top of page

International Gugak Workshop: Week 1

Week 1 in Seoul began with a night out exploring Gangnam (the namesake of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”)—it’s a sleek, Time-Square or Champs-Elyse-esque hub of expensive stores and restaurants lit up by bright vertical neon Hangeul signs. In Gangnam, the western influence on the “Miracle on the Han” is apparent, with everything from architecture to commercial products. Certainly capitalism is a huge force here. We took a turn on the backstreets and at the recommendation of a couple of passersby—facilitated by Jacques, a member of the workshop from Brussels who can speak Korean—found a little underground restaurant, where we shared a bottle of milky rice wine, kimchi, tofu, beef, and soup. As someone that actively scouts out spicy food, this works well for me. Eating is THE social activity of Korea.

We went to bed early on account of the jetlag and woke up bright and early the next morning to hop on a bus over to the Gugak Center. The center is nestled in the hills and is beautiful and modern a la Lincoln Center—it’s got an opera house, museum, and of course the Gugak Center which houses the workshop.

They gave us a fat textbook and several CD’s and DVD’s and we went through the intricacies of how music functioned in Korean society throughout history, from shaman rituals to improvisatory art music and literati music to folk work songs to court music and religious music, and how these forms developed over the course of Korea’s constantly shifting political and class leadership. The lecture was in Korean with a translator who knows the history, theory, and performance practice in and out, so it was easy to understand, but difficult to process all the information flying at us at once. Korea has shifted hands a lot, from the Three Kingdoms period to the Silla dominance, the Goryeo Kingdom period (the source of Korea’s name), the Joseon Dynasty, Japanese occupation, post-“liberation” period after the Korean War, and contemporary music. The classifications and shifting definitions are something I definitely have to go back and research more in my future studies of the music. At the end of the lecture we were told that we had an opportunity to compose short pieces for the instruments in the National Gugak Creative Orchestra. We took a lunch break in the cafeteria downstairs and continued on with the jangdan workshop on the changgu.

This workshop was a blast—taught by enthusiastic drummer Sori Choi, it’s a very hands-on approach to learning jangdan, or the underlying rhythmic grid/mode to sanjo music and a variety of other Korean traditional musics. We all circled her in the room, each with a changgu, or Korean hourglass drum. Each of us learned the basic breathing and drumming technique and dove into the basic, mid-tempo mode, or jungmori. One of the challenges of the music is that there’s a lot of rests in the drum part—the accompaniment is very spare,

so you have to internally feel the groove, which can be notated in a Western staff (it resembles a 12/8 bar in compound meter, where the beats are grouped in three’s). Some might chastise me for the comparison, but I can’t help finding a similarity to the clave in Latin jazz, where alternating groupings of two and three create natural syncopations that defy metric expectations. However, the Western notation can be a harmful crutch and can have you thinking too locked in the grid. The music follows the melodic pattern of sanjo, not a prescribed metric length or equally divided hypermeter.

We had dinner with Baewon sitting traditional style (sitting on the floor without shoes) while it monsoon-ed outside before going home for the night. I woke up at 7 am and couldn’t fall back asleep, so I got some work done on a string ensemble arrangement commission before heading to class.

On Tuesday we began going over the history and techniques of the instruments—geomungo and gayageum—from a historical perspective, discussing possible compositional uses for them (a room full of composers, we tended to ask questions on the technical side). We were also introduced to the idea of shikumsae, or a series of ornamentations connected to particular notes in a scale—when a certain note in the mode returns in the musical phrase, every time it comes with ornamentation (vibration, slides, bends up and down, etc.)

This was reaffirmed in our folk music class in the afternoon, when a folk singer taught us a variety of arirang (local folk tunes, more broad than the traditional arirang we know in the West). In the lowest note of the scale, the singer typically will vibrate the pitch in rhythm. This is a striking element of Korean traditional music—its system of embellishments. Korean traditional musicians concern themselves much more with timbre and ornamentation as a core important element of their music, rather than a surface-level modification. As a composer interested in extended technique and ornamentation as a natural extension of the instruments, this is re-affirming for me and gives me tools to use in my own compositions.

After class, in a desperate search for beer, a few of us crossed upon an American pub with some pretty good IPA’s and pizza in Gangnam, where we chatted and discussed the ethical issues of using Eastern music in a Western context. Many of the participants in the workshop have composed for non-western instruments and combined them with our own Western musical influences to some degree. It’s a controversial subject and there are many opinions about it—as expression and creativity is fundamentally about crossing lines, yet there is a cultural line to cross as well. It brings up issues of cultural appropriation—who can use East Asian musical materials and how can they use them without “offending” some? One can intensely inform themselves about the music but still misuse it by imposing Western values and systems of thought upon it, a la post-colonial theory. Regardless, we agreed that attempts to understand music from other cultures is honorable, whether one “uses” it or not, and that is one of the first steps towards communicating between cultures and bridging gaps in understanding.

The next day, we continued our lectures by learning about haegeum (an instrument close to a Chinese erhu—a bowed string instrument) and ajeng—a bowed bass zither. Both elicited curiosity among the composers for their rich sounds and unfamiliar playing techniques. We continued with a lecture on pansori and learned the first few phrases of Chunhyang, a pansori opera about two lovers across class barriers. The teaching style was back-and-forth, more imitative—something that’s incredibly effective of which I might use in my own future teaching. Again, ornamentation and expression here is more expressive than pitch in the storytelling, and the music is presented in an earthy, yet formal, theatrical way.

