A story in music, words and art

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A story in music, words and art


The world of Korean literature is closed to all but the most persistent non-Korean speaker. Even if the committed reader can find English-language versions of the local classics, emotion and cadence are often lost in translation.

Enter Jeong Ga Ak Hoe, an ensemble of traditional Korean musicians. The group is planning to stage renowned Korean writer Hwang Sun-won’s short novel “Coarse Sand” next week in a special reading accompanied by music, video and - in a real rarity - English subtitles.

Jeong Ga Ak Hoe, which consists of a dozen players of traditional Korean musical instruments, including the geomungo and gayageum zithers, the daegeum bamboo flute, the haegeum fiddle and the saenghwang, a reed instrument similar to the Chinese sheng, is known for its “music drama,” which combine literature and theater with some of Korea’s oldest instrumental traditions.

“While other Korean traditional music players usually focus on the music itself, we’ve tried an interaction between traditional Korean music and other artistic media with new compositions and performances,” said Chun Jae-hyun, geomungo player and head of the ensemble.


Since the group’s inception in 2000, however, they have only performed pieces based on foreign works of literature - until now.

In the upcoming show, the entire text of Coarse Sand will be read by a voice actor while Jeong Ga Ak Hoe plays in the foreground and a custom-made slideshow of traditional paintings plays on a screen. The musicians will even act out some scenes.

“Coarse Sand tells the story of a man’s attachment to maternal love in an extreme way. I originally thought of [choosing] ‘Snowy Road’ by the other well-known Korean writer Lee Cheong-jun, which also deals with a man’s longing for maternal love. But there was a change of plans, and we decided on Coarse Sand, which has a more appealing story likely to touch the heartstrings of the audience,” Chun said, adding that as a rule all the group members participate in selecting and confirming the piece to be performed.

“The story is so touching that the rehearsals we currently do every day always end with at least one member of the band crying, overwhelmed with emotion,” said Park In-hye, a Jeong Ga Ak Hoe official in charge of organizing the event.

Coarse Sand has some prestigious forerunners among Jeong Ga Ak Hoe’s music dramas, including “The Double Bass” by German writer Patrick Suskind and Samuel Beckett’s “Words and Music,” but that doesn’t mean the group is playing it safe - they’ve also introduced lesser-known European and Latin American literature in the same way over the last two years.

“The upcoming performance of Coarse Sand is not actually the premiere, because it was staged last summer in Peru for an event there where we had good reviews,” said Chun.

When Jeong Ga Ak Hoe prepares a performance, the members usually compose the music and produce the show for themselves, Chun said. But this time around, they have brought in outside experts, including theatrical director Limb Hyoung-taek as chief director and composer Jang Young-gyu, who is known for his film scores including “Bittersweet Life,” “The War of Flower” and “Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard.”

“I’ll focus on portraying the theme of the novel - what motherhood means to the protagonist, which can also translate to a gap between reality and ideals - as sensually as possible through this show where text, music, visual images and more are all combined,” chief director Limb said. “I’ll visualize what you hear as well as auralize what is there to be seen.”

“When it was suggested I participate in this project, I was immediately attracted to it because I myself am interested in incorporating traditional musical elements into my plays,” said Limb, who has directed well-known theatrical productions here including “Medea and Its Double” and “La Dispute.”

“I will demonstrate what the performing arts have to offer through the upcoming show with Jeong Ga Ak Hoe,” he said.

Jeong Ga Ak Hoe stages about 10 performances every year, including original pieces and reinterpreted music dramas, making them uniquely daring among traditional musicians here.

“As you know, private theatrical and musical groups often have financial difficulties. We were lucky enough to be appointed as a social enterprise by the Labor Ministry,” group official Park said. “As a result, we get financial support from the ministry in the form of monthly pay [for the members] which is equivalent to the minimum wage set by the law.”

Chun, head of the group, added, “With support from the government, we also hope to continue our educational activities, including the traditional Korean music school program that we ran for Korean adoptees in Denmark and children in rural areas in the country.”

After the upcoming show, the Korean ensemble plans to stage a joint performance dubbed “Another Silk Road” with Japanese artists around June in both countries.

“This year marks the 100th anniversary of Korea’s annexation by Japan. I think it is time, and it will be better, for us [Korea] to take the initiative in making a conciliatory gesture to Japan, rather than waiting for them to do so, and the show will serve as a venue where such ideas will be expressed,” said Chun.

The 70-minute performance of Coarse Sand will take place from March 3 to 6 at 8 p.m. at the LIG Art Hall in southern Seoul. Go to Gangnam Station, line No. 2, exit 8. Tickets cost 25,000 won for adults and 15,000 won for students. The show will be presented with English subtitles. For more information, call (02) 583-9979 or visit www.jgah.co.kr.

By Park Sun-young [spark0320@joongang.co.kr]
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