Wednesday, April 8, 2009

the Korean zither, an essay

my Korean zither, the gayageum or kayageum.

i began studying Korean music in the spring of 2003 in the International Program at the National Center for Traditional Korean Performing Arts (NCTKPA). it was a basic introduction course. & then, i went in search of a teacher. i found my teacher, Song YoungSook, through a friend, & began studies of traditional court & sanjo music (solo instrumental music) immediately. court music is played with a different gayageum than in sanjo music, & it is written in chinese notation, something else i had to learn.

i also learned that the zither i had bought was not of very good quality, which i could tell by the poor sound it produced. very shortly after my studies began, i put in an order for a handmade gayageum. i met the man, Choi (pronounced Chae). he was of 3 generations, in Cholla-do, that created instruments of high quality. each instrument has it's own unique sound. my gayageum is beautifully rich & deep, & will only improve with play. mr. Choi offered me a choice of three gayageums that he had made the day i drove to his studio. i listened to each as he played them. as it turns out, i choose the very instrument he said he created with me in mind. we had met before this day, but how he determined the type of sound i would enjoy is beyond me. my gayageum is made of a piece of paulownia that he said was an old tree when cut down, & he's left it to cure for many years. the age of the wood plays a major role in the ultimate sound the instrument does & will create. &, of course, also affects its price.

the instrument itself is made of 12 twisted-silk strings, though you can find ones with many more (13,15,18,21 & 25) strings. the 25-stringed instrument can then play more modern, or western styled, music (chromatic vs. pentatonic). it is kept in tune by ensuring the tautness of each string from the tolgwae (tuning pegs), over each anjok (movable bridge, literally translated as "wild-goose foot") to the bottom of the instrument, where the strings are then covered, & inserted up through the holes to form a beautiful utilitarian knot.

the knot,

the anjok can then make smaller adjustments to the tuning. the instrument spans three octaves, the strings being D,G,A - D,E,G,A,B - D,E,G,A, though they are not exactly the same pitch as in western tuning.

the gayageum is made from a single piece paulownia wood on the front & chestnut on it's back. it dates around the 6th century when King Kasil built one based upon a Chinese instrument, zheng. 'gaya' is the name of an ancient Korean tribal country, & 'geum' means instrument (there is also the hyeongeum, haegeum, yonggeum, daegeum). at the top, the face is engraved with the words, 'pleasure pleasure', & they are inset with carved bone. the 12 silk strings represent the 12 months of the year. the decorative elements along its soundboard (on the back) too have significant meaning. the crescent moon, the sun & the centre opening representing the milky-way, spiritually link the avowed musician with the cosmos. its sound resonating between nature (as it is made of silk & wood, & played with a human touch) & the heavens.

once tuned, it is played with the right hand using a few movements of plucking (pizzicato) & flicking. whereas the left hand is used for varying vibrato, & can also change the pitch of the string. the sound is delicate & subtle, resounding with music from the heart like the voice.

listen to a few audio clips of Korean Sanjo.

this next video is not me, though once i practice a bit, i'll attempt a 'performance'. it is a good example of the right & left hand movements. gayageum sanjo (1:26)

a quick history... the gayageum was traditionally used as accompaniment, or in an orchestra, to perform at court for royalty. it wasn't until the 19th century that sanjo, or solo style, music came along. of course, today without a monarchy, sanjo is the preferred style of play. since there have been other schools of thought concerning its play, i'll continue with a more in-depth study at a latter date.

this next performance (6:09) is beautiful, an ensemble of three modern gayageums performing at a recital. it's only a link as the embedding code was disabled.

& one last performance... Hwang Byung-Ki (10:23)

more about Hwang ByungKi in a post about the schools of sanjo.

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