Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Seoul, Korea June 19-July 2 International Gugak Workshop Week 1

From June 19-July 1 I will be participating in the 2011 International Gugak Workshop in Seoul, Korea. I participated in this workshop in 2005 when I was a graduate student at U. Hawaii, Manoa. In 2005 the workshop was three weeks long. Now it is just two weeks long, but the content of the program is similar. This workshop consists of lectures on Korean music and dance, including applied instruction in traditional Korean instruments as well as various field trips. Lecture topics include Korean music history, ritual court music, shamanic ritual music, and folk music, among others. It is held at the The National Center for the Korean Traditional Performing Arts. There are nineteen participants from around the world, and hosts have been extremely generous in providing us with countless numbers of books and recordings of traditional Korean music. 
National Center for the Korean Traditional Performance Arts
My arrival at Incheon International Airport was simple. I passed through immigration, customs, retrieved my luggage, withdrew cash from an ATM, rented a cell phone, and purchased my bus ticket to downtown Seoul within 45 minutes after my flight from Shanghai landed. I reserved a flight that would get me into Seoul in the mid-afternoon so I would have a few hours to get settled before around 8:00PM orientation meeting in the cafe downstairs from the Provista Hotel.  However, my flight on China Eastern Airlines was two hours late taking off and I didn’t land until 5:40PM or so. Miraculously, due to the efficiency of Incheon International mentioned above, I managed to check-in to the hotel shortly after 7:30PM, and after taking a quick shower ran downstairs for the orientation. We really have a fabulous group of participants. Everyone is extremely friendly and luckily there are no complainers in the group. I’ve been enjoying getting to know Henry Spiller from UC Davis and Christopher Shultis from the University of New Mexico, and there are three women from Shanghai Conservatory of Music who really enliven the group atmosphere. 
During our first week, in the mornings we had classes on the history of Korean traditional music, court music, and folk music, and religious music. Most of our afternoons have been spend learning the kayagum, changgo, and danso. Last time I took this workshop I focused on the changgo, because I thought it would give me a broad understanding of Korean music since it is present in nearly every genre except p’ansori, which is accompanied by a puk. However, since I will be studying intensive kayagum with Yi Ji-Young in July, I really appreciated to learn the basics of kayagum technique. Our kayagum teacher, Sooeun Kwak is such an elegant and graceful woman, and I enjoyed her classes. Since the kayagum is played with bare fingers rather than picks like the Japanese koto, I found it a but easier to play. However, my fingers didn’t seem  to like the silk strings, and I had to apply protective tape before three fingers on my right hand became disabled due to blisters. The tone quality of the kayagum is softer, rounder, and somehow more “earthy” than the koto. Due to the playing technique, it may not be as agile as the koto, but I’m sure it has other strengths and unique characteristics. The basic tuning is a mode 4 pentatonic scale of G-A-C-D-E over 12 strings. It is played with the thumb (1), index (2), and middle finger (3). The index finger seem to get most of the action, and while the basic technique simply involves plucking the string from below, you can also “flick” the string, which results in a subtle change of timbre. The right hand is used for vibrato and other pressing techniques, although we didn’t get to far with L.H. technique in our classes. Since I’ve studied changgo before most of the changdan patterns were a review for me.
 We also had a class in danso, the end-blown bamboo flute. I found the danso quite easy to play since it has a mouthpiece that is shaped obliquely outward, quite similar to the shakuhachi. Within a few minutes I figured out the basic pitches and was able to play Arirang. However, I don’t really feel that the danso is a very expressive instruments. The sound is thin and high, and its small bore prevents the wide range of tonal expression that the shakuhachi has. 
We have fallen into a fairly regimented routine at this point in the workshop. The group enjoys a delicious breakfast in our hotel before boarding the bus at 9:00AM. Our lectures run from 9:30AM to 12:30PM followed by lunch in the cafeteria. Afterwards, many of us hang out in the Korea Music CD and Bookshop right across the courtyard. I have not been able to yield to temptation and have already purchased a number of books that I’m really looking forward to reading, especially Byeon Gyewon’s “Writing New Music for Korea Traditional Instruments.” In the afternoon we have our studio sessions followed by dinner in the cafeteria. Most evenings we are home by 6:30PM, but the days are so packed with activities and new information that it is simply an overload to the senses. I have had no problems sleeping since the program began. As soon as a lay down horizontally on the bed, I’m out like a light in less then ten minutes!

