This is how Hwang Byung-ki, the grand master of Kayageum, encountered the charm of the traditional Korean string instrument.
According to Hwang, the deep and soulful sound of the instrument spontaneously drew him to its beauty. In the hope of making a gorgeous tune at his own fingertips, young Hwang started to “date” his instrument.
He soon earned the nickname “Young-gam,” meaning an elderly man in Korean. A young boy falling in love with traditional music was rare, especially during the war.
Hwang’s passion toward Kayageum was not always looked upon positively. His family firmly opposed Hwang’s choice when he first expressed his interest in the traditional instrument.
“I gave them the example of Albert Einstein, who could play the violin as well as any professional musician,” Hwang said. “Like him, I assured them that kayageum would help me with my studies.”
As if to prove himself right, he entered Seoul National University Law School. Even while studying, he kept practicing his Kayageum, which led him to win the Korean Broadcasting System(KBS) national competition when he was a university student. Until then, Kayageum was a mere hobby for Hwang. Before he became a professor at Ewha, he had various jobs such as working in the movies or the publication industry.
“When playing Kayageum was a hobby, the instrument was like my girlfriend,” Hwang said. “What I do for a living has no relation to whom I date. Only when I turned 38 did I finally decide to pursue music professionally.”
Now his music has been globally praised as one of the best contemporary traditional Korean artistic achievements. From Asia to Europe, his music has been loved by many people beyond the frontiers.
Moreover, in an attempt to find the true meaning of “tradition,” Hwang composed the very first contemporary Kayageum solo piece titled “The Forest.”
“If you simply preserve something of the past, it ends up as an antique,” Hwang argued. “Only after it interacts with those of us who live in the present, it is able to become a tradition.”
At that time, composing a Kayageum solo was an unusual pursuit. His pioneering achievements in Kayageum composition include “the Labyrinth,”which is an ensemble piece accompanied by a voice performance of Avant-grade artist Hong Sin-ja.
During his performance, one of the audience members left the theater, frightened by Hwang’s surrealist music.
“I understand that people may be disturbed by my music since they are unfamiliar with it,” Hwang said.
“Rather than popularity, I want to make music that only I can make myself, unique and distinct.”
Building a bridge between the new and the old, Hwang has also expanded the scope of Kugak, Korean traditional music. Kugak used to commonly refer to the music from the Joseon Dynasty period. However, in pursuit of new style, he has tried to revive the sound of the ancient Kingdom of Silla in his 1974 composition “Chimhyangmu.”
As much as it is impossible to discuss Kayageum without Hwang, he refers to his instrument as his inseparable fate. His ties with Kayageum brought him many opportunities and evens in his life including his life-long partner. “For the 1990 North-South musical exchange, I was able to visit North Korea as the first civilian,” Hwang recalled. “Playing my compositions such as ‘We are one,’ I thought perhaps with Kayageum music, it would be possible to open the gate for reunification.”
Despite his age, Hwang has not stopped his ardor toward music.
“Every player of any instrument must practice every day. Playing an instrument is a physical act. If you skip a day, your muscles notice it right away and you need to practice harder to make up just as any other physiatrists.”
A boy who loved the gorgeous notes of Kayageum has now become the center of Korean traditional music. Instead of Young-gam, he is now called as the Kayageum virtuoso who has pioneered a new sphere of Korean traditional music. His compositions are now filling the text book for students learning kayageum. As long as his health allows, Hwang will continue playing traditional yet internationally loved music of Kayageum.