[In-depth interview]Choi: Uphold tradition in Korean musicIt’s been two years since the royal ancestral ritual music of Jongmyo Shrine and the pansori epic chant became part of Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage List, giving global recognition to our traditional music.
Samulnori, traditional instrumental music, has long been considered a cultural symbol of Korea. But how do modern-day Koreans enjoy their traditional music? Is gugak, the classic combination of Korean instrumentals and vocals, considered merely exotic by foreigners who hear it? Nowadays, it’s no longer novel nor experimental for a gugak wind and string ensemble to play a score by Beethoven or for a gayageum string ensemble to play rock music.
Choi Jong-min, a professor at Dongguk University, has been a life-long promoter of the conventional form of gugak. A commentator on television and radio shows for more than three decades, Mr. Choi first commented on a gugak performance on KBS radio in 1975. Interviewed recently, Mr. Choi had a lot to say about where traditional Korean music stands today.
Q. It seems Koreans are talented in music. Is there some special reason?
A. Koreans are really talented musically. We have a nation of singers. Recently I read an article that two Korean singers, soprano Hong Hei-kyung and tenor Kim Woo-kyung, have been chosen to play lead roles at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It seems we have singing and dancing in our DNA.
Even in ancient religious rituals such as Dongmaeng, Yeonggo and Mucheon, singing and dancing comprised the ritual itself and the festival at the same time. People sang when planting seeds and rooting out weeds. For Koreans, life without music is unimaginable. There were professional musicians for the royal family during the Silla Kingdom and local governments included musicians. In terms of cultural heritage, we are rich; we have inherited something significant and huge.
Times have changed. Do you think gugak is losing its relevance?
Today people who love gugak favor mostly folk songs such as pansori, sinawi and sanjo. There’s little interest in jeongak, classical court or ceremonial music. Our ancestors sought the higher spiritual world through jeongak, including yeong-sanhoesang, a type of Buddhist music performed to remove greed and cultivate the goodness of one’s original nature. Music was a tool of meditation and training. Since jeongak has been a music developed over a long period in pursuit of establishing a better moral mindset, it is music that is deeply felt.
Do you believe even folk music is losing its appeal?
In pansori, the human voice is as expressive as it can possibly be, and it inspires the imagination of those listening to it. The problem is that dubious fusion gugak is played everywhere claiming to be folk music.
There are many people who think of fusion gugak when they think of the popularization of gugak.
I don’t want to criticize the mixing of traditional Korean instruments with Western instruments for commercial purposes. However, it is a problem that the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts and other organizations relying on public money are leading creators of fusion pieces. The government is paying to have our traditional music watered down with foreign influences.
Fusion gugak is popular on broadcast television and album sales are hot.
The part that the general population enjoys listening to in fusion gugak is not gugak itself. Our music is different from Western music. Korean music feels difficult because the movement of the melody is different depending on the region and genre. Just because it is difficult does not mean that it should flow in the direction of [popular] interest.
The popularization of gugak should aim to provide proper gugak to as many people as possible, not to damage the essence of gugak by catering to the public.
There’s a trend towards playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Beethoven’s “The Destiny” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday” on the gayageum.
Even gugak musicians are suffering from an inferiority complex in relation to Western music. It is disturbing that people who choose music as a career don’t know what makes music and what does not. It is difficult to successfully perform rearranged Western music, such as jazz, with traditional Korean instruments. Additionally there is no reason to do so. Think what it would be like when there is no longer traditional music and only fusion gugak exists.
Then “traditional” means preserving the past as is?
In Japan tradition means that the apprentice replicates the master’s work without changing a single interval or beat. But it is our tradition to continuously change. The title of Human Cultural Asset should be given to one who is at the top of his game while he is alive, and not given to an apprentice of some master.
Many schools teach gugak, yet the number of people enjoying gugak has not grown much.
There are few teachers who can properly teach gugak. Many teach it the way Western music is taught. The gugak in the textbooks is minyo [rhythmic folk music], which is easy to sing along with. However, the sensibility of gugak can not be taught the same way as Western music. Teaching minyo helps students to learn the Korean musical language deeply rooted in the song. A proper minyo education teaches different versions of a single Arirang and lets students sing it as they choose.
What do you think of the use of microphones at pansori and gayageum performances?
Microphones were used at performances done on large Western-style stages. The musical halls at The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts and the Gyeonggi Korean Traditional Music Center are Western-style. Pansori’s vocal form was developed so it could be heard from far away, but because of microphones it is hard to hear really good pansori....
Gugak performances at the Namsan Hanok Village [in Seoul] have received good reviews. There should be at least one exclusively pansori theater in every city where gugak can be performed without speakers.
by Lee Jang-jik JoongAng Ilbo [email@example.com]
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