Traditional music gets a modern twistHaegeum is unique even among Korean traditional musical instruments. The fiddle-like wooden instrument covers almost every note that exists with just two strings that have little contact with the main body, unlike the guitar or violin.
The bow is stuck between the strings, which restricts movement. The light instrument looks fragile, and when it’s played, it elicits a sense of sorrow.
Even though it’s an elegant instrument, it never appealed much to audiences, including Koreans. However, haegeum music is undergoing a makeover in an effort to draw more people.
Two 37-year-old haegeum players, Kang Eun-il and Kim Ae-ra, each released their own albums a month ago. Both albums incorporate popular music and not the traditional Korean music.
Ms. Kang, who performed on stage with musician Bobby McFerrin last week in Seoul, released her first album, “Ancient Future.”
Ms. Kim, who is currently a member of the Seoul Metropolitan Traditional Musical Orchestra, released her second album, called, “My Story.”
Considering that a traditional Korean instrumental album may sell 1,000 copies on average, it’s astonishing that both albums have sold more than 5,000 copies each in less than a month.
Both Ms. Kang and Ms. Kim graduated from Gukak National High School, where they learned haegeum. Among the 12 haegeum students at the time, Ms. Kim and Ms. Kang are the only ones still actively performing.
Ms. Kang took up the instrument simply because she enjoyed anything that was Korean, but Ms. Kim has played the gayageum, a flat, wooden Korean instrument with 12 strings, since she was in elementary school in South Gyeongsang province.
The artists see each other not as competing rivals but as good, influential friends who can help each other.
Ms. Kang praised Ms. Kim for being better educated about traditional Korean music, and Ms. Kim said she highly appreciates Ms. Kang’s concentration and sophistication.
As their backgrounds are different, so are their performance styles. Ms. Kang relies much on intuition, while Ms. Kim seeks precision in the notes in front of her.
Both albums are considered a bridge between traditional music and popular music, but there’s still a big difference between the albums.
Ms. Kang tries to keep the traditional features of the music alive, but Ms. Kim experiments with popular music, even asking commercial musicians to help arrange her album.
Ms. Kang and Ms. Kim have different plans for their careers.
Ms. Kang says she plans to extend the use of her haegeum in incorporating other categories of art, including ballet, paintings, mime performance and even poetry.
Ms. Kim, on the other hand, who’s in search of the original rhythm of haegeum, will take on the challenges of Latin and dance music.
by Choi Min-woo