An introduction to Gugak – Korean Traditional Music

Written by on August 21, 2013 in Arts, Lifestyle
You might already know that my PhD is about oral traditions and my focus lies in East Asia, especially Korea.
I often come across people who are curious, confused and sometimes even baffled that I’d write and study about Korea.
Most of them associate “Korea” with the Hallyu Wave (KDramas, KPop), cosmetics and politics – and don’t even think about the traditional music of Korea which has a variety of genres.That’s why I played around with the thought of making a brief beginner’s guide for people who plan on visiting Korea… and here it is!
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What is Gugak?
The term gugak translates into “national music” and comprises roughly of two bigger genres, folk music and court music.
While court music includes ritual and aristocratic music like aak (imported from China), dang-ak (a fusion between Chinese and Korean court music) and hyang-ak (purely Korean), the folk music has p’ansori (vocal), sanjo (instrumental music), jeong-ak (instrumental and vocal music), nongak (“farmers’ music”,  drumming, dancing, and singing), shinawi (shamanistic music)  and salpuri (dance, related to shaman rituals).
Today, we also have newer additions to Korean Music, Changjak-gugak or Shin-gugak, newly-composed Korean traditional music and fusion gugak, with western elements.
I would like to give you a general overview of Korean Traditional Music and focus on two interesting topics, P’ansori and Fusion Gugak afterwards.
Hopefully, this article will give assistance to first time readers as well as gugak lovers~

Instruments
One unique aspect of Korean folk music you will come across, is the freedom a master musician possesses during the performance.
Improvisation during a concert, be it as soloist or ensemble, is allowed and depend on the personal preference of the musicians.
Popular instruments in Korean Traditional music are the plucked zither gayageum, fiddle haegeum, bamboo flute daegeum, hourglass-shaped drum janggu, which is the most prominent rhythm instrument in Korean music.
Inspired by the western orchestra, there are also orchestra like formations with traditional instruments in Korea, including a conductor.


Rhythm and Theory

One unique aspect of Korean folk music you will come across, is the freedom a master musician possesses during the performance.
Improvisation during a concert, be it as soloist or ensemble, is allowed and depend on the personal preference of the musicians.
The basic rhythm in folk music are called jangdan (can also mean tempo, accent) and while they follow set patterns, it is expected that a skilled artist is able to improvise individually, using the patterns as foundation.

Most used patterns are: jinyang (slow), jungmori (medium), jungjungmori (medium-fast), jajinmori (fast) and hwimori (very fast).
Referring the the “modes” in Korean Traditional Music, there are many “modes” for example in p’ansori, since a musical piece is not characterised through keys or mode but rather the nature of the melody itself.
Two essential and basic modes you’ll find in Korean Traditional Music are called  gyemyeonjo (sad style) and ujo (majestic), both use a five-pitch scale without semitones (anhemitonic pentatonic scale).


Places to visit
If you are in Seoul, the National Gugak Center and the National Theater of Korea are the best places to catch a live performance by a master artist.
Both institutions have english websites with ticket hotlines, but usually you can get tickets on site without any problems.
Another interesting tip: the website of Gugak FM features video clips and daily radio broadcasts (some of them in English) and provides the latest news from the world of Gugak.
Universities with an own Gugak department also host regular concerts of students and masters.

Let’s talk about P’ansori
P’ansori became internationally recognized in 2003 as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO.
It is being performed by a solo singer (sorikkun) and a drummer (gosu) and was formerly considered as an entertainment for the lower class, until the patronage by the yangban (upper class) made p’ansori popular.

Today, there are five surviving P’ansori, Chunhyangga, Simcheongga, Heungbuga, Sugungga and Jeokbyeokka and each one of them conveys are different message to the audience.
Previously the songs of one p’ansori were performed throughout the whole day or only pieces of it, as entertainment for a banquet or celebration for passing a government exam, but at the present day people expect a p’ansori performance by a master singer to be complete, hence performances can last between three to eight hours (with small breaks of course).


