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The Justice (March 8, 2011)

South Korea spreads its culture through music

by Sujin Shin

Last Friday, Brandeis had the rare opportunity of being the venue for a tradition of music that has long been fading into the annals of a colorful but dying history. A group of five performers, endorsed and supported by the South Korean government, played a concert in the Slosberg Recital Hall under the guidance of Dr. Ju-Yong Ha, composer and ethnomusicologist for the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in the Republic of Korea.

Much of traditional Korean music draws its inspiration from the shamanistic religious culture that fueled society before Confucian influences made their way across the Chinese border and into the peninsula.

The pieces that the group chose to perform demonstrated the true flexibility of the instruments' emotional expression and musical capability. Some had a fast tempo and were danceable, while others were slow and deeply pensive. Some were humorous, while others were heartbreaking.

Instead of being driven by arcs of melodies and harmonies, the emotional range of Korean music stems from the character of the instruments themselves. Rather than being crafted to find the center tone of a pitch and create harmonies using disparate tones like Western instruments, the Korean instruments are more focused on the timbre and the different textures each timbre brings to the piece of music as a whole.

For example, the transverse flute, the daegum, has a beautiful timbre whose straight tone is pure and sweet but it also has the ability to suddenly cleave the air with a searing rasp. In contrast, the other wind instrument, the piri, is of a singular timbre: brassy and bright while remaining expressive.

The 12-stringed zither, the gayageum, has a pure and strangely liquid resonance. The percussion instruments, the janggo and buk, sound straightforward and round.

These instruments truly express their inherent strengths when they are playing all together in the tradition of sinawi, a type of folk music, with shamanistic influences. Each voice plays on the rising and falling of every strain of melody, while the texture created by all the different instruments together creates a sort of chaotic harmony.

One instrument that deserves special merit for its performance in traditional Korean music is the human voice. Most expressive and stunning when singing P'ansori and unaccompanied by anything but the rhythms of a buk or janggo, it has a piercing and plaintive sound, almost impossible to contain within the confines of the recital hall.

P'ansori, which means "sound of open spaces," is the tradition of storytelling, singing, acting, dancing and declaiming for an outdoor audience. There used to be 12 epic tales in the P'ansori tradition, but only five remain from the chronicles of Korean history. Thus, it is rare to hear them outside their native countries.

As the tastes of the times start to slip away from the heritages of the past, recovery is more and more difficult. But there is hope to be had.

The South Korean government is attempting to spread awareness about this musical culture and endorses artistsÂ-like the ones that performed at Brandeis-to tour other nations.

Younger and younger generations are starting to gain interest in the art of traditional performance. Additionally, the global atmosphere of cultural music couldn't be more accepting than it is now.

South Korea is a tenacious country, surviving countless invasions, attacks and struggles for its national identity. Though its fight to preserve its musical culture is ongoing, with the support of dedicated performers, patrons and global citizens, South Korea is bound to come out on top.

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