Hwang Byungki (황병기), eminent master of the Korean traditional zither gayageum, passed away on January 31, 2018 (via Yonhap). His influence on traditional Korean music in general, its promotion in the world, education and composition, North-South Korean relations is legion.
Just a few days ago, when I visited the ongoing exhibition “Jieum: Collection of Memories for Tomorrow” (지음 知音 시간의 흔적, 미래로 펼치다, through April 1st) that shows archival material on the history of the National Gugak Center, I saw a video of Hwang presenting modified traditional instruments (on display), which he had brought back from North-Korea in 1990 (at least that’s what I assume) when he travelled there to participate in the Pan-Korean Unification Concerts (범민족통일음악회), organized by Isang Yun.
I saw Hwang Byungki perform live only once, at a concert honouring his 50th stage anniversary back in 2010. This is a view from the third floor of the concert hall at Seoul Arts Center:
The tribute performances were mostly played by his disciples, friends, and colleagues, Hwang himself only appeared on stage for the last act, leaving me wordless. At the curtain call, he humbly bowed with the others, but the applause was obviously all his.
I didn’t dare to approach him in the lobby, where he received presents and signed books after the concert.
What follows are some unedited notes on this performance (details below) that I wrote in 2010 but never published on this blog.
For more on Hwang Byungki’s life and legacy, see Jocelyn Clark’s obituary for Asia Times and an interview by Graham Reid (Elsewhere Blog), for a more academic take, read Andrew Killick’s recent book Hwang Byungki: Traditional Music and the Contemporary Composer in the Republic of Korea (Routledge, 2013), published in Korean translation as <황병기 연구> (풀빛 2015, 옮김: 김희선).
May he rest in peace.
Hwang Byungki’s Voyage of Sounds: Melody and Story (via SAC)
The man is a legend: Master of the gayageum (Korean 12-stringed zither), inventor of new instruments, composer of fusion gugak. To celebrate the 50th stage anniversary of Hwang Byungki (황병기), already in his mid seventies, friends and fans gathered in the huge concert hall of Seoul Arts Center to perform and enjoy some pieces from Hwang’s most diverse œuvre.
Entitled “Hwang Byungki’s Voyage of Sounds: Melody and Story” (황병기의 소리여행 ‘가락 그리로 이야기’), this afternoon program offered a lot, both to novices like me who got introduced to his most representative pieces and the more experienced friends of traditional Korean music who could re-experience these classics in a new way.
Because contrary to my expectations (and to those of the friend who had invited me, a long time fan), this was not a concert by Hwang himself. While the master added some personal notes in between pieces (invisible to us), students and companions presented his music in new, sometimes very personal interpretations:
1. “Overture: Hwang Byungki’s Fifty Year Voyage of Sound” – 서곡 (序曲) 황병기의 50년 소리여행, a collage of “motives from the master’s works, selected and put on stage in order to associate his colorful world of compositions” (program notes). First, a daegeum player in a white dress – Chung Eun Han (한충은) – appeared in the ranks on the opposite side of the auditorium.
After the introductory melody, the stage lightens up—and there is a lot going on: Spare rhythms on the piano (강상구, also responsible for the arrangement) and the hourglass-shaped janggu (윤호세) lay the ground for Yi Ji Young (이지영, who, according to Fincher-Sung, “represents the quintessential Korean musician of the twenty-first century […:] respectful of traditional parameters, and both daring and talented enough to stretch these parameters”) who, hidden under a long cloak, consecutively played four different gayageums.
Meanwhile, a group of male and female dancers in respective hanboks presented a lofty choreography of well synchronized turns and abrupt glides which, seen from the third floor, looked pretty ornamental. Of the action painting, performed by calligraphist Kim Gi-sang (김기상), I saw only the result: the title of the show (and this piece) painted in black letters on a paravent in the background.
(video of the opening hommage, uploaded by Chung Eun Han, via Youtube)
2. “The Haunted Tree” (1979) – 영목 (靈木), “…based on the uncertainly composed motive of a spirit dwelling in a tree, the surreal world constituted by mysterious melodies, constantly changing rhythm, dispersing discords etc. grabs [the audience’s] attention…” (program notes) This composition for gayageum, ajaeng (a bowed zither), jing-gong, piano, and percussion was performed by members of the Ensemble Sinawi (앙상블 시나위), named after the improvised music traditionally accompanying shaman rituals.
