These next two weeks, I’ll be in Seoul, South Korea, studying at the International Gugak Workshop at the National Gugak Center, an institution dedicating to preserving and furthering knowledge, proliferation, and creation of gugak, or Korean traditional music performed on traditional instruments. The institute is funded by the Korean Cultural Ministry, and encourages scholars from abroad to bring Korean music back to their respective countries, teaching it and incorporating it into their music and creative work to some capacity. During the workshop, we learn history and theory but also get to perform on the instruments and learn to play the rhythmic and melodic modes of the music.
My interest in Korean traditional music came from Shih-Hui Chen and her class dedicated to cross-cultural music between the East and West at Rice University. Korean music in particular struck me because of its gritty energy, improvisational components and strong rhythms in sanjo (improvised music on a set mode using a single instrument accompanied by a drum), and storytelling aspects through pansori (a form of Korean opera).
This music resonated with my interests in improvised music and musical storytelling, which I had been studying in university and which I hope to fuse further in my future compositions. I felt saturated with learning about jazz theory and Western Opera and musical theater, so I wanted to look for a fresh perspective and alternative view on how music and stories can be communicated. When I was invited to the Gugak Workshop in South Korea, I had found the opportunity to deeply explore Korean traditional music in a hands-on way and expand my knowledge of the music’s roots.
My journey was smooth… after a fourteen hour flight (four movies, five hours sleep, a little reading time, dinner), I arrived in Incheon, took a second to figure out where I was going, and took the 6020 bus straight to Gangnam south of the Han River. The weather here is incredibly humid and everything is shrouded by fog and overcast. The highway to the city is surrounded on all sides by foggy mountains – what seems to be source of inspiration for the aesthetic of certain Joseon Dynasty landscape paintings.
Seeing this is my first trip to Korea, let alone Asia in general, My Korean is minimal at best (I know how Hangeul works but can’t connect meaning to it yet) but everything is announced in English, Japanese, and Chinese, so getting around was easy. It’s something I hope to work on as I continue my studies of Korean culture and Korean traditional music. The bus ride took about an hour and a half. I got out and walked a block to the Provista hotel, a sleek new tower with comfortable accommodations. There’s a loft in my hotel with a mattress – I’m still trying to figure out exactly what its purpose is – and a funky combined washer-dryer combo, as well as complimentary slippers.
The week I arrived was apparently “monsoon week,” so I’m glad I brought my umbrella – the rain is hard and nearly constant. Rain is something I love, so I was comfortable with that. Seoul has a New York vibe – everyone is walking around, the streets are fairly crowded, and everyone is prepared with an umbrella.
After I settled in, the participants of the Gugak workshop met in the lobby and we introduced ourselves, led by the charismatic Baewon, our liaison and guide. It’s an international group, mostly composers with a few performer-composers, ethnomusicologists, and performers sprinkled in. The introductions were nice, and accompanied the typical music festival phenomenon of having at least two to three mutual friends with everybody (Do you know…? Small world!). It takes on a whole new level when you’re halfway across the globe. I think I’m the youngest in the group – most of the participants are either professors or freelancers working on a high professional level. Instantly I knew it would be an environment that would challenge me and be the start to what I know will be many years of exploration and learning in the future.