The five P’ansori
Chunhyangga is a romantic love story about a woman, who endures hardships and stays faithful until her lover returns. Their relationship is not an usual one, as she is the daughter of a gisaeng (female entertainer) and he is of noble birth.
This famous story was retold in movies for the cinema and also in a modernized TV Series, Sassy Girl Chun Hyang.

Simcheongga emphasizes filial piety in showing the audience the sacrifice the girl Simcheong makes to give her blind father his eyesight back.
To regain his sight, the father promises a wandering monk hundred sacks of rice but because he is as poor as a beggar and can’t fulfill his promise to the monk, his daughter Simcheong sells herself to fishermen who are in need for a sacrifice for the water god.

Heungbuga teaches confucian family values (the rightful order within a family) with the story of two brothers.
While the poor, younger brother is rewarded with riches for his honest life after he mends the broken leg of a swallow, the older brother who inherited the family fortune falls into disgrace after he purposely breaks the leg of a swallow to gain the same riches as his younger brother.

Sugungga is a witty tale about a rabbit, who escapes from the underwater palace, after he got caught to get his liver sacrificed to the sick dragon king.
After convincing the king that he forgot his liver on land, rabbit manages to save his life.

Jeokbyeokka is the re-telling of the famous Chinese tale the “Red Cliff” and displays warfare, the code of honor between men, the lifes of soldiers and generals.
It is said, that Jeokbyeokka is the most difficult p’ansori to master, both in technique and understanding of the story.

Experience it
One of the most important things in a p’ansori performance is the interaction with the audience.
To support the singer and to voice their opinion to the ongoing story on stage, listeners are encouraged to participate actively while listening to the music through chuimsae (encouragement), the most common exclamatory remarks are: eolshigu! and joota!, both mean “great”, “good” and general agreement to the scene the musician describes.
If you visit a p’ansori performance, don’t be shy and try to participate in the chuimsae too.
But be aware, that not every scene is fit to receive an encouraging remark; if for example the hero or heroine is in duress or in need, you should avoid cheering by shouting eolshigu!
Try to follow the story if you understand Korean or if subtitles are provided, or take an experienced, fellow audience member as an example for your first steps in chuimsae.
Some performances, tailored for foreign audience also provide introductions and instructions.
Anyway, if you have enjoyed p’ansori with our heart, make sure to encourage the singers with heartfelt clapping after the concert!

 Where to go
National Gugak Center (http://www.gugak.go.kr/eng/index.jsp)
National Theater of Korea (http://www.ntok.go.kr/english/)


And what about Fusion Gugak?
Fusion Gugak is not to be confused with Changjak-gugak or Shin-gugak, which means newly-composed Korean traditional music.
While Changjak-gugak stays faithful to its roots in traditional theory and forms, Fusion Gugak experiments with western popular music, be it in instrumentation, usage of synthesizer or even dance.
Highly popular are musicals like Miso, with a storyline from Korean folklore and a combination of korean and western music and formations like SOREA, a girl group-esque ensemble, comprised of players of the gayageum, haegeum, daegeum, kkwaenggwari (small, flat gong), janggu, who speak to a younger audience in and outside of Korea with their rigorously choreographed performances and attractive looks.
Soundtracks of Korean TV Dramas (OST), often include Fusion Gugak and official institutions, such as the KTO (Korea Tourism Organization) use the music of Fusion Gugak to introduce Korea to foreigners.

But there are also other trends within Fusion Gugak, the group AUX experiments with western instruments, such as keyboards and drums and gives us unique sounds outside the mainstream, much like a indie band – but originating from Korean Music.

AUX won the Grand Prize in 2010 at the prestigious Korean Music Project and in 2011 they represented Korea at the competition Asian Beat by Yamaha.
Have a peek at their unique style in the video below!

Believe me, when I tell you that this article only scratched the surface ;) Korea’s traditional music -be it court or folk music- is like a treasure chest and sometimes, unexpected gems can be found in it.

I hope you got interested in watching a performance yourself :)

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About the Author

Dorothea Suh

Dorothea Suh is a PhD student in ethnomusicology and wayfarer. She researches oral traditions of East Asia, loves her violin, Korea and good coffee. You can find her on Twitter as @Novemberbeetle