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International Gugak Workshop: Week 2

The second week of the International Gugak Workshop began with a free day, which I used to explore the city via its expansive metro system. The metro is amazingly smooth—I never had to worry about getting wherever I needed to go quickly. The subway cars are huge, and almost every one has multiple HD TV screens (though most commuters are on their phones). The journey began with another trek to the north of the Han River, this time to the Gyeoungbukgung Palace, a huge palace where everyone goes to get dressed in traditional clothes—hanbok. Near the palace I also got to visit the National Folk Museum of Korea. I walked over to the Bukchon Hanok village, a small residential neighborhood with wind-y streets with great views of the mountains and the palace.

I walked down towards the center of the city and came across the Bosingak Bell Pavilion, an old bell tower that still rings in the city in the morning. The bell tower is in one of the bustling urban centers of the city—another scene of contrasts. That was a few steps away from Cheonggyecheon, a tree-lined converted stream park that runs through the center of the city not unlike NYC’s Highline Park. Hungry, I stopped by Namdemun market—being Sunday, the market was mostly closed and everything was covered up—it was a haunting scene. Regardless, I was able to get some leek pajeon and tteokbokki—rice cake in a spicy red sauce. After I made a quick stop at Itaewon, the international neighborhood of Seoul, packed with Middle-Eastern and Western restaurants and modern shopping. A little tired, I decided to head back to the hotel and relax for the rest of the evening.

Monday morning back at the Gugak Center, we covered the social history of Korean folk songs from a lecturer who had collected recordings of folk songs throughout Korea for their preservation. Some of these songs, from rice collecting tunes to children’s songs to funeral songs and fishing songs, were ancient, but had changed with the times based on their context. During the lunch break I went up the mountain again, this time stopping by the temple that I had missed on my way up. In the afternoon, we had dance class, where we learned “Ganggangsullae,” the traditional Korean circle dance. It was a little overwhelming and tough for the group, as there were quite a few steps to memorize, and many of us were large, flappy, and not particularly agile like the teachers. That evening, after we learned a bit about salmunori drum/ritual music in drum class, we all went to eat at a traditional restaurant and enjoyed some bibimbap and kimchi jigae.

The next day, we learned a little more about the salumnori ritual music in class, where I coincidentally ran into Jong-Hun Jo, a changgu player who performed on my piece Puppies in the Snow. He gave a lecture on the regional differences between different shaman ritual musics. That class was followed by daegeum lessons, where we began to learn traditional Korean notation, which features Chinese characters for different notes and a system of orientation. The notation is read right to left and is a little more free and ambiguous than western notation. As it was still a challenge for Chris and me to get out sound consistently, reading the notation added even more to the challenge, but luckily our teachers were patient. In the late afternoon, we continued salumnori jangdan class and began learning the rhythmic patterns from the teacher, Eun Ha Park’s, own original salmunori. The patterns featured slowly evolving rhythmic groups. The drumming was grouped into two hands—one hand played a wooden mallet while the other played a thin bamboo stick like folk changgu. These patterns were fairly easy, but remember the subtle changes as the patterns evolved was hard. It was a test of musical memory and rhythmic precision. Regardless, the speed at which the class learned the music was impressive and powerful to hear. Tuesday evening I got fried chicken and beer with composer friend Alistair Noble and we talked about the contemporary music scene in Australia.

Wednesday morning we heard some court music performed by the traditional music orchestra—a huge group of the instruments we had learned about the previous week. The group performed Jongmyo jereak music—slow, heterophonic court music—stately and stoic, but dissonant from the different natural intonations of the instruments. We got to explore the percussion instruments near the back of the room, including several large bell trees, stone mallets, and large barrel drums. After we heard a live performance of Jindo Ssitgimgut—a kind of shaman accompaniment music from Jindo Island in the southernmost area of Korea. The most compelling feature of the music for most of us in the room was the fact that there was a “solo” section in the music—a series of individual improvisations from every member of the group, each pushed on by “chiumsae” exclamations of encouragement. This approach is similar to the solo section on a jazz standard, where each of the musicians takes turns soloing. This adds a new dimension to what we learned last week about sinawi and sanjo’s relationship to improvisation. It’s something that I hope to research more—how do the musicians plan out these improvisations and consider each other in the context of this music?

During lunchtime I explored the Gugak museum—they had a compelling diorama on the construction of the gayageum—and we had another daegeum lesson where we began learning a couple traditional Korean children’s songs in traditional notation. After the lesson we learned more of Eun Ha Park’s salmunori—beginning with the simple daserem and moving to byuhldahlguhri and jajingarak. Byuldahlguhri featured alternating rhythms from the drum and a shouted chant about the growth season for rice planting. That evening after drum class I went out and explored the beautiful Changyeounggung palace—which is open certain nights in the evening—with Sohee, and we got a delicious kind of spicy barbeque chicken stew.

