These streets are alive ...

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These streets are alive ...

The "streets of music," the nickname for the thoroughfares around the Seoul Art Center in Seocho-dong at the south of Seoul, received its name not only from the sprawling complex of concert halls, theaters and galleries that look out over the neighborhood. Rather, the name comes from the 50-odd musical instrument stores that fill the byways, attracting both current and future musicians.

While there are some large stores with great show windows displaying elegant classic musical instruments along the main roads, more significant perhaps are the many small stores and workshops that are scattered on the side streets and back alleys.

It wasn't always this way. Indeed, it hasn't been this way for very long -- only about 15 years. The original center of musical instruments was Nakwon-dong, in Jongno, downtown Seoul. "Nakwon-dong used to be the gathering place for part-time bands," says La Ho-cheon, an executive director of the sprawling Cosmos Corp. store. "That was where musicians waited for club managers to hire them for night shows. So musical instrument stores came to prosper there."

But when the Seoul Arts Center was established in Seocho-dong in 1987, the classic musical instrument stores of Nakwon-dong moved to Seocho-dong, one after another. Nakwon-dong is still the center for modern instruments, such as electric guitars, while Seocho-dong is the center for more classical instruments. Violas, anyone?

About two-thirds of all the musical instrument stores in Seocho-dong specialize in stringed instruments such as the violin and cello. "We deal with old, stringed instruments as well as new ones," says Park Jae-sun, an employee at City Musical Instrument. "Unlike other musical instruments, stringed instruments are more preferable if they are older."

He adds, "Professional violinists, with important recitals or concerts upcoming, tend to search for violins at least 100 years old, since they can quickly become familiar with them."

According to Mr. La, such old, high-quality violins sell for 30 million won ($25,000) on average. The most expensive go for billions of won. On the other hand, new violins tend to peak at about 15 million won, and the cheapest violins, designed for beginning students, can be found for as little as 100,000 won.

Unlike most musical instrument stores in Seocho-dong, Cosmos deals with a variety of instruments, including pipe organs for churches and percussion instruments. The store closely resembles a museum of musical instruments.

"Our company, with its 30-year history," Mr. La says, "has seen all the long-term trends in the popularity of musical instruments." In the 1970s, pianos became popular. In the 1980s, violins. Then, in the 1990s, flutes.

"Well, I came to buy a flute for my eldest son," says Jeon Chan-mi, a Cosmos customer in the store with her two elementary-school sons, "but because I couldn't find a proper one, I'm choosing a violin for my younger son instead. It's common these days for children to learn to play the violin or flute just as a hobby, unlike when I was young."

Mr. La said that there has also been shorter fads. "Whenever the U.S. saxophonist Kenny G visits Korea to perform live, as he has since 1995, the soprano saxophones sell out," he says. He added the popularity of underground rock groups since the late-1990s have expanded the sales of drum sets.

Since more than a half of the owners of the musical instrument stores in Seocho-dong graduated from music colleges, they can help consumers choose the right instruments, too.

"Our president, Peter Lee, graduated from a music college," says a sales clerk at Sahyun Musical Instruments, a stringed instrument store. "He did not major in stringed instruments, though. He majored in wind instruments."

Mr. La said that was not unusual. "Most of the stringed instrument store owners majored in wind instruments, keyboards or other fields, such as musical composition," he says. He introduced an interesting hypothesis to explain the phenomena. "Well, the players of string instruments might be too sensitive to manage a business," he says. "String instruments are said to be more sensitive than other instruments. The players tend to resemble their instruments."


A matter of tradition

About 30 years ago, when Kim Bok-kon, now the president of Tongyang Traditional Instrument Co., got a job at a workshop for training Korean traditional musicians, he did not have any interest in the field. He only wanted a job to earn money. Having run away from home and come to Seoul at the age of 15, he was desperate.

"At the workshop, I was treated severely by my seniors," Mr. Kim says. "I considered running away several times. But I stayed there, relishing the competitiveness, and concentrated on learning the traditional musical instrument manufacturing techniques."

Mr. Kim opened his store near the Seoul Arts Center about 10 years ago. He was designated the 28th Seoul Intangible Cultural Properties in April because he developed new techniques for manufacturing the wooden bodies of traditional stringed instruments, improving their resonance. But overall, Mr. Kim says his conditions have not much improved over 30 years.

"My success in research and development is not very helpful to my business," he says. "Frankly speaking, my business currently makes little profit."

Mr. Kim attributed the sluggish business market to the distorted market structure of Korean traditional musical instruments rather than the unpopularity of Korean traditional music. Korean traditional music, which once overwhelmed by Western music, has been studied and promoted since the 1980s, repopularizing the genre. But the instruments have not been standardized, so there are no objective ways to compare their relative qualities.

According to Mr. Kim, masters and teachers of traditional music judge the qualities of the instruments based on their own idiosyncrasies, and tend to force their students to use the same instruments they do.

"The market economy does not apply to the traditional instrument market," Mr. Lee says. He used the gayageum, or Korean 12-string zither, as an example. "Even if the price of gayageum A is lower than gayageum B, a student cannot buy A if his teacher uses gayageum B."

Mr. Kim stressed that such problems could be solved if the traditional instruments were standardized. He said that he was recommending the standardization project to the government. "Anyway I have no intention of giving up this business," Mr. Kim says, "whether for the spirit of competition or the love for traditional instruments."


Classical tones created here

In the corner of a small workshop filled with cellos, contrabasses and their monstrous cases, a man whittles a piece of wood. The wood has already assumed the form of a lion's head. "It is a scroll for a contrabass," says the man, Choi Yeong-se, the owner and manager of Hill String, a stringed instrument-making company.

Mr. Choi is one of the first Korean craftsmen to make classical stringed instruments. He has made stringed instruments for about 35 years. In the beginning, he had a hard time finding customers because so few Koreans could afford the instruments. And the few who had that kind of money to throw around tended to prefer imported instruments.

But as Korea grew wealthier, classical stringed instruments gained popularity in the 1980s. "The international success of some Korean musicians," Mr. Choi says, "such as the violinist Chung Kyung-wha, promoted the stringed instrument boom."

But there were no professional players among Mr. Choi's customers in the 1980s. His customers were young students or hobbyists. "Korean stringed instrument makers are at a disadvantage," he says, "not only because consumers do not trust the quality of domestic products, but also because string musicians, especially violinists, prefer instruments at least 40 to 50 years old."

But a few professional musicians began to appreciate Korean instruments in the 1990s, and the number is gradually increasing. "I am especially confident of my contrabasses," Mr. Choi says, pointing to a contrabass.

"They're being exported to several Asian countries."

by Moon So-young

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