Fusion musicians push the edge of tradition, but is it Korean?
Like all good commercials, the B-boy scene riveted audiences, but not for its dancing: Viewers were stunned to learn that the sounds were created on a gayageum, a Korean zither, and performed by the Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra. A gayageum can sound like that? You can play Pachelbel’s Canon on the zither?
“The responses have been favorable. The music touched the audience,” said Professor Song Hye-jin, the director of the orchestra at Sookmyung Women’s University.
Such is the changing public perception of Korean traditional music. Many forms of Korean music that were once seen as unforgivably difficult and old-fashioned are now being used in novel and surprising ways. The question is whether traditional music will ever be able to compete for attention with rock and pop.
“People’s tastes have been changed. They’ve become so accustomed to Western music they no longer like traditional music tunes,” Ms. Song said.
They’re not the only ones. Numerous Korean traditional musicians, bands and groups have begun creating new styles and instruments, experimenting with different genres and performing at major events.
The Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra normally plays Korean traditional music, but they venture into pop music and “world music” from time to time, remaking old songs and composing new ones for performances and recordings.
Their efforts have met with success. The orchestra’s sixth album, “For You,” a compilation of previous recordings such as their version of The Beatles’s “Let It Be,” topped the charts at Interpark, a major Internet retailer, for more than three days starting Sept. 13. The album also topped the list at Aladdin, an Internet bookseller, and was ranked in the top 10 list of other Internet shopping malls.
Those sales broke all previous records for an album of traditional music. Very few traditional music albums can break into the top 10, but “For You” sold over 10,000 copies. Generally, any traditional album that can sell a few thousand copies is regarded as a major success.
Other groups have found success as well. The four-person percussion group Gongmyong, formed in 1997, developed an electronic janggu, an hourglass drum, created a bamboo instrument called the gongmyong, and adopted foreign instruments, such as the didgeridoo. Many of the pieces they play are based on traditional rhythms. The group made its debut in 2000 by performing on stage for the play “Lady Macbeth” at the Seoul Arts Center. Since then, the members have performed in major events, including the Seoul Drum Festival, Singapore Art Festival, Pina Bausch Festival in Germany and Sydney Festival in Australia, and produced the original score for the horror movie “Wishing Stairs,” in which Gongmyong used the taepyeongso, a traditional woodwind instrument, to give its music a more chilling edge.
“People ask what kinds of instruments were used in that scene. They’re surprised when they hear that the sound was made by a traditional instrument,” said Song Kyung-keun, a member of the group.
The Lim is a nine-person traditional music orchestra that uses such instruments as the gayageum, haegeum (two-stringed fiddle), danso (a small flute similar to tin whistle), sogeum (short flute), jing (large gong), buk (drum) and janggu, as well as the acoustic guitar, base guitar, accordion, melodeon and recorder. The group was formed in 2001 with seven members; it released its second album two weeks ago. The group was invited to perform at Asian Art Mart 2005 in Singapore last year.
Sorea is a five-person band that does vocal and pop music, but uses traditional music instruments. Unlike other bands that were formed through friendships and schools, Sorea was created by a talent agency, an unusual step for the music industry to take and one that could bode well for the future of traditional music.
Other notable artists or groups are Seulgidoong, an orchestra formed in 1985; the haegeum player Kang Eun-il; the four-person gayageum ensemble Sagye and the four-person band Vinalog.
But while traditional music is making what appears to be a comeback, it’s done so only by blending with modern music, a move that ironically was made because so few of the musicians could find employment playing real traditional music once they graduated from school.
Musicians used to be able to find work at a handful of government-subsidized traditional music orchestras and institutes, including the National Orchestra Company of Korea and the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, or as teachers. But teaching jobs haev dried up and there are only so many seats on the National Orchestra.
“Traditional music orchestras aren’t hiring anymore. Even the best students cannot get in,” said Shin Chang-yeul, the band leader of The Lim. “Now they need to find a way to survive on their own.”
The needs to survive and draw more fans lead musicians to come up with new approaches to traditional music. “In the past, there was no such thing as traditional music artists doing their own music,” Mr. Shin said.
The new fusion approach succeeded in winning over audiences. Fusion groups have far more opportunities to play shows and sell albums. “Listeners are surprised that traditional music can produce these kinds of sounds,” Mr. Shin said.
As the size of audiences has increased, Mr. Shin said, so has their sophistication. “Now they can at least distinguish good traditional crossover music from bad,” he said.
“Journalists have asked the same questions over and over for the last 10 years and I’ve given exactly the same answers,” he said. “This means that [fusion traditional music] isn’t popular yet.”
The new breed of musicians play what is described as fusion gugak (traditional music), crossover music and even “new gugak,” but in many cases the genre is not well defined. Some musicians start out playing entirely traditional music motifs, but as time passes, they add more Western musical instruments.
“Traditional music needs to be protected, and we initially wanted to carry on as traditional music. Now we don’t intend to stress traditional music over other genres,” Mr. Song said. “It’s just that we were trained in traditional music.
“We don’t like to label our music, but because there are no lyrics, people of different nationalities can understand in, so in that sense, it’s ‘world music,’” Mr. Shin said. “As musicians, our goal is to refine and re-illuminate our music with traditional musical motif. It’s not that traditional music is our focus and Western music instruments are kept backstage.”
However, there are problems associated with mixing Western and Korean traditional music instruments - the sounds are often incompatible.
“Western music instruments have greatly evolved. Traditional and Western music instruments do not blend well with each other,” Ms. Song said. She added that the Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra does not use Western music instruments because they tend to overwhelm the Korean instruments, with the exception of the double bass, which can be used to supplement lower sounds.
Even the gayageum used by the orchestra must be modified before being used alongside Western instruments. They are fitted with 25 rather than 12 strings and can produce a Western octave of eight notes, instead of an Asian octave of six notes. Other traditional music instruments have been modified as well. The musicians and technicians say it takes a great deal of effort to harmonize the sounds of Western and Korean instruments.
It boils down to one question, the haunting doubt of music teachers here: Can traditional music survive as it is? Does it have to be modified to become popular?
“Traditional music needs to be preserved and has value in its own right,” Mr. Shin said. “Not everybody has to come up with different styles.”
Sookmyoung University’s graduate traditional music program focuses on learning and performing traditional music and does not teach students to play crossover music, which is only intended to make traditional music more approachable, for commercial reasons, Ms. Song said.
“There has been this dichotomy between traditional and non-traditional music,” Ms. Song said. “Now it is time for the issue to be diversified.”
“The difference is that fusion traditional music will reach broader audiences,” she said.
by Limb Jae-un