That night I met up with my pianist friend Sohee in Hongdae, a bustling neighborhood around Hongik University, North of the Han River, where we shared some budae jigae (army base stew with a mixture of noodles and a variety of mixed meat items including spam, once eaten during the war when food was scarce but is still eaten today) and explored the neighborhood a little bit, passing by a few noraebang (karaoke rooms) and sharing some delicious shaved ice/frozen yogurt inside a melon.

The next day we learned about the daegeum and piri. Stuck for a few days on the short original sketch for the final concert, I was searching for inspiration and found it in the daegeum. I was struck by its ornamentations and the unique membrane stretched across a hole near the front of the flute that buzzes with a certain degree of blowing force. I began sketching ideas for my piece, which takes elements from Confucian shrine ritual music—with its sustained, static pitches followed by a slight bend up at the end of each note. That was the basis for my composition, and I began developing my ideas from there.

After lunch I decided to climb up the mountain peak behind the National Gugak Center. It was a bit more of a struggle than I expected (quite a climb, rough terrain followed by 260 steps all the way to the top). The view of the entire city of Seoul was definitely worth it… but it made me late for the next lecture.

The sinawi and sanjo lecture in the afternoon broke some of my preconceived notions about those genres of music, which I had previously studied in Shih-Hui Chen’s musicology class at Rice University. The improvisational aspects of Korean music were perhaps the source of much of my interest in it as a jazz musician and composer. Improvisation in contemporary sinawi isn’t similar to improvisation in the western sense at all, and perhaps the only improvised components are slight variation in the timing of musical cells, melodies, and embellishments and fill figures in the channgu. The basis of sinawi is shaman ritual music to accompany dance, so its demeanor is stoic, serious, and restrained, rather than expressive or spontaneous. While fragments are developed as per the player’s choice, the point is not to be as expressive as in sanjo, where emotions are limited but more organic in their expression. After the lectures, a few of the participants were discussing this and we seemed to observe that in the court music (jeongaak), expression was more refined and spiritual in a controlled way, whereas sanjo was more unrefined and “natural” in its expression. Sinawi is closer to court music in that it accompanies a shaman ritual and needs to provide an appropriate backdrop, and much of the music is learned either by rote memorization or oral transmission rather than improvised on the spot. Learning this was a little disappointing for me, but nonetheless learning it was important and my future study of it will be colored by this knowledge. While this music isn’t as centered around improvisation as it once was, it is still primarily transmitted orally, as some of its central components cannot be notated in Western notation.

That afternoon, composer Chris Jones and I had our first instrument lesson (I had chosen daegeum to play, since I had already had some small experience with Western flute). Learning the daegeum is really difficult—as someone used to Western flute, I’m used to blowing across and not down. The daegeum requires a specific embouchure in order to find the pitches. And the finger holes are distributed at awkward intervals on the flute… it’s difficult to cover the holes. However, the teacher and her translator were kind and supportive and helped us through simple tone production on the first day. They also gave us each a flute to bring home. I spent the night finishing composing my piece—which ended up being a daegeum and haegeum duet – and commiserated with a few composers who were in the same boat as me, behind on their deadlines.

Friday, we learned about Korean percussion, the yanggeum, a dulcimer-like instrument, and the saenghwang, a double-reed instrument similar to the Chinese sheng that sounds a bit like an accordion or harmonica. At 1 pm we read through my piece (which roughly came across like I expected, though the balance between the haegeum and daegeum was slightly off). Haegeum’s transparency and quiet volume makes it difficult to balance with other instruments, but it has a haunting sound. It was a fun reading session. We had another lesson and attempted to learn Arirang and Silent Night, though both Chris and I had trouble getting consistent tone; we had to frequently take breaks to catch our breath.

Friday evening a few of us went to Hongdae to attend an experimental music concert at Dotolim from Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney, two other participants in the workshop. Eyvind is a composer and violist who teaches at Cal Arts. They performed a haunting duet where Jessika sang and Eyvind played viola against dark electronic loops and beds. We shared some seafood and makgeolli afterward.

Saturday morning I explored a Buddhist temple, Bongeunsa—ironically across from Coex, one of the world’s largest underground shopping malls. After exploring some of the buildings and sitting in silence for a while, it started raining so I decided to head back to the subway. In the afternoon at the Gugak Center we witnessed Korean traditional dance with an underscore that featured many of the familiar traditional instruments. I was surprised by the audience’s involvement and enjoyment of the show—the music featured some difficult rhythms, but the audience felt the rhythms, clapping along and cheering, particularly for the fan dance, a show-stopping number. I got a seat right next to the “pit,” so I got a full blast of changgu and typeongso, the double reed trumpet-like instrument of outdoor music. That afternoon , another composer (also named Chris) and I decided to check out the National Museum of Korea, a large museum with artifacts and paintings from prehistory to the mid-20th century. Saturday I made sure to get some rest, as I knew Sunday and the following week would be full of new ideas and places.


bottom of page