Thursday was centered around fine-tuning our daegeum and changgu playing, although Chris and I were able to take a break and get lunch and coffee with our teachers. That evening, a few of us got barbeque and went to the Korean National Theater to see a concert called “Contemporary Sinawi” which ended up being a strange alternation between Bach Goldberg Variations performed by a string orchestra, traditional sinawi music, weird contemporary noodlings, and audience participation. Most of us went home confused and slightly disappointed, though at the performance I ran into Texu Kim, a composer from the states who happened to be vacationing in Seoul.

Friday was concert day—the traditional ensembles warmed up and we got to hear all of the workshop participant composers’ pieces (including my duet)—a selection of new works, mostly slow, meditative textural music inspired by the lectures and the instruments’ capabilities. The ensembles from instrument lessons warmed up and got ready to perform (disappointingly, the daegeum class decided it would be a better idea not to perform since we couldn’t consistently get out tone without falling short of breath and the music falling to pieces). Around 2 pm, the concert began, and all of us got to hear what we had learned that week.

The first half of the concert was original music composed by participants of the workshop and the second half was performances from the composers on the traditional instruments they learned that week. Each of the composers introduced their original works on stage. My work went quite well, especially since the performers only had a week to put it together. It was fun, relaxed, and lighthearted – at one point during the piri performance, the performers granted us permission to laugh. There was laughter. Jessika gave a killer pansori rendition and an excerpt of seju—Confucian vocal music. The concert ended with our performance of the original salumori—everyone rocking out on changgu. Everybody gave a helluva performance, and we all went home exhausted but fulfilled.

That evening, the celebrations started early and we shared a delicious dinner and shared the signed fans we had bought as gifts with Baewon, the director, a supervisor, and the translator. The celebrations were initiated with a great toast from Jacques. Over the course of the evening I had some good conversations with people with whom I hadn’t talked much during the workshop, including a conversation with Satoshi Taekieshi, a NYC jazz drummer who has played on some of my favorite records. We chatted for a while and he gave me some incredible insights about composing for concert/classical musicians and jazz. He said classical musicians move like a flock of birds, following each other, while jazz musicians think more in terms of pulse. I see this to be totally true, given my experiences composing for both jazz and concert musicians (the American Composers Orchestra Jazz readings in particular). Later in the evening we all went to Gangnam and shared stories and experiences.

I forced myself to get up early for hotel breakfast to say goodbye to everyone who was leaving on Saturday—a few of the participants were staying an extra week to learn more about their instruments. I had become quite close to some members of the workshop; it was sad to leave so soon. I hopped on the bus back to Incheon airport and had a smooth flight home (again watching five movies on the return flight).

I’ve taken about a week to process the entirety of the International Gugak Workshop and have thought extensively about what I would do with this information as a composer and educator. Obviously the workshop provided me with a great group of friends and contacts in the area of East-West fusion in music and a lot more material to study and research on my own. I hope to at one point teach a class on Korean music, covering not only the depths of traditional music but also hopefully expand into Korean popular culture and its relationship with traditional music (inspired by the questions that came up for me during the “Contemporary Sinawi” concert in the National Theater of Korea). Another component would be to include jangdan rhythmic patterns and shikumsae into my jazz improvisations as a pianist, or perhaps the structural or philosophical underpinnings of Korean music into my improvisation in general.

As a composer, there are countless ways I could apply Korean musical elements into my compositions. On a surface level, some of the elements I finding interesting in Korean music are the different length subdivisions within the beat, metric modulation between two and three, sudden tempo changes and changes in rhythmic mode, slight rhythmic “swing,” and shikumsae ornamentations. Some larger structural ideas include composing a contemporary pansori that fuses Korean and western elements, or utilizing the pansori storytelling form as an expressive vehicle for a variety of contemporary stories, not in a way unlike Western opera or music theater. I could see using Pansori as an older vehicle to tell newer stories rather than the traditional stories like "Chunhyangga." The idea of a storytelling form with a single drummer and a singer is gripping to me and could lead to expressive new compositions. I could write a pansori with its own set of ornamentations and original jangdan of my own. Another option would be composing a series of “sanjo pieces” for solo instrument and percussion, taking many elements from sanjo. The pieces could be on Western instruments or from instruments throughout the world. The performer could improvise and embellish within a set of constraints.

Either way, the International Gugak Workshop at the National Gugak Center has encouraged me to look beyond the boundaries of Western music and expand my creative horizons. The program has encouraged me to educate others and spread the word about Korean traditional music, both in academia and the wider world of music.


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