Musician uses her art to help sick and needyCarrying a 25-string gayageum (a traditional Korean string instrument that usually has 12 strings) as tall as her, Lee Dong-hee, 26, looks tiny. “It weighs around 3.5 to 4 kilograms. It’s my baby,” she says, stroking the leather cover.
Lee has played the gayageum for nearly 20 years. She has one album under her belt, and another, titled “Blue Water,” will be available in stores this week. She plans to release a third album early next year.
“A professor once told me that in the end, the most important thing for a musician to remember is to make the effort to create and play continuously and make their voices heard. I keep reminding myself of that,” she said.
Lee first came to media attention last year when she released her debut album, “Song of a Thousand-Year-Old Pine Tree.” Critics appreciated her refreshing take on fusion-style gugak (Korean classical music), which is in vogue at the moment due to young gugak musicians such as Kim Yong-woo, Soria and Gongmyeong, who have revived the genre by incorporating western popular music elements in their compositions. This year, the group Soria worked on the soundtrack of a popular TV drama, “Gung,” blending rap with traditional Korean pansori, or narrative song, as well as adding rock-and-roll elements to the mix.
Most of the attention for Lee’s debut focused on her extensive charity work and her lyrical collaboration with poets who suffer from cerebral palsy. After releasing the album, Lee toured hospitals around Korea.
“I think hospitals are the place where music is needed the most,” she said. She added that she likes the fluidity of playing in lobbies of hospitals. “I have always liked street music performances in that you stop and listen if you like the music or turn the other way if you don’t. It’s the same feeling playing in hospital lobbies. It’s very fair that way,” she said.
In addition, the artist gave away 1,000 personally signed CDs to children in the hospitals.
Her work with the poets started two years ago. “I was actually fresh out of a devastating breakup with my boyfriend at the time,” she said, looking a little flustered to be discussing her personal past.
“I felt a huge gap between us as he couldn’t come to terms with my life as an artist. Then, around that time, I was invited to a cerebral palsy center in Sanggye-dong. As the poets read their poems, I realized that these people, who live in a completely different world, felt closer to my world than my boyfriend,” she said.
“Cerebral palsy poets are a bit different from people with other disabilities because their thoughts and senses are fine, like their hearing and sight, but physically, they are constantly in pain. The imagery that these poets came up with is very rich, vivid and almost visual. Their physical bodies act in total opposition to their minds and souls.”
After asking Won Il, a celebrated gugak composer and music professor (who has worked to create music for movies such as “Spring in My Hometown” and the TV drama “Immortal Lee Soon-shin”) to help produce her debut album, Lee asked cerebral palsy poets including Choi Myeong-sook, Jung Hoon-so, Hwang Jee-hyung and Jung Joon-mo to write poems using the theme of pine trees. The resulting concept album is the story of a lonely girl and a pine tree in the forest, weaving together narration, gayageum, piano and natural sound effects.
In “Blue Water,” the musician turned to themes of water and the color blue. “I can’t compose songs without a clear, visual image,” she said. Her second album is more lyrical, soft, accessible and “now.” Lee’s gayageum in “Blue Water” sometimes raises images of clear water drops or a smooth, flowing stream, while other times, its dramatic presence sounds almost like a viola solo in a contemporary orchestral composition.
Again, with this new release, Lee will continue to give her CDs to sick children and to perform in hospitals. On the day of this interview last Thursday, she had just finished performing at the Seoul Medical Center in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, in front of 30 to 40 elderly patients.
Her extensive charity efforts started at a young age.
“It was quite natural in my family to do charity work,” she said. From the time she was a high school student studying Korean traditional music in Sunhwa Arts High School, she helped out at hospitals, nursery schools and homes for the elderly. During her time as a university student (she is a graduate of the Korean traditional music department at Seoul National University’s undergraduate and graduate programs), she joined an academic group called Research Organization of Forests and Culture, in which she began to acknowledge environmental issues and incorporate them into her music and charity work.
“It is true that I received a lot of attention last year, when my first album came out, because of the charity work. I feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist on this new album and I hope people can appreciate the modernity and style that I tried to incorporate into my music this time,” she said.
by Cho Jae-eun