Sometime around 2010, for some reason, I began to become infatuated with gugak - Korean traditional music. Doubtless it began with visits to Seoul and its enchanting old palaces, folk festivals, and mountains. Friends I made among traditional musicians are part of it too. But gugak is an acquired taste. To many Western ears, some kinds of gugak are difficult to listen to. Somehow, for me it has an ever-deepening appeal, even though the more I delve into it, the stranger it becomes. As I study the music, as I learn more about its logic and structure and meaning, still, its expressive essence remains an ever-receding ideal.
I am drawn to gugak’s earthy, sensual sound world. That, along with the intellectual challenge of understanding and applying its elusive techniques, has recharged my composer’s imagination. Now, elements of gugak seem to appear in everything I compose – its structured but flexible approach to rhythm, the expressive shape of every pitch, its standard forms. And it’s not just a vague influence. By now, I have composed three pieces incorporating actual gugak instruments with Western instruments, and am about to start my fourth. Each one is a special challenge because none of these instruments is built to play the Western scale. How to create a sound world where instruments from two cultures co-exist as equals?
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For my first gugak-influenced piece, I took on a much bigger challenge than I understood at the time – music for piri and string quartet. The piri is a folk oboe, a deceptively simple bamboo tube, with holes but no keys, and a double reed on top. It’s capable of playing very softly, or extremely loudly. It is inherently diatonic – there is only one scale, in A-flat. But a good player can produce a complete chromatic scale by altering lip and wind pressure. In fact, the top range is all played by lip on a single fingering – so that hitting specific notes in that long sliding scale is a technical challenge for even the best player.
I had the best player – Gamin has literally written the book on advanced contemporary piri playing. I offered to compose this piece for her when I learned she would be in New York for several months on a fellowship. I knew I would need to consult her early and often as I developed my musical ideas. I listened to hours of gugak recordings to internalize the spirit of the piri, and I studied the rhythmic patterns of sanjo, a classical solo repertory. My goal was to reimagine the rhythms and melodic gestures and form in a new way – like a gugak parallel universe. The string players all had to treat notes in a Korean way – with expressive slides and accents and colors.
Following the sanjo model, I ordered the rhythmic patterns from slow to fast. I included a short cadenza for the piri, which I had to revise repeatedly until it was playable; and I finished the piece with wild fast music, and even an improvisatory section in homage to the improvisatory roots of sanjo. Without at that time knowing much about shamanistic music, I decided when it was done that it had a severe, mystical sound, so with Gamin’s approval I titled it Mudang – meaning, female shaman. Which is what Gamin had been to me, invoking a new creative spirit in me through contact with ancient Korean musical spirits.
Gamin premiered Mudang with the New York string quartet Ethel, who rose to the unconventional demands of the piece, in the summer of 2014. She has played it many times since with Ethel and with musicians in South Korea.
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In the summer of 2016, I was well into composing a multi-movement orchestra work when I spent two weeks in South Korea studying gugak. The National Gugak Center brings a handful of composers each summer for an intensive immersion, including studying several instruments. I came away with plans for my second and third gugak-instrument pieces.
That second one would be the finale of my orchestral piece, which I decided to base on the mask dance – the tal nori – that my wife and I experienced in Andong, a small city far from Seoul. I was very moved by the performance, with a small band of percussionists, a wind player, and six dancer/actors, wearing the distinctive local masks, playing out a very old traditional comedic drama about small-town class conflict. The complete tal nori, which is day-long, turns out to be a shamanistic rite invoking the Goddess of the Mountain. So here was the music and culture I had been studying in laboratory conditions at the National Gugak Center – in the wild.
Although this movement is for Western orchestra, I wanted a distinctly Korean sound, so I purchased a kkwaenggwari – a small gong that’s used as the time keeper in ensembles like the tal nori, and that has a wonderfully raucous sound, capable of sounding above the orchestra. I loan the gong to the percussion section of any orchestra playing the piece.
I again modeled the form of this movement on a slow-to-fast series of rhythmic patterns (although this was not characteristic of the dance music), ending with fast music very closely modeled on the closing music of the tal nori (which I had captured on video for study). The form was highly compressed, as I wanted to match the five-minute duration of the other Sinfonietta movements. And as they all draw inspiration from some spiritual text or tradition (much of it from the poet Hafez), the shamanism-based subject of the tal nori seemed a perfect, ecstatic finish.
By this time, I felt the need to move beyond the slow-to-fast form. I determined that my next work, the third with a gugak instrument, should be based a little as possible in gugak forms. This made my Nonghyun, a string quintet placing a gayageum inside a string quartet, my most challenging task yet. The gayageum is a plucked-string instrument, laid across the lap. The right hand plucks strings on one side of the moveable bridges; the left hand applies pitch changes and deep vibrato by adding tension on the other side of the bridges. The characteristic sound of the gayageum is rooted in that deep, wide vibrato, called nonghyun. I took inspiration from that sound itself, which is to say from the instrument designed to produce it – but this time, not from the repertory of that instrument.
As usual, it took some time for the sound that inspired me, to evolve into more sounds in my imagination; and for me to devise a way for the string quartet to live in that sound world. The western instruments play most of the piece pizzicato, putting them on a level playing field with the gayageum. So adamant was I about not going slow-to-fast, that I began the piece fast, with slow music to follow. And because I had lately heard too much new music devoid of rhythmic impulse, I made this work extremely rhythmic. In the slow passages, the western strings abruptly change to playing arco, with their bows, and with extravagant vibrato inspired by that of the gayageum.
Nonghyuun will premiere in late October 2017 at the Pacific Rim Music Festival, for which I composed it.
I have one more gugak-instrument piece on my docket, which I am just beginning, and again I have a new impulse. This time I want to compose a duo in which haegeum (a two-string fiddle) and cello fuse into one. I hope to create a sound world where the listener is never quite sure which is playing, or both together. And if I have learned one thing in the prior efforts, it’s that the new work will be much more difficult to compose than I imagine.
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Creating common ground for instruments from different cultures actually brings new ideas into the world. I have always steered clear of ideas that would bring the Korean instrument into a Western conception – for instance, as a plaintive folk melody over simple string chords. For me, that’s not a new idea; for me, each piece must be a new conception in some respect. Gugak has blessed me with profound challenges that have revealed new aspects to my creative personality. I have had to dig deep into my imagination and into my soul. And so far, these works have rewarded me. Mudang is among my most performed works, because Gamin has taken it everywhere with her. (I composed Mudang simultaneously for cello and piri, and for string quartet and piri, so performance opportunities multiply.) And my friendships and working relationships with gugak musicians continue to proliferate. They are remarkably generous with their time and talent, encouraging a Western composer to learn and adapt what they have mastered.
Not coincidentally, I have made a point of promoting cross-cultural creation in Very Young Composers, a program of the New York Philharmonic, where I direct educational programming. Students as young as 10 years old have composed for western instruments combined with Korean instruments, or Chinese instruments, or Japanese. Children find such simple and effective solutions to problems that fill us professional composers with worry and complication. Hearing their work in part inspired my efforts.
I still compose music without gugak influence – or do I? It’s hard to know what influences are present in new ideas that come to me when I need them. In all likelihood, the study I’ve made of gugak has changed me forever as a composer, has given me new creative tools and even new ideas to share. And this is how Western music has always expanded and evolved, by learning lessons from other musics. I am proud to have become part of that tradition.