Samulnori rehearsal
Nearly all meals are covered by the program, although cafeteria Korean food can start to get boring after a few days. On Wednesday, June 22, I met my colleague from U. of Hawaii Sunhee Koo and Henry Spiller for dinner at a delicious Korean barbecue restaurant right across the street from our hotel. The food was very delicious, and while the individual meat platters may seem expensive (48,000 won=$48) for two people, it also includes countless numbers of side dishes, vegetables, and salads. Best of all, the side dishes are replaced immediately upon consumption! 
We had some beer and delicious black raspberry wine, which put me over the edge much more quickly than I anticipated. 
On Thursday June 22, we were given performance tickets to Miso, a theatrical production based on The Tale of Chunhyang. I was hoping for an enchanting evening, but the number of foreign tourists in the audience gave me cause for concern. While there certainly were elements of Korean dance and music–and of course costumes–in this performance, I simply felt that it was over the top and did not honor the text on which it was based. The unfolding of the drama was rushed, and in less than 45 minutes, the story was resolved. Afterwards, it was practically non-stop fortissimo Samulnori until the end of the performance. For better or worse however, this is what foreign audiences–and perhaps many Koreans too!–have come to know and become entranced by. 
Over the weekend (June 24-26), we took a field trip to Jindo Island in the southwest part of the Korea. It was a six-hour drive to reach this remote area of the country. However, there is another branch of the NCKTPA on Jindo, and this is where we stayed and our activities were based. Upon arrival, we had a changgo class for 90 minutes or so, and then after dinner enjoyed a fabulous concert of Korean traditional music in the on-site concert hall. Evidently, these concerts are held every Friday throughout the summer months and are free! The program was a broad sampling of many genres of traditional Korean music, from p’ansori, and samulnori to sanjo. As if this wasn’t enough stimulation for one day, afterwards we learned Ganggangsulle (Women’s Circle Dance), an Intangible Korean Cultural Asset, with a vibrant, enthusiastic woman who is evidently responsible for passing on this art form to the younger generations. It consisted of choreographed movements that reminds one of “ring around the rosy,” but evidently has more than 20+ “games” that one can add on to the basic circle movements for fun. I’m not sure why at 38 years old I enjoyed it so much. Perhaps it was just a way to wind down, move our bodies, and just enjoy something unexpected with a wonderful group of new friends and colleagues. 
The next day we enjoyed a lecture about traditional Korean instruments in the morning. This was one of the better lectures we’ve attended, I think, mainly because concise explanations were followed by short performance demonstrations on each of the major Korean traditional instruments. Towards the end, all of the performers took the stage again for a short performance of sinawi, perhaps my favorite genre of traditional Korean music. In the afternoon, we took a sightseeing trip around Jindo island, first stopping at a stunning overlook where various islands could be seen in the distance, followed by a visit to Ullimsanbang, named after romantic scenery of the nearby mountain peaks of Mt. Cheomchalsan. There is a traditional C-shaped tile-roofed house containing an artist workroom and an art museum containing the paintings of the Heo family. 

In the evening we were treated to another delicious dinner with plenty of red liquor (Jindo hongju). 

Afterwards, we attended a shamanic ritual ceremony or Ssitkimgut (cleansing exorcism). Evidently, a real exorcism can take anywhere from 6-8 hours, but they shortened it to 3 hours for us. The music was intoxicating, with clever changdae patterns linked effortless to sections in asymmetrical meters. The communication between the chief shaman, an 89-year old women and her three disciples was magic to behold. Pure love and respect radiated through there eyes. I was impressed by the sheer volume of the text and wondered how on earth they could memorize it. At one point in the performance the head disciple (a famous p’ansori singer) was crying. When I spoke to her afterwards she said that she is moved to tears whenever she performs with her teacher simply because she feels so blessed to have had such a special relationship with this woman for most of her adult life.

Ssitkimgut shamanic ritual ceremony
It was a deeply moving performance for me to. I managed to record the entire event in high-quality 96khz, 24 bit setting with my digital recorder and look forward editing it. My batteries in my flip drive died after 80 minutes or so.
At this point, a massive typhoon was nearing the southern tip of Korea and by the time we returned to our dorms, the winds had blown down a tree in the parking lot and caused the windows in our rooms to rattle all night. Remarkably I slept soundly through it all and somewhat enjoyed the refreshing winds. To beat the center of the typhoon, we hit the road at 9:00AM the next, and returned to Seoul just after 4:00PM.
What an incredible first week in Korea!

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