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A Wild Goose Flying in the Sky – Gugak from Korea


Ji Young Yi, Gayageumi

A principal dancer in the Boston Ballet, an honored Candidate for Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 23, a boundary-crossing cellist, and a singer whose repertoire draws from ancient shaman ritual — all walk up to the barre….

No, this is not a spin-off of that classic joke, but an invitation to attend what will surely be one of the most enthralling, exuberant and flat-out gorgeous concert experiences of 2019, when the Korean Cultural Society of Boston presents “Festival of Dance and Gugak” at Jordan Hall on Sunday, September 29th at 3:00 PM. Details HERE.

Gugak, Korean traditional music is one of the great classical musics of the world (see Michael Church’s inspirational volume “The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions” for some other examples). If you listen far enough back to any classical music, you will find two purposes for the extraordinary sound worlds we humans create: a desire to connect with the divine, and a desire to connect with one another. This is true of ‘my’ classical music, and it is also certainly true of the great repertoire of gugak.

The classical music of Korean derives historically from both the Chinese court music traditions and the nuanced regional aesthetics expressing the diverse experiences of commoners. With its roots in complex and deeply expressive shaman music, gugak’s genres include the folk-inspired pansori (epic story-telling performed by a singer and a drummer), sanjo (a melodic instrument partnered with a drum), and sinawi (improvisatory instrumental performance). Gugak’s court and aristocratic genre encompass ritual and non-ritual contexts, expressed through official protocol as well as the language of poetry. In both folk and court contexts, dance has always played a crucial role. This concert will showcase it all!

I am not a cheerleader for the claim “music is a universal language” any more than I would say that English is a universal language. The world’s music is a collection of many, many unique sound worlds, each embedded in and expressive of cultural, social and individual values and aesthetics. We can hear identity, we can hear history, and most of all, we can hear stories. On Sept. 29th, we will have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a Korean ethos, led by some of its most eloquent, experienced, and talented artists.

Hyeon-Bin Lim /pansori

How would I describe the sounds of gugak? Start with pansori (pan is place, sori is song), the sung narratives that depict the human condition from terrible suffering and deepest despair to love, joy, and forgiveness. The singer traditionally trains next to a waterfall — for years trying to match its force — to acquire the treasured range of vocal qualities that go from a traditional western-style lyricism to a Janis Joplin no-holds-barred, sear-the-soul delivery. The stories themselves have been passed down in an oral tradition, imparting Joseon Dynasty Neo-Confucian values on the one hand and critiquing stark social realities on the other. Think rap, rock, and Lieder, but in a wholly different musical language. Add to that the improvisatory drum cycles (jangdan) that raise and lower the heartbeat of the performers and listeners. The gosu (drummer) doesn’t just accompany on his buk; he guides, provokes, soothes, encourages, and inspires the singer, who not only vocalizes, but also acts the story, making for a thrilling and personal interpretation. In all, this remarkable minimalist opera will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Master pansori singer Hyeun-Bin Lim, whose prized coarse vocals and brilliant witticisms have won him many awards, will undertake the climactic scene from The Song of Shimheong. In a bold and interesting move, Finnish-American cellist, Kari Juusela will join Lim and his partner, award-winning gosu Tae-young Kim. This border-crossing collaboration will perfectly illustrate gugak’s depth, breadth and diversity: a rich classical music anchored by deeply-held values and aesthetics, whose proponents are boldly tasting, sharing, borrowing, and mixing, as they dare to transform treasured tradition into contemporary expressions that are at once unique and visionary.

Sanjo, instrumental solo with drum, evolved from the folk music of Korea’s southwestern Jeolla provinces. Again, this refined genre of folk music finds its roots in shaman music. It is highly expressive, with characteristic bending of notes, a universe of articulations and tonal qualities, and full of sometimes passionately pungent, sometimes meditative sonic gestures. In fact, the translation of the two Sino-Korean characters “scattered melodies” comprise the term sanjo. A feeling of improvisation layered upon the rhythmic cycles organizes the composition, perhaps similar to the role of the tala cycles in Indian raga, or in a more abstract comparison, how Mozart used the underlying narrative sonata form as a structure upon which to lay his melodic ideas. Tae-baek Lee performs the afternoon’s sanjo on a rare ajaeng (giant bowed zither). Not only a master ajaeng player, he is also a Candidate for Korean Intangible Cultural Property No. 72 (Southwestern Shaman Ritual), No 5 (drum accompaniment), and 34, Gangsanje Simcheongga (from the pansori repertoire). Tae-young Kim will accompany Lee, this time on janggu (two headed drum).

The cultural preservation system in Korea designates certain cultural practices, and genres of music and dance as Important Intangible Cultural Properties. Jongmyo jeryeak, a Rite to the Royal Ancestors (established in the 14th century) won the first designation in 1964. The rites take place at a Confucian shrine with ritual music and dance. Artists who have reached the highest level of mastery in one of the designated genres are themselves national treasures. For example, Tae-baek Lee is a Candidate for three Intangible Cultural Properties; Ji-Young Yi is a Candidate for Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 23 (gayageum sanjo and gayageum byeongchang). As important as preservation is, the intention to keep things as they were can be a threat to a cultural tradition’s survival. That is one of the reasons I admire Ji-Young Yi’s work. She is deeply knowledgeable about the past while also a leader in new collaborations and the avant-garde. In this way, she and her colleagues extend and redefine gugak.

