Gugak revival hits the right notes

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Gugak revival hits the right notes


Fusion gugak group Rock. [JoongAng Ilbo]

On a sultry Parisian evening this summer, the mournful sounds of a gayageum, a 12-stringed Korean zither, and the infectious energy of break dancers gave audiences at the Quai Branly Museum something to remember.

While the Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra, a female ensemble, performed a graceful rendition of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, B-boy group Last For One revved up the floor with their contemporary moves.

The performance was rounded off by a beat box rhythm, a form of vocal percussion derived from hip-hop.

It was a fine mix that pleased the French audience - all 400 seats were sold from the first day of its three-day performance.


A member of Flying Korean

The Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra, a fusion gugak group, is known for their renditions of The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Hey Jude” on the gayageum.

With much effort, the mix of traditional and modern music elements is reviving gugak, traditional Korean music. After nearly disappearing with Western cultural influences in the late 19th century, Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and recent modernization, gugak is making a comeback.

What a relief.

Korea’s long musical tradition dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. to 668).

King Gasil invented the gayageum, one of the major traditional instruments, in the sixth century. The King ordered musician Uruk to invent the 12-stringed instrument and to compose melodies to accompany it.


A B-boy team, performs to the traditional sounds of a gayageum

The geomungo, a six-stringed zither, was invented by Wang San-ak, the prime minister of the Goguryeo Kingdom. He borrowed the idea from an ancient Chinese instrument known as the guqin, a seven-stringed zither.

Traditional Korean music further developed during the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) Kingdoms, mainly in the royal courts.

Court music was very popular and King Seong-jong published the “Akhakgwebeom,” a music book, in 1493. Standardized musical instruments and forms were recorded in the book.

In addition to court music, nongak, or farm music, pansori, a form of narrative singing and sanjo, a solo instrumental performance, were greatly popular among the common people of Joseon.

Melodies were mostly played on the daegeum, a large transverse bamboo flute, or a gayageum.

Some 60 different musical instruments have been handed down through the ages, the most common being the gayageum, geomungo, ajaeng, a seven-stringed instrument used in court music; haegeum, a fiddle; piri, a flute; danso, a short bamboo flute; and janggu, a double-headed drum shaped like an hourglass.

But as the influence of court traditions declined and the country opened to the West, traditional music slowly lost its charm and popularity.

Koreans turned to instruments like the piano and violin, and more recently, modern forms of music like hip hop.

Of late, however, the traditional sounds of gugak have been making an impressive comeback - with artists going fusion to bring gugak to a younger and more global audience.


The Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra; a 12-stringed gayageum; samulnori, a traditional percussion quartet; gayageum sheet music. [JoongAng Ilbo]

“Korean traditional music is rediscovering its roots,” said Hwang Byung-ki, a gayageum master. He has been composing creative pieces based on traditional Korean music.

Traditional orchestras are also seeing a comeback, with the establishment of the Seoul Metropolitan Traditional Music Orchestra, the National Orchestra of Korea and the Busan Metropolitan Traditional Music Orchestra.

Today, modern genres like rock and jazz are mixed with traditional instruments, like Shin Jung-hyun’s “The Beautiful Land.” The strings of the haegeum, in particular, lend themselves to an engaging meld with rock.

Saxophonist Kang Tae-hwan released an album with Kim Seok-chul on the taepyongso, a traditional oboe.

Even the instruments themselves are getting an update. Kim Il-ryun, who formed a modern gayageum trio, created a 25-stringed gayageum, which makes it easier to perform Western songs.

She also swapped the silk-thread strings for synthetic fiber strings, introducing a new wave to traditional music culture.

“Transliteration is needed to perform Western music with traditional instruments,” Hwang said. “It’s a way to reach out to the public today.”

And now there is a striking resurgence in traditional Korean music, with some 150 different fusion gugak groups performing on small and large stages.

Gayageum ensembles Yeoul and Aura recently performed Prokofiev’s “Toccata” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

When figure skater Kim Yu-na performed to “Reunion,” the theme tune of “The Gingko Bed” (1996), a fan took the same song played on the daegeum and piri, spliced it to a video of Kim, and posted it online.

“Traditional Korean music is different from Western music - it has han, or the sorrow of our ancestors,” Hwang said.

“Our ancestors bore grief together by listening to music. Traditional Korean music has a different soul.”

People today are searching for this ancient spirituality, Hwang added. “With the growing economy, people naturally look back to their traditional [culture],” he said.

Which is why Loen Entertainment, a major local entertainment company, is pitching in efforts for a gugak revival.

The company is forming a group of traditional instrument performers in an initiative dubbed the Traditional Arts Star Project.

“The group members will be entertainers,” said Park Seung-won, a music producer at Loen Entertainment. “They will not only perform traditional music but appear in films, television dramas and commercials.”

The group will comprise female artists who play the gayageum, haegeum, piri, sogeum and daeguem. Western instruments such as drums, bass and electric guitars will add rhythm.

Traditional Korean music, says Park, shouldn’t remain in a dusty corner of musical genres. “Traditional music turning commercial isn’t all that bad,” he said.

In hopes of reviving traditional music culture, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is giving the project financial support, as well as launching a few of its own.

Titled “The 21st Century Korean Music Project,” the Culture Ministry has selected 10 teams to perform their own repertoires on stage. Over 120 teams applied this year.

“We are cultivating more young artists and supporting them to create more new songs,” said Park Sang-hee, from the Traditional Culture Department at the Culture Ministry.

The Ministry is also launching a project to support young gugak performers, so that they can appeal more to the public.

In 2005, the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts brought traditional music to the digital era by creating melodies that can be used as cell phone ringtones.

“We want gugak to spread more in daily lives,” said center representative Hong Soon-wook.

So far, some 300,000 users have downloaded gugak ringtones onto their cell phones. The Center has also created simple and modern gugak sounds for bells in schools and on trains.

Applications to participate in the Traditional Arts Star Project will be accepted until Sept. 17. Call (02) 2280-7826 or visit for more information.

“The 21st Century Korean Music Project” is on this Thursday, 7 p.m., at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in southern Seoul.

To download a gugak ringtone or melody, visit

Upcoming gugak performances

“Yes! Gayageum,” a concert by The Hue, a fusion gayageum ensemble

Bongsan Cultural Center

Sept. 9 (8 p.m.)

The Fall Session of Korean Traditional Music Class for Foreigners

The National Center for Korean Performing Arts

Sept. 20 to Dec. 6, every Saturday (Application deadline is Sept. 18)

(10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.)

Open Arena Cultivate the Interests of Young Performers

The National Center for Korean Performing Arts

Sept. 11 (7:30 p.m.)

A Story of Compositions of Master Hwang Byung-ki

Seoul Namsan Gugakdang

Every Friday until Oct. 19 (7:30 p.m.)

A Story of Piri, with Professor Kim Hae-wook

Seoul Namsan Gugakdang

Every Wednesday until Sept. 24 (7:30 p.m.)

By Lee Eun-joo Staff Reporter []
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