3. “Forest” (1962) – 숲, one of Hwang’s earliest—and most well-known—works that experimentally tries to harmonize the formalism of court music and the humor of folk music. In its original form, “Forest” is a piece for gayageum (here a recent performance by twelve musicians at the National Gugak Center, formerly known as the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts).
This time, Japanese virtuoso Kazuhito Yamashita (山下和仁), together with his daughter Kanahi, performed his re-interpretation for two guitars. Yamashita gained world-wide (and controversial) fame not only for his graceful and precise play (deemed as superficial by others), he has also “made a career of annexing orchestral classics to his kingdom of the guitar” (Jeff Magee in the Ann Arbor News, qtd. in Yamashita’s biographical entry at musicianguide.com). Guitar player or typewriter—the rather calm duet made a nice contrast to the other more voluminous performances.
4. “Moon of My Hometown” (1976) – 고양의 달, adds music to the local colors of the poetry by PARK Mok Wol (박목월 / 朴木月, 1916–78). In fact, sung by the GANG Gweon-sun (강권순), Important Intantible Cultural Asset in female gagok (중요무형문화재, 여창가곡), the lyrics seemed subordinate to the voice, stretching endlessly in a very sublime, calm, and constant way that sounded more instrumental than vocal. This ‘instrumental’ voice interacted interestingly both with the blown daegeum and the bowed ajaeng, played by members of the gugak ensemble Dasrum (다스름, featured on this blog).
5. “Mountain Echo” (1979) – 산운 (山韻), likewise based on poetry, in this case the gasa (가사, a form of classical Korean poetry) Seongsan Byeolgok (성산별곡 / 星山別曲, lit. “Song of the Star Mountain”) by famous Choseon statesman-cum-poet Jeong Cheol (정철, 1536–93), also known under his pen name Songgang (송강). If you want to walk along his trails—here is how it’s done.
The ensemble Bebeing (비빙 / 悲憑), all dressed in green, presented this piece as a collaborative work, all four musician (piri, daegeum, gayageum, percussion) providing the ongoing basic rhythm and—successively, from time to time, including a singer—stepping out to add a solo melody. Kind of like a jam session. This seems to reflect the groups experimental approach to music, integrating traditional music practice, avant-garde composition, electronic sound engineering, and visual art. Take a look at a video of their “Buddhist music project Li and Sa” (불교음악프로잭트 이(理)와 사(事), 2008, lit. “reason and affection”, two principles complementary related in Buddhism, more info here).
6. “Hamadan” (2000) – 하마단, once again inspired by poetry, one the one hand by Buddhist writer Hyeon-dam’s (현담) eponimous poem that relates to the Persian city of the same name (همدان), on the other by the works of Kwak Jae-gu (곽재구, 1954–) which can be categorized as lyrical minjung poetry. Instead of the original solo ‘gayageum, accompanied by changgo’-arrangement, here three quarters of the gayageum ensemble Yeoul (여울) perform this as a trio, very in-sync with occasional melodies breaking out of the flowing sound of strings.
7. “Labyrinth” (1975) – 미궁 (迷宮), the highlight of this afternoon. One of Hwang’s most notorious works, “Labyrinth” is said to bring certain doom to the listener. The composer’s comment: “Of course you’ll die after listening to this piece, about 80 years later.” This re-interpretation by Baek Hyeon-jin 백현진 and Jang Yeong-gyu (장영규), members of the underground-avantgarde-band Uhuhboo Project (어어부 프로젝트), included the recitation from countless books that were dropped on the floor after a few phrases each, an electric guitar, and the slow-motion topless walk across the stage by dancer Ahn Eun Me (안은미).
8. “Darha Nopigom” (1996) – 달하 노피곰
— 4 Dec. 2010 (土) / 31 Jan. 2018 (水)
- Hwang Byungki’s Voyage of Sounds: Melody and Story, Seoul Arts Center, Concert Hall, 2010-12-04 (Sat.), 14–15.30 h.
- 황병기의 소리여행 ‘가락 그리고 이야기’, 예술의 전당, 콘서트홀, 2010년 12월 4일 (토), 14시~15.30시까지.