Gugak festivals bring modern edge to tradition
“Gugak” largely refers to Korean classical music, but the term literally means “national music” — it’s an art form that captures the spirit of the Korean people, comprising not only works inherited from past but also currently in the making for the time-honored instruments.
The genre continues to flourish under the wing of master artists, and moreover, the younger generation that they inspire. Fans can witness the collaborative efforts of cross-generational music-making in festivals opening in Seoul featuring such revered icons as Kim Duk-soo and Hwang Byung-ki.
Retracing past via youths
Forget that gugak is old — sure it may be a time-honored tradition, but Kim’s electrifying “samulnori” (percussion) beats have been capturing the ears of fans all over the world.
Under the artistic direction of this master percussionist, the 2010 Seoul New Korea Music Festival is now underway through Saturday at Nowon Art Hall and other venues around the city.
“It’s a full festival that contemplates the past, present and future of gugak together with young gugak musicians,” Kim said during a press meeting last week in Seoul.
The festival aims to give young performers of gugak greater exposure by providing them with an opportunity to showcase their talents before a large audience. Five highly qualified troupes were chosen through an audition earlier this year, and the lineup includes some of the wildest variations of gugak that also feature dance sequences.
On Thursday Sinawi (its name deriving from a shamanist music tradition) will take the stage with ballerino Lee Won-guk and the Nowon-gu Boys and Girls Choir. On Friday, wHool will create new sounds with celebrated “pansori” (Korean opera) artist Ahn Sook-seon, guitarist Choi Yi-cheol and the band Kingston Rudieska. Arisu will perform alongside b-boy group Flying Korean.
While such fusion performances may seem like a novel attempt, Kim said that in the past, there was no differentiation between dancers and musicians — there were only “yein” (artists) who did both. It was only in the mid-20th century, around the time the Korean War (1950-53) broke out, that music was separated from traditional dance to represent two different genres as Korea became westernized.
“Arts and culture are a part of everyday life, so we can categorize music by period according to the changes in our lifestyle,” the 58-year-old said. “Today it’s all about finding cultural assets that can become a national brand, and Koreans are realizing that our traditions are important and unique. I believe it’s time to revive the traditional Korean-style mixed media festival, but with a modern edge, of course,” he said.
To cater to anyone and everyone, the opening performance was held outside Nowon Art Hall on Sunday — in tune with the traditional “madang” (open yard) culture, since back in the days art troupes performed outdoors and interacted with crowds that gathered around them in a circle.
More street performances will take place around Cheonggye Stream and Insa-dong at noon on Friday and Saturday. Also, featured artists will travel to various venues including a middle school and elderly home to share the festivity throughout the week.
All indoor performances cost 3,000 won. Call (02) 951-3355 or visit www.nowonart.kr.
Tribute to pioneering master
In the mid-20th century, as the country suffered through war and poverty, survival, economic stability and modernization became blinding priorities and often entailed setting aside traditional roots. “No one,” said “gayageum” (12-string zither) master Hwang, “thought of learning gayageum. But strangely enough, I started learning the instrument in 1952, while seeking refuge from the war in Busan. I was lonely in pursuing the art.”
Hwang, however, did not stop at becoming a polished instrumentalist — he became a pioneer in the art of composition in the early 1960s. Now, almost half a century later, he has become the country’s foremost gayageum player — becoming the only living artist to have developed, taught and published his own strain of the traditional instrumental solo “sanjo.” His first album was surprisingly released not in Korea but in the United States in 1965 and his compositions have inspired innumerable dances pieces in Europe — he is the first instance of “hallyu” (Korean wave) per se.
To celebrate Hwang and his work, young artists will give a tribute concert on Dec. 4 at Seoul Arts Center. As much as the composer’s work ranges from the serene to roof-raising, an eclectic lineup of artists from different genres, from dance and rock to classical guitar, will take part in the event.
Sinawi, the modern gugak band due to appear in the 2010 Seoul New Korea Music Festival, will give Hwang’s 1979 piece “The Haunted Tree” a contemporary spin. Japan’s celebrated classical guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita will take the stage with his daughter, Kanahi, to perform one of the composer’s debut works, “Forest” (1962). Contemporary dancer Ahn Eun-mi will showcase a dance piece choreographed to the rock band Uhuhboo Project’s avant-garde reinterpretation of “Labyrinth” (1975).
“I am truly honored to participate in the performance,” said Ahn during a press event in Seoul last week. “Virtually no choreographer, both traditional and contemporary, has not been inspired by Mr. Hwang’s work. His compositions are sentimental yet replete with drama.”
Hwang said it was overwhelming to be honored in such a way, and hopes the event will be a meaningful creative process. “People are very much preoccupied with the notion of globalizing local traditions and practices. What’s important is to create something truly unique and polished — that way overseas exposure will follow naturally. I plan to play in response to the young artists, and I hope the performance will be a moving one for the audience,” he said.
Tickets cost 30,000 to 70,000 won. Call (02) 548-4480.