Friday, July 1, 2011

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

The beginning of our second week of lectures started off with perhaps the highlight of the entire two weeks for me, a discussion with internationally renown kayagum performer Byung-ki Hwang. His contributions to the world of changjak gugak (contemporary music for traditional Japanese instruments) has been incredible. In 1965 he was invited to the Festival of Music and Arts of this Century in Honolulu, HI (invited by Barbara Smith!) as the representative artist for the “East,” which subsequently launched his international career. His first album was released in the USA and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that he began to release recordings in his native Korea.  I bought all of his CDs when I last visited Korea in 2005 and have been impressed with how his compositions are able to push to the envelope of performing technique and yet are so firmly indebted to and based on Korean musical aesthetics. I believe it is this perfect balance of the “tradition” vs. “innovation” that gives his works a certain timeless quality. I asked him what he thought about many fusion groups that are popularizing “Korean” music yet also perhaps misrepresenting it. He answered so poetically, and I will never forget what he said. “There are many kinds of drinks that Coca-Cola and other companies try to market to the public for consumption, and yet the best selling drink in Korea is still water. I am interested in creating the purest form of water that I can.” 
Byung-ki Hwang

He fondly relayed stories about the early stage of career and experience in Honolulu and seemed energized by the thoughtful questions asked by the group. After class, we were scheduled for a kayagum rehearsal, but he generously gave us over 90+ minutes so we didn’t have anything afterwards. I also found out during this class that he is giving a recital on July 13th here in Seoul! The tickets were expensive (84,000 won after 30% discount!) but this a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear him perform so I would have gladly paid full price for the privilege. Interestingly, for this lecture the composers moved to the front of the classroom while the ethnomusicologists moved to the back! I recorded this lecture with my digital recorder and FLIP video for future reference. 

The next day we were treated to a discussion of changjak gugak by Byeon, Gye-won, who published an invaluable text in 2009 entitled “Writing New Music for Traditional Korean Instruments.” While she summarized much of what she research and wrote about in her book, towards the end she introduced us to a number of exciting, young Korean performers who are creating ground-breaking if not controversial music. She generously gave me a CD that I was planning to purchase in the NCKPA bookstore.
It has been raining for nearly a week non-stop in Seoul, and the weather ruined our plans to visit Changduk Palace on Wednesday, June 29th. Instead, a small group went to the COEX underground, and another group went to a street in the downtown area not far from Insadong that is famous for musical instrument shops. 
A collection of puk drums
Afterwards we made our way to Insadong, did some shopping, and enjoyed a delicious dinner together in one of the alleyway restaurants. 

The last two days of our workshop was spent preparing for an informal performance to be held on main stage of the National Gugak Center. We had another danso class on Thursday, June 30th that frustrated many participants because it is very difficult to produce a sound. The mouthpiece is similar to the shakuhachi in that it is cut obliquely outward, so getting a sound from the instrument was not too difficult for me. What was frustrating was that the high range of the instruments is not in tune, and therefore requires embouchure adjustment. In the afternoon we rehearsed for our performance and in the evening enjoyed a concert featuring the gomungo. The changgo player and main gomungo were evidently holders of the Intangible Cultural Assets in their respective instruments, and their performance was simply sublime. 
Our performance on July 1st on the main stage of the National Gugak Center was quite a fiasco!
Preparing for performance on the main stage of the National Gugak Center
While we could hardly get a sound from our danso, but we redeemed ourselves with enthusiastic folk song singing and a kayagum performance of Arirang. The audience was supportive, and shouted chuimsae (shouts of encouragement) at just the right moments.
The "pro" group rehearsal Samulnori
Afterwards we were presented with graduation diplomas. In the afternoon we had a few hours break before dinner, and I went to Insadong for some more shopping. Our final farewell dinner was quite a blast, as each of us had to come up with a song to sing for the group. It was also quite sad to say goodbye to each other. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to study Korean music with such a warm group of people, and hope that we all remain close colleagues for many years to come. I can't wait to start studying the kayagum and composing for this wonderful, earthy instrument.
Our final farewell dinner

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