Traditional music worth texting about

A Korean music and dance concert drew a large crowd of students to Grant Auditorium on Tuesday night. Some of the students obviously don’t frequent folk concerts – a few even had their laptops and cell phones out – but the pieces in this Department of Ethnomusicology-sponsored performance were stunning enough to halt many audience members mid-text.

Imagine a gymnastic ribbon-twirler, but instead of conducting the baton with his arm, he attaches it to his head.  Then have him play a large hour-glass drum that he straps over one shoulder, and tell him that while he swivels the ribbon with his head he has to dance to the beats of his drum.  

The triple-threat musician last night was Korean traditional folk artist Vongku Pak.  He joined fellow musicians Yewon Kim and Seungmin Cha in a performance of their country’s national artistic traditions.  Dr. Ju-Yong Ha hosted the event, relating tidbits of cultural trivia and encouraging interaction between the audience and the performers.

The first piece on the program was a duet between a 12-string zither called a gayageum and a bamboo flute called a daegeum.  The piece, called “Cheonnyeon Manse,” was an example of a purposely emotionless form of court music. The gayageum, a five-foot board with 12 precisely positioned bridges to support its 12 strings, is plucked with the right hand while the left hand bounces on the string, bending the pitch.  Phrases on the daegeum begin with pure sustained notes and end with an abrupt ornamented burst.

This piece was followed by a performance of two songs from a popular Korean opera, “Pansori, Chunhyangga.” The opera is a fairytale Romeo and Juliet: social class and tradition separate the two lovers, who reunite in the end. Singer Jung Hee Oh bent her voice to imitate the gayageum, which she was also playing.   

For a grand finale the hall welcomed special guest Master Sue Park. One of the most prominent Korean performers in the United States today, Park was named a National Heritage Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008.  On Tuesday, Park performed a shaman ritual exorcism dance called salpuri in which she wore a gauzy white dress and warded off evil spirits with a white cloth. The dance was solemn, with a great emphasis on poise and grace as Park controlled every deliberate movement and gesture.

No doubt we'll see some of those students at folk concerts in the future.

Photo by Daniel Bonatto/Flickr

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