It was love at first sound. When Park Hyung-rae (‘07, Korean Music) first heard the beautiful sound of the geomungo, a traditional Korean stringed instrument, she knew at an instant that she wanted to pursue a life in the field of Korean music. For her, a student who had played the piano for ten years and started vocal music since high school, the sound of the geomungo was ten times more moving than the music she had known until then.
Park actually chose, not the geomungo, but the sogeum, a small transverse bamboo flute, which she practiced diligently in order to get admitted to Ewha, which picks only one student majoring in sogeum each year. Park made it in, despite the late start, because of her overflowing passion. But she eventually found out that she was lagging behind when she entered university, where there were many students who had lived with their instruments since middle school or younger and underwent tough training every day at arts high schools.
Then, Park met an expert sogeum player, Kwon Yong-mee, the current head of the Seoul Korean Music Orchestra, who later became her teacher and mentor. Park was mesmerized by the sogeum playing of Kwon and knew that she wanted to be like her, too. Park personally went to Kwon and asked her to be her teacher. Kwon, at first refused, thinking little of Park’s ability and talent. Park cried in front of Kwon after she was turned down but Park was not a person to give up her passion for Korean music just because of this obstacle. Park decided to write a touching letter and succeeding in moving Kwon’s heart. Park won a place as Kwon’s pupil, and even better, at a fairly cheap price.
Determined to show her teacher what she was made of, Park endured all the teacher’s painful lessons and endless practice. After a year of arduous lessons, Kwon started to acknowledge Park’s talent and allowed Park to claim that she was her teacher. The desire to learn more about Korean music and has led Park to continue her studies until graduate school.
Park is currently a graduate student majoring in Korean music. She confidently carries her sogeum, as a member of the first privately funded Korean music band. She travels around the world to Mongolia, Singapore, China and countries in South America introducing Korean music with her sogeum. Park says it was her strong love for Korean music that has helped her to be the person she is now.
She also wishes she could promote Korean music more at home. “Koreans have a mistaken impression that Korean music is sad and depressing. Korean music is largely divided into three categories of court music, sanjo (folk music), and creative music. Court music conveys a mood of wishing for abundance and peace. Sanjo helps us to sublimate han, bitter feelings of resentment and loss, by dancing along with the music. Korean music is not sad at all. It is noble and close to the sounds of nature,” said Park.
“Education in Korean music should start at a young age so that children can take in Korean music naturally. Like the English textbooks, which have become a natural part of children’s education, in contrast to the past, a Korean music textbook should also be added to the curriculum,” said Park suggesting a way for Koreans to get closer to Korean music.
Another student, Kim Ji-hee (’07, Korean Painting) fell in love at first sight when she was attending an arts high school with the emotions and ideals portrayed in Korean paintings. Kim especially admires the expressiveness of painting with the mouk, an ink-stick used in Asian paintings. Kim’s paintings can now be seen in galleries throughout Seoul and she even held an exhibition at Starbucks in front Ewha. She uses traditional Korean equipment to produce paintings of her own where she reinterprets reality. Her paintings are unique in that, although she does have her basis in traditional Korean art, she applies it in different ways by mixing Korean styles with Western art materials such as oil and acrylic painting.
“It is true that the boundary dividing Korean or Asian painting and Western painting is slowly fading. The main differentiation between these two influences is in how an object is depicted. Take a cup for example. Western paintings focus on the light and shade of the cup while Asian paintings focus on how the cup is seen by the mind, more in terms of distance rather than shade,” said Kim.
The most appealing factor of Korean painting to Kim is the fact that she is doing the art of her own roots. “The beauty in traditional Korean art is the fact that, although it looks empty, it is full. Although it looks incomplete, it is actually complete. It is the perfect beauty achieved through the rather detached perspective in Korean art that attracts me.”
Kim advises students to throw away the prejudice that Korean art is all only actual views of hills and water or bamboo, especially when thinking about the paintings of Goryeo and Choseon Dynasty. “Korean art can be colorful and modern. Rather than perceiving Korean paintings as difficult and dull, take a look at various Korean paintings with an open mind,” says Kim.
Park and Kim have each walked a different path, but the sound and sight of Korean culture that captivated the young minds of these two students has led them to become advocates, protectors and promoters of traditional Korean culture.
Kim recommends an art gallery near Seoungbuk-Dong called Kansong Art Gallery for students who want to taste the beauty of Korean paintings. The gallery holds famous paintings that best represent Korean painting, especially from the Choseon Dynasty. Best of all, the admission is free.
Park also recommends events that students can attend free of charge. “If students just give a little bit of thought to traditional Korean music, there are a lot of chances for them to experience it. There is plenty of information just by searching the Internet or making a visit to Sejong Center.”
However, just listening to traditional music or looking at Korean paintings is not enough. “The attitude to learn more about traditional Korean culture should not stop there. Actions should be taken to actually feel the overwhelming sensation given by the hidden potential of what is ours. Students should not only focus on learning violin or piano, assimilating into Western culture, but take a step further and learn violin together with the heageum, a traditional Korean instrument similar to the violin,” said Park.
*Park Kyung-rae plays her sogeum.
*"Farewell to Sadness" by Kim Ji-hee