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Sneak peek of upcoming event showcases traditional Korean music

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, the Brandeis community had the pleasure of a “sneak preview” to our resident musicians’ performance, a group of Korean traditional musicians who travel worldwide promoting cultural exchange. Thanks to the Intercultural Residency Series provided through MusicUnitesUS, Korean “gugak” music will debut this weekend, providing a window into Korean traditional history and culture.


Resident curator Hilary Finchum-Sung (Ph.D. Indiana University), the associate professor of theory and ethnomusicology at Seoul National University, began the program on Tuesday with a brief lecture about the history behind Korean shamanism, the spread of shamanism as a nearly worldwide phenomena and the sociopolitical and cultural changes to the practice. An ethnomusicologist and violinist, Finchum-Sung initially took specific interest in Korean gugak style upon a recommendation by her graduate school professor. She painted the tale of her first time hearing the music, fresh off a CD from a local record store, which was the only place to find such a sample. In the midst of studying the effects of music on the brain in her graduate research, the sound of gugak took her totally by surprise.


“It was so full of texture, it sounded like it was breathing. It sounded like it was a living being speaking to me,” said Finchum-Sung. From that point onward, her studies focused on Korean shamanism and the role that music fills in mediating between worlds. After a brief historical context surrounding shamanism and its changing role during the Joseon dynasty, Finchum-Sung discussed the various styles of shamanism and their musical differences, showing video footage of each example. By the time the resident musicians were ready to perform, the audience had a brief but strengthened understanding of the traditions of shamanism in Korea, throughout all regions of the peninsula and throughout time.


Once the function of the music and the history of shamanism was understood, the resident musicians emerged from backstage and sat on cushions with their respective instruments, forming a semicircle on the floor. Finchum-Sung introduced each performer, their particular achievements and their instrument. Each musician gave a brief sampling of their work with a small solo, exhibiting the sound and tone of their instrument.


Lee Tae-baek was introduced first; Lee is a master “ajaeng” player (bowed zither), drummer and “pansori” (epic storyteller and singer), as well as a candidate for three Important Intangible Cultural Properties, a South Korean government preservation project overseen by South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration since 1962, many of which have been recognized by UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


Yi Ji-Young is a “gayageum” (12-stringed zither) master and has been involved with Korean traditional performing arts since the age of five. Yi was awarded “The Best Young Musician” by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Yi teaches as a professor of gayageum performance at Seoul National University. Her performances range from incredibly traditional styles to cutting edge, avant-garde styles.


Won Wan-chul is a talented daegeum player born into a family of musicians; his father, Won Jang-hyun, is a master “daegeum” (large transverse bamboo flute) player. With his father’s musical influence beginning at such a young age, Won was considered a “young master” by his 20s. Won received the grand prize at the Jeonju Daesaseup Competition for the category of instrument player in 1999, was given the title of “Best Young Artist” in 2004 by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and was awarded the President prize at the National Gugak Competition in 2006. Currently, Won serves as the head of the Folk Music Ensemble at the National Gugak Center in South Korea.


Lee Suk-joo is also a talent born into a musical family; he began to study the “piri” (a small, double-reed flute) at the age of 13. Like Lee Tae-baek, Lee Suk-joo is a candidate for Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 72. Lee is currently a member of the Sungnam Municipal Traditional Orchestra.


Lim Hyeon-bin is a “pansori” singer whose distinct style is characterized by coarse vocals and poignant wit, and has performed in several “changgeuk,” a form of contemporary theater based off pansori. Having studied under several prominent musicians, Lim has received the grand prize at the Heungbuje Pansori Competition in 1993, the gold prize at Donga Gugak Competition in 1995 and the President Prize in the master singer level at Chunhyang Gugak Daejeon in 2011, and in drumming, the grand prize in the master level in the National Gosu Competition in 1999 and the President prize in the master level of Haenam Gosu Competition in 2012. Lim was formerly part of the National Theater of Korea Changgeuk, but is now part of the Namwon Municipal Gugak Orchestra.


Following the lecture, students were encouraged to sit on the floor and join the musicians, creating a space more representative of a traditional experience. After the introductions, the group performed small sections of what would be a performative ritual for the deceased, in which the community of the living and the deceased individual come to terms with their loss, allowing the deceased to move on from the liminal space between the material world that the living experience, and the final resting place of spirits.


“The relevancy of this ritual will never go away,” mentioned Finchum-Sung. “People will always live and people will always die. It’s a celebration of both.”


Korean gugak is unlike any genre popularly listened to in the West. The music is lively and raw, giving off an earthiness and grittiness that colors a unique tone. In bringing the lecture as well as the music to the Brandeis community, MusicUnitesUS has provided a wholesome experience for the audience to briefly capture a facet of Korean traditional lifeways.
The full performance will occur this weekend, and it is open to the community. “Korean Gugak—Soundscapes of the Soul” will take place on Saturday, March 18 at 8 p.m., with a pre-concert talk beginning at 7 p.m., and will take place again on Sunday, March 20 at 4 p.m.

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