Korean Traditional Music at the KCC

Once again the Korean Cultural Centre in London has put on another great event for the British public. As a way to introduce us to a more historical side of Korean music, they put on an evening of traditional Korean music. Not only were we treated to some spectacular musical pieces and costumes, the performers themselves were all very well respected and some of the biggest talents in their fields. It was a feast for the eyes and the ears!

Korean Traditional Music at the KCCBefore the performances began, we were given a short introduction about the performers and the pieces that would be played during the evening. Taking a look at the credentials of the performers, you can see that we were very lucky to have witnessed them perform! Many of the artists are highly intellectual, with some of them having PhDs and being lecturers in universities. Wow, where do they find the time to achieve so much! Makes us at the MASSIVE feel a little lazy.

Keith Howard, a Professor of music at SOAS university, stated that traditional Korean music is still fairly unknown and unfamiliar to most people, and that he hoped the performances during the evening would go some way to rectifying this situation. Well, it certainly did that!

The first performance of the night was by Suh Seungmi, who was playing the taegum. One of the first things we noticed was her beautiful hanbok. If you look closely, you can see the skirt was patterned with hangeul. It was so intricate and elegant! The sound of the taegeum is very atmospheric, and will instantly relax you. Her beautiful melodies were so effortlessly played that you easily forget how complicated it must be to play the instrument. While she played she also appeared extremely poised and focused, she was absolutely mesmerising to watch and she was able to portray so much emotion through just the strength and length of her breaths. It was fascinating how an instrument like the taegum alone can create such dramatic effect.

Next up was Cho Kyoungsun on the 6 stringed zither/geumungo, playing a piece titled ‘Sanjo’. She was accompanied by Park Seungwoo playing the janggu. Watching the intricate finger work that is used to play the geumungo is astonishing. Looking at her play, her fingers were contorted into a whole array of crazy shapes. So impressive! The song itself became steadily more dramatic and melodic after a rather odd beginning that our western ear’s were not used to. This zither was played differently from other Asian zithers in that it was plucked with a stick, so the sounds were very different and slightly indelicate so at first we weren’t sure how to interpret it. The sound of the geumungo is very distinctive and watching the performance was almost like looking at a painting come to life as everything from her hanbok and her hair to their instruments were so picturesque.


Following this was a very dramatic rendition of part of ‘Splitting a gourd in Heungboga’ – a Pansori act. For those that don’t know, Pansori is like a Korean opera, but can last for over eight hours! It’s also classed as an ‘Intangible Cultural Property’. Chae Soojung performed the piece accompanied by Park Seungwoo. Chae Soojung was an amazing performer; her actions and voice were so powerful and expressive. She was also full of personality, interacting and involving the audience, it was kind of like a Korean pantomime, with many of the Korean audiences joining in and shouting replies. If only we knew what to say to join in!!! Luckily the KCC had prepared a translation for us to read so we could follow the story. As the story crescendoed and the energy built up, it even sounded like she was rapping! This was definitely one of our favourites!

KCC Traditional Korean music 2

‘Sanun’ was played next, which was a joint taegum and geumungo performance. This song was so relaxing and peaceful that you felt you were having a snooze in some beautiful, green forest somewhere. The tunes that the two performers were making were beautiful and melodic. This is perfect music for anyone who needs to de-stress! One of the pieces was supposed to represent a peaceful atmosphere, as if old scholars were reading a book, and you could practically hear the footsteps of a jolly old scholar in a ornamental garden somewhere, waving his fan as he hopped on pond stones. Yes, it got that vivid!

The next performance was by possibly the most bizarre instrument we’ve ever seen. Kin Hyoyoung is one of the most well known saenghwang performers in Korea. This insane looking instrument can reach 24 pitches and looks like it’s come straight from the future. Listening to it was sort of like listening to 8-bit music, and some of us were picturing Link (from Zelda games) running around on a quest map. It was very intriguing to listen to and made us feel like we were in some sort of sci-fi film. We don’t understand how this crazy device even worked, but we loved it!

KCC Traditional Korean music 4

Byeon Gyewon had the première of her new piece on the night, called ‘Sounds of Winds’. This piece was composed to be played by the p’iri and taegum. Both are bamboo instruments; the p’iri is said to be the instrument closest to the spirit world, and the taegeum is said to unite people. For such a small instrument, the p’iri has a very bold and dominant sound. The two instruments combined to make a piece that sounded very mystical and you could definitely see why the p’iri is said to be close to the spirit world.

‘Chulgang’, the next piece, was composed by North Korean composer Kim Yongsil. It tells the story of labourers at the Heungnam oil refinery. This was played on the geumungo and was a fast paced and dramatic piece. It had a deep dramatic and rhythmic sound to it very different from the first geumungo performance of the night. Watching Cho Kyoung play this piece, we were amazed at how fast her fingers could jump across the instrument. We also noticed little traditions that are still respected in traditional Korean music performances, for example, every time Cho Kyoung placed down her geumungo, she would make sure to place the ribbon of her hanbok underneath. We would love to know the significance of this motion! Is it for practical or visual purposes?

The last piece of the night was a rousing rendition of the Korean folk song ‘Arirang, Jindo Arirang’, where all the performers of the night came together for a finale. This was a really fun way to finish off the night, with the singer Chae Soojung singing directly to the audience and getting the audience to sing back. The audience were having so much fun, there was an encore. Last Christmas, the Piccadilly lights housed a special Arirang advert which prompted us to do some research into the art, so it was very interesting to actually get to see this performed live!

This is just the taster of the many music events the KCC have planned for us! If you are upset you missed this event then there are still plenty of chances for you to see some traditional Korean music performed live as part of the All Eyes on Korea programme! So make sure you check it out!

'All Eyes on Korea' - 100 Day Summer Festival (June - Sept 2012)

Bonus: Because of time constraints as mentioned, we were unable to watch the whole Pansori, but if you are interested in the story, we think it’s the same as this traditional tale performed by Shinee in their own unique way, in a convenient 10 minute slot.

Part one
Part two
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