Gayageum master maintained tradition : Hwang Byung-ki, a performer, composer and teacher of music, dead at 82

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Gayageum master maintained tradition : Hwang Byung-ki, a performer, composer and teacher of music, dead at 82


Master Hwang Byung-ki plays the gayageum, a traditional Korean string instrument. [NATIONAL ORCHESTRA OF KOREA]

Master instrumentalist Hwang Byung-ki who played the gayageum, the traditional Korean string instrument, died Wednesday of pneumonia that he contracted while recovering from a stroke he suffered in December. He was 82.

The master of the traditional musical instrument did more than just play the gayageum well. He also composed gugak, or traditional Korean music, and collaborated with musical and artistic talents specialized in art, dance or other genres of music. Over the course of his career, he held a concert with cellist Han-na Chang, collaborated with soprano Yun In-suk and ballerina Kim Ji-young for those wanting to experience traditional music in new ways. He was also known for performing in more traditional settings like palaces or hanok, traditional Korean homes.

His first performance in the United States was in 1965 when he was 29. Held in Hawaii, the performance was recorded and later released as an album. He continued his tour of the United States afterwards, traveling to major cities on the west coast such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. He also became friendly with famed media artist Nam June Paik after they performed on stage together in New York. In 1974, he embarked on his first tour of Europe, starting in the Netherlands. He traveled to eight cities including Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Geneva and Paris. He even performed in Pyongyang in 1990.


Gayageum master Hwang Byung-ki collaborated with other musical talents such as soprano Yun In-suk, top, and ballerina Kim Ji-young. [JOONGANG ILBO]

He battled colorectal cancer and had surgery in 1999. He recovered fast and held a solo concert soon after. He then left for Hanover, Germany, for another concert.

The gayageum was an accidental discovery for Hwang. In 1951, when he was in middle school, his friend suggested learning the instrument, and Hwang was drawn in as soon as he saw it and heard it in person. It was his hobby throughout his school years and he took classes at the National Gugak Center. While he was in high school, he won a national gugak competition.

In 1962, he began composing for traditional instruments. “Next to Chrysanthemum,” made to be played with other traditional instruments, such as geomungo, a string instrument, daegeum, a wind instrument, and janggu, a type of drum, was one of his early works, as well as “Sup,” a Korean word for forest, made for gayageum.

He gathered ideas for “Clock Tower” while he was battling cancer, and wrote the music soon after he was discharged from the hospital.

Out of his many pieces, “The Labyrinth” is one of the most well known. It was released in 1975, and included gayageum sounds that could be mistaken as the sound of people laughing or crying, reading news articles, or the sound of waves breaking by the beach. The most recent work of his is a folk song titled “Gwanghwamun,” which was released in September. It was his first piece in 16 years.


Gayageum master Hwang Byung-ki, who worked to hand down musical traditions to the next generation, performs at Changdeok Palace in central Seoul. [JOONGANG ILBO]

He became known as a rookie in the traditional music industry after he won the top prize at a national traditional music competition organized by broadcaster KBS in 1957, while he was in college. While he was attending Seoul National University’s law school, his nickname was Yeonggam, a term used to describe an older man wearing a certain style of attire. He wore shoes made of straw, typically worn by Koreans in the Joseon era (1392-1910) before the arrival of more Western-style shoes, and carried his gayageum around campus. He said he did so because the shoes were comfortable. After he graduated from college, Hwang joined the newly established music college that year at his alma mater as an instructor.

It has been reported that he never intended to pursue a career in music, although his talents were recognized through several competitions that he participated in when he was young. He diverged from the music scene after he quit his job at the university, but he later returned and took a job as a music professor at Ewha Womans University in 1974.

After he retired from Ewha Womans University, he taught a class at Yonsei University as well.

He also invested his time leading many different musical groups and organizations including the National Orchestra of Korea for six years, beginning in 2006.

His funeral will be held at the Asan Medical Center in Songpa District, southern Seoul.

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