Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Seoul, Korea July 11-29 Intensive Kayagum

Ever since I participated in the International Gugak Conference in 2005, which at that point was called the Korean Traditional Music Workshop for Overseas Musicologists, I have been fascinated with the kayagum. I bought several scores of contemporary kayagum music in hopes that I would someday try my hand at composing for the instrument. Up to the present, no opportunities have availed themselves. Like my first foray into Japanese instruments over ten years ago-when I took applied lessons in Japanese instruments to understand the idiomatic capabilities of the instruments-I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to play the kayagum to some extent before I started composing for it.
So, for my last three weeks in Korea-and also the last of my sabbatical-I have been taking kayagum lessons with Yi Ji-young, the kayagum player in CMEK (Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea. We met twice a week and she gives me plenty to work on. For some reason, I find the kayagum a bit easier to play than the koto. When I learned the koto, I remember that I often missed (i.e. over and undershot) the strings, and somehow never felt comfortable with plectrum worn on three fingers of the right hand. I don’t seem to have that problem on the kayagum, and somehow I find the timbre of the kayagum more earthy and engaging. One of the challenges of playing the kayagum is that because it is played with the bare fingers of the right hand, when you first start playing it is very easy to develop painful blisters. During our master classes at the National Gugak Center, I wore bandaids and tape on my fingers to avoid developing blisters. However, this is not a satisfactory long-term solution, since one must be able to play the instrument with bare fingers. For me, this is what worked: When I started intensive kayagum I practiced for a long period, but did not pluck too hard with my index finger. As callouses slowly developed on my fingers, I become able to pluck harder. Now I have solid callouses on my fingers, and playing at any dynamic level or force is an absolute joy. 
I have been working on what Yi Ji-young calls, “the shortest kayagum sanjo in the world,” a short arrangement that uses gestures found in sanjo in a condensed format. Amazingly, it still progresses through the major chandan rhythmic patterns. Additionally, for my second lesson I brought in the first movement of Byunki Hwang’s Sup (“The Forest”) entitled Green Shade. I got more than I bargained for, because my teacher then assigned “The Spring.” These pieces are not so difficult to play technically, but the kayagum requires so many subtle details to really make it sing and resonate, and the coordination between the left and right hand requires time to get used to. The left hand is supposed to “follow” the right hand even if vibrato is not requested in the score. I’ve also been sketching material for a solo kayagum composition, have read through Yi Ji-young’s new book “Contemporary Gayageum Notations for Composers,” Hee-sun Kim’s "Contemporary Kayagum Music in Korea,” and Gye-won Byeon’s “Writing New Music for Korean Traditional Instruments.” 

Yi Ji-young has spent alot of time teaching me how to string a kayagum, which is probably more difficult than playing it. It is a surprisingly detailed procedure that one must know. As she said to me, “If you don’t how to string your kayagum, when you get back to the US you will suffer.” Even tying the budeul cords is an involved procedure (see photo below).

In total, I’ve only taken six lessons, but these three weeks have really expanded my musical horizons and lit a spark for me. I was planning to purchase a kayagum this week and have it shipped back to the US, but the torrential rains that have descended on Seoul within the past couple of days have made it impossible to get around town. Some areas of Seoul are inaccessible and mud slides have killed several dozen people. Mercifully, the area where I am living was spared by the flash floods. 
One of the highlights of the last three weeks for me was being able to attend Byunki Hwang’s recital on July 13th at the LG Arts Center.

I was really looking forward to this concert. I thought it was a kayagum recital, but it turned out to be a composition recital. Byunki Hwang was MC for the event, and played on only the last two pieces, The Labyrinth and Chimyhang-moo.

The changgo player was none other than Kim Woong-sik of CMEK (Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea. Afterwards he was crowded by dozens of fans-like me!-wanting photos and his autograph.

During these three weeks I have been fortunate to be living with an international couple (Korean wife, Canadian husband) who I found through Air B&B. They have been gracious hosts and the accommodations have been quite comfortable. I have also grown quite fond of their three dogs, Aji, Umji, and Ungi.

(l to r) Ungi, Aji, Sujin, and Umji
It’s just a short walk to Yeongdeungpo-gu Office station through a beautiful park. Line 2 gets me to Seoul National University Station, where I've been taking kayagum lessons, in just 17 minutes. The weather has been mostly grey and rainy, but there were a couple of scorching days. I managed to take some cool photos on my way back home on one of these days.

The area is quiet and residential, which means that it is difficult to find restaurants with menus in English! My “host father” Les introduced me to a couple of inexpensive yet delicious places to eat and I’ve been visiting them fairly regularly. 
I return to the US in just two days, after being away for nearly five months. Many new challenges await me in this upcoming academic year at Texas A&M, including my tenure application and a visit by the Kenny Endo Ensemble. It has been tiring at times to live out of a suitcase–especially because I’ve had to pack for four seasons!–but during this time I’ve been able to branch out and learn about the musical traditions of both China and Korea. When I return to my home in late August–after being away since May 2010!–I look forward to being in contact with all of my new colleagues and begin creating a new body of work for their respective instruments. I think in a few years time, I may look back and recognize that 2011 was a pivotal year in my compositional development. 

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