Music of the Korean Gayageum

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Song Ja Chee
Gayageum Sanzo

Jeong Hyun Chu
Gayageum Sanzo

Young Ho Shu
Ajaeng Sanzo
All titles published AkdangEban (

I first laid my eyes on a Korean Gayageum, the wooden, surfboard-shaped zither, hanging on some friends’ wall in Virginia; it appears they’d found it in a trashcan in Seoul, and because they didn’t know how to play it, and also because it needed some repair, it became an ornament, a piece of art, a statement of their musical appreciation. It also made me wonder what one actually sounded like when plucked by the hands of someone steeped in the instrument’s nearly thousand-year-old history.

Both Song Ja Chee and Jeong Hyun Chu have supplied us with masterful examples of the Gayageum’s slow, penetrating twang. On the first of these three discs, Chee, a student of master Song Geum-yeon, who worked up his personal sanzo- or “nonsensical rhythms”- during Korea’s turbulent 1950’s, restructures her teacher’s music. With typical buk (hour glass drum) accompaniment, this is a disc of slowly unfurling, patient ambience, clarified by occasional taps and clunks from the drummer, almost as if the percussion is testifying to what the Gayageum is saying. While the disc is divided into 8 tracks, this is a continuous performance. Only an extremely close listen reveals slight changes in key or tempo to announce another section, where notes are added, giving a listener the sense of the pace being picked up slightly.

Recorded in Damyang Soswewon, a botanical garden that also serves as a living space for scholars, Jeong Hyun Chu’s sanzo runs a full 50 minutes, but is noticeably different from Chee’s recording. Chu’s buk accompanist has a lighter tap, her melodies are airier and the changes from section to section are perhaps even subtler than Chee’s. Both women find plenty of room for improvisation, which sanzo calls for, in a music that initially often sounds formless, but only reveals its structure over time. This is a deeply meditative 120-year-old classical form, played without any sense of compromise.

Finally, Young Ho Shu, with his Ajaeng, a wider zither played with a stick, which gives off what sounds like bowing, continues the tradition of sanzo suites heard on the other discs. Yet, because of the instrument he plays, notes groan, waver, hover and dip, snigger and insinuate in ways that often sound like a human voice. It’s also a bit harsher, and for someone listening with ears attuned to experimental improvisation, the music on this disc might be emanating from an art space with a determined crowd of hipsters checking it out. There’s a consistent split between joy and anger here, as notes bend into the lowest registers before rising back up, as Shu compliments his playing with grunts. By the last two sections of the disc, accompanied by a Gayageum, Changgo and Daegeum (bamboo flute), the music has picked up considerably, becoming almost euphoric, though an uninterrupted listen to the entire 55-minute piece makes this build up nearly unnoticeable. Ultimately, the AkdangEnan label have here presented three examples of Korean semi-improvised traditional sound-potency that is as transportative as any Indian raga, and because both the sanzo and the raga rely on length, meditative subtleties and eventual tempo-shifts, we’ve got yet another unconscious connection between various musics that, at first, belie any relationship. -- Bruce Miller

Young Ho Shu
Jeong Hyun Chu (excerpt)
Song Ja Chee (excerpt)

CD available from cdRoots

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