He laughs, miming pointing at an orchestra member, telling him off). This is the Western way. But Westerners don’t have the sinawi experience, or the expressiveness of traditional Palace music. Both ways are important.

You’re off to talk to BBC Radio 3 now. What message do you want to get through to the Radio 3 audience?

The experience of listening to a new sound is a new artistic experience. That’s important. The audience will hear new sounds, new music, and will be very happy!

Won Il is laughing again, and hurries off to the taxi which is waiting for him outside. His interview with In Tune will be broadcast at 6pm on 14 June, Radio 3.


  1. Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the National Orchestra of Korea

    Composer, conductor, Master of piri oboe and percussion, Won Il (b. 1967) is a true all-round musician. He has studied with some of the great names in Korean traditional music as well as with legendary performers of free jazz. The percussion group that he used to lead, Puri, was judged to have broadened the horizons of Korean percussion music, while the following Ensemble expanded the performance mode and compositional style of Puri into melodic instrumental music, and Baramgot, presented a music that combined the spontaneity of sinawi shamanistic music with the principles of contemporary music. In March 2012 he became the youngest Artistic Director in the history of the National Orchestra of Korea, and he is now working to strengthen the identity of Korean orchestral music through innovative sounds and dynamic performances. []

  2. Won Il is also a big name in film music. He has won four Best Music awards at the Daejong Film Award, Korea’s most prestigious film award, and has produced the music for the following films:

    2012 “Gabi”
    2011 “The Showdown”
    2004 “Red Manicure”
    2003 “OGU: Hilarious Mourning”
    2003 “O-Nu-Ri”
    2002 “On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate” (Director: Hong Sang-soo)
    2000 “The Isle” (Director: Kim Ki-duk) – Premiered at the Venice Film Festival
    2000 “White Lover”
    1999 “The Uprising” – Best Film Score, Daejong Film Award
    1999 “The Ring Virus”
    1998 “Spring in my Hometown” – Best Film Score, Daejong Film Award
    1998 “The Power of Kangwon Province” (Director: Hong Sang-soo)
    1996 “A Petal” – Best Film Score, Daejong Film Award

    TV scores
    2007 “Hwang Jin Yi” (TV drama) – Best TV Soundtrack, Daejong Film Award []

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