Jocelyn Clark, an American professor of East Asian studies at Pai Chai University in Daejeon, poses in the traditional Korean attire of "hanbok" with the gayageum / Courtesy of Akdang
Foreign professor loves all about traditional instrument
By Park Jin-hai
Jocelyn Clark, an Alaska-born professor of East Asian studies at Pai Chai University in Daejeon, remembers the first time she heard a performance of the "gayageum" or a zither-like Korean traditional string instrument.
"It wasn't beautiful. I didn't like the sound of it. My ears couldn't understand it. It was like hearing a foreign language," she said.
Clark confesses she was then more interested in the Japanese traditional string instrument the koto. "Compared to the koto, which has a very bright sound, the gayageum sounded very quiet and small. And then the music was very abstract," she said.
She said part of this was because she had no knowledge of rhythmic patterns which form the basics of Korean traditional music.
"Korean music has three-four time, while most of other countries have either four-four or two-four time."
What eventually drew her interest to the instrument was its "shape."
After spending a few years learning the koto and the Chinese traditional string instrument the zheng in Japan and China she heard about the gayaguem. She wanted to study what made the similar looking instruments — soundboard with strings and movable bridges — sound differently as well as cultural differences they imply.
Clark came to Korea in 1992 at the age of 22, knowing nothing about Korea other than the name of the musical instrument she wanted to learn.
Now at 43, wearing a creamy pink "hanbok" or Korean traditional dress, she looked and acted like a Korean. When this reporter arrived earlier for an appointment, she handed over the key to her research room without a trace of doubt on her face so that this reporter could wait in the room.
Although she started out with big dreams, improvement was slow and she reached the point that she hated the gayageum and regretted taking it up.
But, the people who granted her scholarships trusted and supported her to persevere going. She was left an old gayageum by Donald Suh, a Korean American composer, in his will; while another went to gayageum virtuoso Hwang Byung-ki.
"The Korean gayageum, the strings are very loose, using silk, no picks. There is no harmony. Everything is one note at a time. It's like singing," she said.
According to her, the beauty of the gayageum comes from "nonghyeon" (various vibrations and hand movements exerted on the string) adding, "If you have no nonghyeon, what's the point? It isn't a gayageum anymore."
Clark points out that nowadays the money and education are all going to the 25-string instrument, a modernized form of a gayageum, which unlike the traditional 12-stringed ones cannot play various notes. "Because of the 25-string instrument, young students don't know how to use nonghyeon properly," she said.
Because of her love for Korean traditional music as well as the instrument, she went back to the United States to earn her doctorate at Harvard University with the study of the lyrics in "pansori" or traditional Korean narrative song in 2005.
In 2011, she held her first gayageum concert at Bukchon, in Seoul. She says it was quite a challenge because she had to memorize all the notes for the 40-minute performance.
"It was kind of a spectacle, as it was the first time for a foreigner to do something like this. And I didn't do a bad job," she said.
Clark says that was a starting point, not a finishing point.
"It's like when you go over the mountains. You go to the first hill and make the top, and find the next mountain. I'm still climbing the mountains," she added.
"In my ensemble, if we want to play one together, the zheng comes before, then koto comes right on time, and gayageum follows," said Clark, referring to the East Asian zither ensemble IIIZ+ ("three zee plus"), she founded in 2001. "Don't you think that it says a lot about each country?"
She says the future of "gugak," or Korean traditional music, lies in making something new, but keeping tradition.
"I don't really like it when the gayageum plays Vivaldi, because it sounds bad. It doesn't fit to the western esthetics. Vivaldi is really written for traditional Western instruments," she added. "Why do we need it played on a gayageum? It sounds terrible. It's offensive to my western classical ears. And it's offensive to my gayageum sanjo (accompanied solo instrumental performances) ears. It has just no meaning."
She regards young performers like Lee Ja-ram, who creates and performs modern "pansori," highly.
"When she performed ‘Sacheon Ga', an adaptation of the 20th-century play ‘The Good Woman of Szechwan,' written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, audiences were deeply touched by her performance and shed tears," said Clark. "I think that is going forward, keeping the roots of Korean music."
While performing here, she says all the attention seems to be given to the fact that a foreigner is doing Korean music, calling her a "blue eyed" and "blonde-haired" gayageum player, despite the fact she has hazel eyes and brown hair.
"My friend told me that I'd better take gayageum seriously. If not, I will be just a dancing monkey for Koreans," she said. "So I did the 40-minute performance, and I think now the rest of it all on me whether I will be called a dancing monkey or not."