[Weekender] Defining sounds transcending traditionalism
'Alternative K-pop’ fest to rock up Seoul from July 9 to 23
By Lee Hyo-won
K-pop may be reigniting “hallyu,” or the Korean wave, in Europe but contemporary Korean classical music has quietly been stirring up a cross-border movement of its own, with ensembles such as Dulsori touring across more than 50 countries.
Ironically such troupes have been little known within Korea until the local press took notice of international media coverage of their performances. Locals will have a chance to explore five counter-imported “alternative K-pop” performances at the 2nd Yeo Woo Rak Festival, which is due at the National Theater of Korea on Mt. Nam, central Seoul, from July 9 to 23.
The genre may have crept furtively into the international music scene, and though offering moments of graceful serenity and repose, performances are often far from quiet — the double-sided “janggu” drum and bamboo “daegeum” flute bring spontaneous combustion, while the unmistakable quivering of “chang” (Korean operatic vocal) resounds with the Western guitar, jazz piano or quirky modern versions of local traditional instruments.
Though exhibiting zany edginess, these shows continue the local “madang” (courtyard) culture, how traditionally open-air spectacles made no demarcation for the stage, thus inviting audience participation.
"Traditionalism and spectacle merge in Dulsori. The group played huge drums placed overhead, along with flutes and a ‘koto’-like zither (‘gayageum’). They set up deep, pounding, rhythms that could probably be heard in the next village,” said The New York Times about Dulsori, which is slated to perform on July 19.
It wasn’t until the American newspaper raved about the ensemble that the local media took notice of the band, according to Dulsori’s general director and CEO Moon Kap-hyun.
“It came out on the television news that The New York Times featured a favorable review of our show. I sometimes wonder why we aren’t recognized in Korea. We recently graced the closing ceremony of a music festival in Singapore, but it seems we (Koreans) fail to value our own assets,” Moon said during a recent press conference in Seoul.
Dulsori was even invited to perform in a Danish rock festival last year.
We felt a little confused; we’re not a rock band. But we just went and played like crazy,” said the director.
Seo Hyung-won, CEO of another globetrotting band, GongMyoung, which will play on July 16, says group members don’t necessarily consider themselves playing “gugak” (traditional Korean music).
“We don’t worry too much about whether we are sticking to tradition or not. Modern Koreans are familiar with gugak but many people consider it boring and something of the past. We just play gugak instruments our own way and have fun,” he said.
The troupe features a janggu player, a guitarist and a performer of the namesake “gongmyoung,” a giant bamboo wind instrument it invented.
“Don’t worry if you don’t know a thing about Korean music, if you don’t know your ‘jing’ from your ‘janggu.’” said Jennifer Barclay about the troupe’s performance at the 2009 Chichester Festival Theatre in the United Kingdom. “In case you haven’t gathered, GongMyoung mix traditional music with innovative, contemporary sounds to create a style that’s highly entertaining. They encourage plenty of clapping along from the audience, and their love of music and the sense of fun are totally infectious.”
Plotting historiography of ‘gugak’
Defining contemporary gugak is tricky.
Baramgot, for example, carries on centuries-old compositional styles of instrumental solos “sanjo” or shamanistic prayer “gut.” The band insists on the local tradition of making no distinction between performance and composition — much like jazz. Even for Koreans, this type of spontaneous music-making can be understood in syncopated rhythms of the Western school of music.
Jazz music critic Ian Patterson once said, “The dynamic ‘Chaeollim’ of Baramgot merges traditional instruments with call-and-response between the harp-like ‘gayageum’ and swirling flute. Flute and percussion’s lyrical passage is not a million miles away from Haripasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain’s ‘Making Music’ (ECM, 1987).”
“The unique thing about Korean traditional instruments is that they need to be heard live,” said Baramgot’s artistic director Won Il. “They are fashioned completely organically and are really gifts of nature. The depth and beauty of the playing can only be truly felt live.”
But how can live performances attract more general listeners when gugak in general is considered an acquired taste?
Won, also a renowned composer, jazz musician and assistant professor at Korea National University of Arts, pointed out that having a niche audience is not necessarily a bad thing. “The important thing is uniqueness,” he said.
"The passing on and modernization of tradition is a core issue for many gugak musicians. But at the same time, we want to be free of frameworks and set guidelines, and allow young artists to be creative,” said Heo Yoon-jeong, a “geomungo” (zither) player, composer and CEO of TORI Ensemble.
"You don’t need to be a Korean well-versed in gugak or a foreigner attracted to something new... It’s pure music that touches the heart,” music critic Hwang U-chang once said about the ensemble, which fuses folk music with modern sounds. The ensemble, which has collaborated with famed American jazz musicians, will perform on July 9.
Yang Bang-ean will also take part in the event, performing on July 9 (twice, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.). The popular crossover composer-performer is much loved for his unique infusion of Eastern and Western classics with rock, jazz and other genres. Session guitarist Hidetoshi Suzuki, bassist Masayuki Suzuki and drummer Atsuo Okubo will join the musician onstage.
Last but not least, all five acts will jam together onstage on July 23.
All tickets for the five performances cost 40,000 won. The National Theater of Korea is located near exit 2 of Dongguk University Station on subway line 3. From there visitors can take a free shuttle bus to the entrance of the theater. For more information about the festival, call (02) 2280-4114.