Morning Calm or Dynamic Korea? A Lecture on Korean Music at the RASKB

Today, Sheen Dae-Cheol (신대철), Professor of Music at the Academy of Korean Studies (한국학중앙연구원), gave a lecture on traditional Korean music at the Royal Asian Society Korean Branch (RASKB). (The lecture has been made available on youtube.) I haven’t been at the RASKB’s meeting in quite a while and this was a welcome opportunity to get in touch again.

2013 01 23 Sheen Dae Cheol AKS  RASKB

The topic was intriguing: Prof. Sheen first gave an overview on the various kinds of traditional music, distinguishing broadly between jeongak (정악, “right [classical] music”, including court and literati styles) and minsogak (민속악, “folk music”). He connected these two branches of music to two different “brandings” for Korea: first, the “Land of the Morning Calm” (a lose translation of Joseon / 조선 / 朝鮮, an older name for Korea derived from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) which is still in use in the North); second, “Dynamic Korea”, an official PR catchphrase coined around the time of the 2002 World Cup (see this editorial from the Korean Herald and another NY Times article on nation-branding).

Prof. Shin used “calmness” as an attribute of jeongak, while explaining that most kinds of minsogak could be described as “dynamic”. Furthermore, he introduced Nietzsche (and others’) distinction between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” arts as a metaphor for the gap between jeongak and minsogak. While jeongak, strongly rooted in Confuzianism, features entertaining moments as well as sad parts, both emotions are raised in moderation. In contrast, minsogak expresses feelings much more freely to “dynamically produce harmony” between musicians/singers and audience, he explained.

What made the evening really enjoyable, though, was that Prof. Shin spiced up his lecture with many examples of what kind of music he was talking—performed live! For example, he made the difference between gagok-style singing (a form of jeongak) and pansori (minsogak) very audible as he sung the famous part “Ssukdae Meori” (쑥대머리) from Ch’unhyang-ga in both styles back-to-back.

And he even made the audience sing, by teaching us the first verses of Jindo Arirang and other musical phrases. Experiencing by oneself the different features of the two kinds of music discussed, it was much easier to get his points. Unfortunately, the various ways traditional music is promoted in Korea—as something calm and beautiful, or as a dynamic expression of emotions—were not elaborated much further. Still, the calm-dynamic-connection gives an new twist to the common distinction between classical and folk genres and is an interesting addition to the ways in which traditional music is discussed in Korea.

All in all it was a nice evening that provided very practical insights into traditional Korean music. Although I had heard and read about the different types of traditional music before, the live-singing made the concepts much easier to grasp. I also realized that I really need some vocal training, though… pansori-class, here I come!

Sheen Dae-Cheol (Academy of Korean Studies)

Calm and Dynamic: Two Differing Aesthetic Aspects of Korean Traditional Music

Korean Traditional Music can be broadly classified as either Jeongak or Minsogak. The first term means “right music” or classical music and it includes court and literati music. The second covers folk music. These two genres of music possess many musical characteristics and beauties in common. However, the basic musical aesthetic is quite different in each. The first category does not allow the expression of immoderate musical emotions when it is performed or sung, whereas the second expresses musical emotions very freely. Naturally, Jeongak and Minsogak can each boast of its own typical aesthetic style, calm beauty in the first, dynamic beauty in the second. Because of this aesthetic difference between Jeongak and Minsogak, all the beauties of curved lines, musical dots by percussions, vocalism or singing styles, Jangdan (rhythmic patterning) and other techniques characteristic of Korean traditional music produce very distinct flavors in the performance of each. Korea is often called the ‘Land of Morning Calm’ yet it has also recently been publicized as ‘Dynamic Korea’. Tonight’s lecture operates using these two metaphors. Both images can be found in Korea’s traditional music, ‘calmness’ in Jeongak and ‘dynamics’ in Minsogak. In other words, drawn from Western aesthetic theory, it could be said that ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ characteristics can be found in Jeongak and Minsogak respectively. One of the easiest shortcuts to understanding, appreciating and enjoying Korean traditional music is to be able to recognize and feel these aesthetic differences between Jeongak and Minsogak Tonight’s lecture will introduce these aesthetic differences, demonstrating them by listening to examples of both kinds of Korean music. (via RASKB)

— 22 Jan. 2013 (火)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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