Gayageum Master's Music Emphasizes Silence Over Sound

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Gayageum Master's Music Emphasizes Silence Over Sound

"If you ask me why I love Korea, I cannot give you an answer. Instead, just listen to Hwang Byung-ki playing the gayageum," said the Venerable Hyun Gak, ne Paul Muenzen, an American-born Buddhist monk. Hwang Byung-ki is a renowned 65-year-old master of the traditional Korean musical instrument, the gayageum.

A hard cover book, titled "Conversations With Kayageum Master Byungki Hwang" was recently released, with the left side written in Korean and the right in English. Also, a tribute concert to Mr. Hwang is scheduled to be held on Tuesday, at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, under the title, "We Are One - Homage to Byungki Hwang." A group of performers from various field of arts, including jazz, rock, techno music and action painting, will take part in the concert. "We Are One" is also the title of a piece that Mr. Hwang cowrote with a North Korean musician, Seong Dong-chun, when he was the first South Korean civilian to visit the North in 1990.

The body of the gayageum is made from the wood of old paulownia trees and the 12 or 17 strings are of twisted silk threads. The originality of the sound comes from the way the instrument is played - the player plucks the strings with the fingers one after another, creating a sonorous monotone and avoiding chordal harmony. Instead, the player focuses on the resonance of a single note, which is called "aftertone" and places more emphasis on silence between each sound. Mr. Hwang puts it rather poetically, saying "While western tempo can be compared to a month, Korean traditional beat is more like a season."

According to the master, this stress on the aftertone, makes the gayageum most original and Oriental. "The most natural sound that a musical instrument can produce is from gayageum. It creates a mysterious and meditative atmosphere," said Mr. Hwang.

He suggests that the best way to appreciate a gayageum piece is to listen to it in a cozy, traditional Korean room, covered with mats and windows spread with mulberry paper. The hole where the sound resonates from is located on the bottom of gayageum and the sound travels from the mat to the window. Half of the sound remains reverberating in the room while the rest penetrates the paper covering the window and echoes outside.

In the last 40 years, Mr. Hwang has won both popularity and critical acclaim in and out of Korea. His love for the gayageum was totally unexpected and changed the course of his life. He first saw a gayageum when he was a middle school student, and he pursued a career in music after earning a law degree from the Seoul National University. He is now a professor at Ewha Womans University, scheduled to retire this year, and has been a visiting professor at Harvard University where he taught Korean traditional music.

Mr. Hwang was well received for his challenging approaches to music. "Migung" ("The Labyrinth"), a 17-minute, 50-second piece was composed in 1975. Featuring the voice of the avant-garde modern dancer Hong Shin-ja, it made a considerable impact on the Korean traditional music scene. Hwang used performing methods such as beating instead of plucking the string and the accompanying voice from Hong went from laughter to crying, from reading a newspaper article to a murmuring sound, ending with reciting the last verses of the Heart Sutra.

"I tried to express a life cycle of a human being, from birth to death, by creating a sound of joy, sadness, groaning, exclamation and finally Nirvana," said Mr. Hwang. His repertoire also includes traditional pieces such as "Seokryujib" ("Pomegranate House").

With a musical career spanning 40 years, it seems surprising that Mr. Hwang has composed only 22 pieces. His emphasis lies on the quality of music he creates. "It takes a long time to gather enough water drops to form a spring in a deep mountain. It's the same thing for me. It takes considerable effort, racking my brain and using all my musical inspiration, to write a single piece," he said.

"A man is completed in music," said Confucius about 2,500 years ago, and Mr. Hwang's life was completed with the gayageum. He still has a long way to go as an artist and his musical experiment is not yet finished. Music can be the most ephemeral of the arts, for it just disappears. That's why Hwang's gayageum leads you to relish the importance of silence.

For concert information, call 02-548-4480 (Korean service only).

by Chun Su-jin

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