The Way to Craft a Great Instrument Is Not to Try to

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The Way to Craft a Great Instrument Is Not to Try to

Ko Heung-gon, 50, is an akgijang, a master of making musical instruments. He specializes in five kinds of stringed instrument: the geomungo and gayageum, both similar to a zither; the haegeum, a Korean fiddle; the yanggeum, a kind of dulcimer; and the a-jaeng, another kind of fiddle. His contribution toward preserving the traditional musical arts in Korea has been recognized in his designation by the government as an intangible cultural asset.

During the Choson dynasty, musical instrument craftsmen made all kinds of instruments. Nowadays, each akgijang has his own specialty, such as instruments made of leather (hyeokbu in Korean), metal (geumbu) or bamboo (jukbu), or stringed instruments (sabu).

Mr. Ko is able to craft other traditional stringed instruments such as the bipa, gonghu, geum and seul, but, as these instruments disappeared during the Japanese colonial period in the first half of the 20th century, he must rely on surviving pictorial evidence to make them and cannot be sure that they make the right sound.

Mr. Ko first came into contact with the art of making musical instruments as a child. He used to play and make wooden toys in the nearby workshop of a renowned akgijang. He did not dare touch anything without the permission of the master for fear of being punished with a stern look. But the young boy became attached to the place. "I was fascinated by the tools and pieces of paulownia wood at the workshop," Mr. Ko re-calls. When he graduated from high school, the master persuaded the young Ko to be his heir.

In 1976, Mr. Ko decided to devote himself to trying to recreate the majestic sound of the jeong-ak gayageum. (Gayageums, or zithers, come in two forms in Korea - the jeong-ak gayageum and the sanjo gayageum. The former has a heavy, grand sound and was often used to accompany gagok, high-art songs, or sijo, traditional poems. The latter has a quick, light sound and was used to play minyo, folk songs.) The jeong-ak gayageum had gradually disappeared in Korea as it required a lot of effort to make the instrument and there was little demand for it.

By the time Mr. Ko began working on recreating the instrument, it was hard to find any records about it. He consulted with experts such as Hwang Byung-ki, a gayageum virtuoso, and pored over "Akhak-gwebeom," a guide to music of the Choson dynasty. He finally succeeded in recreating a jeong-ak gayageum with a perfect sound in 1982, after finding an instrument in Japan from the Silla dynasty of ancient Korea.

Mr. Ko's work was rewarded when he won the Prime Minister's Award at the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Exhibition in 1985. But he did not rest on his laurels, and set about trying to build on the beautiful sounds of the traditional zither-like hyeongeum by creating 18-stringed and 21-stringed versions.

The chamber of a traditional string instrument is usually made from the wood of the paulownia tree, and the base from chestnut or pinewood. Paulownia trees, particularly those that have grown in the right rocky conditions for more than 30 years, are best as they transfer tremulous sound well and endure worms and dryness. Mr. Ko's years of experience enable him, he says, to distinguish good-quality trees at a glance and to estimate the hardness of the wood with a touch. But he says he still feels uneasy about deciding which tree to take since it is such a difficult job. "Even after all those years of working with trees, I still make the mistake of choosing the wrong one occasionally," he says. He travels around the country finding his trees and is a favorite customer for lumber merchants, who know he is prepared to pay whatever they ask for high-quality wood.

To make a gayageum, he first carves out the inside of a paulownia log using a plane. He then places the log outdoors and leaves it there for about five years to allow the protein constituents of the log to ferment completely. Some craftsmen use chemicals to speed the natural process of wood fermentation but an instrument made from a log that has been treated with chemicals is brittle and likely to crack within a few years.

He then makes the string pegs, anjok, and carves holes in the shapes of the moon and the sun to allow the sound to pass out of the instrument base. The strings, of silk, contain natural oils and need not be starched. They become as strong as iron cord when tied around a pine club, steamed for 30 minutes and then dried, Mr. Ko says. Finally the strings are attached to the gayageum and it is decorated with gold stamps of patterns such as a Chinese phoenix or a flower.

After 30 years at his craft, Mr. Ko has learned that he needs to clear his mind before attempting to create a great instrument. "I get the most marvelous sound when I work without desiring to create a great instrument," he says.

by Lee Chul-jae

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