Seo Hye Han

The ritual ensemble that helped the shaman to send prayers and blessings to the world of the ancestors evolved into the modern-day stage genre sinawi. In the Jordan Hall program, the traditional folksong “Heung Taryeong” fronts the sinawi ensemble of ajaeng, gayageum (plucked zither), daegeum (bamboo flute) and janggu. This will include a rare and beautiful performance with renowned pansori singers Na Young Kim and Hyeun-bin Lim leading.

Gugak falls along a spectrum with one end consisting of folk music and the other the music of the upperclasses (literati) and the court. The music I’ve described so far fits in the first category. It is highly expressive, emotional, full of energy, magnetism, and vibrant color. It derives from music intended to attract the ancestors, to share earthly experiences without holding back, to act as a kind of catharsis for the hardships in life, and to celebrate the joys, full-throttle.

Music of the court must be proper, elegant, and orderly. Its fragrance is a highly refined distillation of the qualities heard in the old villages and fields of the lower classes. Instead of the relentless energy of a cascading waterfall, imagine a pebble thrown into a lake, and the ever-widening ripples that result. Of Wan-chul Won’s daegeum playing, one critic said: “Won’s low, soft and deep daegeum sound calms down our minds, as if it is stirring up a mysterious happening. I feel like a wild goose flying in the sky when listening to his music.” Here, he performs a set of variations based on a melody called “Song of Perfect Peace,” part of the classical vocal repertoire enjoyed in the Joseon Dynasty.

The most daring piece will most certainly come from master artists and improvisors Ji-Young Yi on gayageum and Tae-baek Lee on janggu. Remarkably, they will be joined by two dancers, Seo Hye Han, principal dancer of the Boston Ballet, and Michael Ryan, also of the Boston Ballet. I can only imagine what this collaboration will bring. Korean traditional dance movements emphasize verticality coming from an alternation between bending and extending the knees. There is also a feeling of poised suspension, a hovering that builds in energy and then releases. In contrast to classical Western ballet, Korean traditional dance steps begin with the heel rather than the toe or ball of the foot, caressing the floor gently while moving. Along with the shoulder motions, these all contribute to “an emphasis on motion rather than isolated positions – ‘motion in stillness’.” In Judy Van Zile’s “Perspectives on Korean Dance,” she describes a three-part flow of energy: “a tensing of emotion, a pacification of emotion, and a release of the emotion.” Given all this, I am wondering if Seo Hye Han and Michael Ryan will bring a completely different artistic response to the sanjo. Knowing Ji-Young Yi’s reputation as both an esteemed traditional performer and leader of avant-garde collaborations, this will undoubtedly mark a stunning co-creation.

Then we will enjoy Samgo-mu, a traditional drum dance that is a colorful, athletic, and graceful-yet-powerful feast for the eyes, ears and heart. While it may have made its way to the court, its roots derive from Buddhist dance and folk expressions. Two offerings appropriately bookending the show serve as the foundations of gugak: the signature percussion ensemble music, pungmul, and folksong. With origins in rural percussion communal performance, pungmul constitutes the perfect welcome. Today’s international stage offers whole concerts of this music in its flashy contemporary innovation, samulnori. If you ever get a chance to go to a samulnori concert, don’t pass it up!

As for the finale, we will hear a collection of folk songs from the Southern provinces, including Arirang, the most well-known of them all—a sort of informal national anthem. There are so many versions of this beloved song; this will be Jindo Arirang. Years ago, I was fortunate to visit Jindo Island at the southern tip of Korea, known for the high level of artistry in regard to the folk genres. No coincidence, then, that this area prizes the music connected to shaman ceremonies. I was there as part of the International Gugak Workshop in Seoul, to observe part of a shaman ritual, ssikkim-kut. It was complex and compelling, led by shaman-musicians, whose singing and playing proved deeply moving and personally healing. To my ears, it makes sense that these spiritual beginnings provided the origins of all that is unique to gugak’s magnetic, soulful, strikingly beautiful sound world.

As I look at the names of the artists taking the stage, all magnificent performers with a lifetime of experience and deep knowledge of their arts, I can’t wait to welcome them to Jordan Hall. Please join me!

Judith Eissenberg is second violin and founding member of the Lydian String Quartet. She is Professor of the Practice at Brandeis University and Head of Chamber Music at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She teaches the Intro to World Musics course at Brandeis.

In case you would like to prepare for this rare experience, below are films I highly recommend. (Chunhyang is on YouTube, others possibly on some streaming service).

Sopyonje (1993) and Chunhyang (2000) are beautiful commercial (Korean) films that use pansori music as part of their storytelling. Chunhyang is one of the five remaining pansori tales. The story is about young lovers from different social strata; it takes place in the Joseon Dynasty. The King and the Clown (2005), another commercial Korean film, is a tragic story of an itinerant performer’s entanglement with the king after a performance of a royal parody. Here you’ll find many examples of folk dance and music. Finally, Intangible Asset #82 (2008), is a documentary that follows an Australian jazz drummer on his search for what is missing in his own music; he finds it through his encounters with Korean musicians and finally Kim Seok-Chul, a great shaman musician.

Soe Hye Han

YouTubes with some of the artists: 

Gayageum Sanjo (Ji Young Yi, Tae-baek Lee)

Artist profile, Seo Hye Han

Daegeum Sanjo (Wan Chul Won, Hyeun-Bin Lim)

Pansori (Hyeun-Bin Lim, Tae-Baek Lee)

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