Performing the ‘Traditional’ in the South Korean Musical World

Performing the ‘Traditional’ in the South Korean Musical World


Hilary Finchum-Sung
University of San Francisco
University of California at Berkeley

This article examines contemporary, traditional music culture in South Korea through a close look at one South Korean musician, Yi Ji-young. Yi Ji-young, a kayagǔm (12-string zither) performer known for her work with composers of experimental music, has become, for many, a muse through which the emerging genre of new ‘traditional’ or ‘national’ music is finding its voice. Through interviews and a brief examination of her musical lineage, this article highlights the complexities of transforming a musical tradition. The artist’s activities are entwined with discourse regarding tradition in South Korea. While the discourse regarding ‘tradition’ provides an interpretive lens through which music performance can be viewed, the construction of a new traditional music incorporates an artist’s personal experiences, notions of aesthetic validity, and competence. A focus on factors such as these makes possible a more nuanced analysis of the musician’s role in, as well as an appreciation of the contingent nature of, the construction of a contemporary Korean music.


For the birth of this article, I am indebted to Professor Roger Janelli, who not only encouraged me to question conventional ideas about tradition, but also steered me, unintentionally, toward the study of Korea. It is a path I do not regret as it has provided me with the continued mentorship of Roger Janelli. To illustrate the significance of this relationship, I present the following anecdote. After conducting two years worth of dissertation research in South Korea, I returned to the States to write my dissertation. Within a week of my return, the storage unit in which the research materials were kept had been raided and most of my research materials had been stolen. Devastated, I made my way to Janelli’s office. Eyes filled with tears, I dove into the narrative of the cruel twist of fate that surely meant the squashing of any hopes for an academic career. A wasted stint in graduate school augmented by a pile of debt from student loans grew in my mind as symbols of my soon-to-be disappointing existence. Prepared for something as harsh as an implication that somehow this was my fault (as in one professor’s admonition, “You should have made copies”) or a simple, yet dismissive, “that’s too bad,” what I found instead was encouragement. A few seconds passed as he silently considered my dilemma, head cocked to one side and hands clasped in front of him, and then, one finger raised to accent his point, he announced in the assiduous and diplomatic manner typical of the way he addressed difficult (perhaps, I dare say, obtuse) questions in class, “There is a precedent.” He then sprung from his desk and pulled down a copy of Edmund Leach’s The Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954). Reading from the preface, he revealed that Leach had, as well, lost his research materials but persevered and wrote what is considered to be a classic of anthropological scholarship. I cannot say my own writings have reached the same level of success as that of Leach, yet the kindness and generosity of spirit that Roger Janelli demonstrated that day has stayed with me.


Between 1999 and 2003, for both extended and brief periods of time, I conducted research on a community of composers in Seoul engaged in the construction of new traditional/national music. My primary concern at that time rested in the ways by which composers were defining their activities as contributing to a “Korean” music. The compositional methodologies the composers employed differed according to their musical training (Western or Korean), generation, gender, and networks in which they belonged. However, individual constructions of tradition and the subsequent connection to their work emerged as a striking characteristic linking the activities of these composers. Constructions of a Korean musical tradition incorporated intersecting ideas regarding local and global, old and new, the past and the future, personal aesthetic preference and professional responsibility, and the identity of the composer and that of South Korean society at large.

As scholars, we struggle with the concepts of “tradition” and “modernity.” Seemingly polar opposites, the concepts intersect when one examines a cultural artifact not readily defined as either by the individuals who have created it. Such an item may defy placement in the “traditional” or “modern” spheres, and its identification remain subjectively poised on the tongues of those who choose to categorize it. “Tradition” implies a continuation of antiquity, and any break in that line compels a “revival” of the tradition, a “reinvention,” so to speak (Hobsbawm 1983: 3). In his analysis of invented traditions, Eric Hobsbawm draws attention to the fluidity of the concept of tradition and cautions one must be aware of making “assumptions firstly that older forms of community and authority structure, and consequently the traditions associated with them were unadaptable and became rapidly unviable, and secondly that ‘new’ traditions simply resulted from the inability to use or adapt old ones” (1983: 5). It becomes clear that “traditions” do not exist in spheres separate from contemporary phenomena when one takes a look at the ways communities handle the complexities of contemporary culture. Examination of tradition requires a closer look, not just at the cultural context from which “traditions” emerge, but at the very hands instrumental in shaping their existence.

This paper explores the world of ch’angjak kugak (created national music) or sin kugak (new national music), music referring to and revising kugak (national music), in present-day Seoul, South Korea, through the eyes of one practitioner. Yi Ji-young, a kayagǔm (12-string zither) performer known for her work with composers of experimental music, has become, for many, a muse through which the emerging genre of new “traditional” or “national” music is finding its voice.1 Through interviews and a brief examination of her musical lineage, this article highlights the complexities of transforming a musical tradition, including the simultaneous successes and struggles facing the artist balancing a love for traditional music performance and a professed duty to renovate musical form, in present-day South Korea.2

The contributions of a musician such as Yi Ji-young, impacted simultaneously by often contentious and intersecting categories of the global and local and the modern and traditional, have become, albeit unintentionally, connected to larger debates regarding Korean tradition and identity. Examinations of ch’angjak kugak compositions intrinsically connect to these debates and often deal extensively with questions of authenticity and expressions of national identity.3 The primary problem with these types of assumptions and analyses is that the individual artist becomes taken for granted, lost in a jumble of linkages. Concepts of authenticity and national identity are both important and implicit aspects of cultural analysis, and likewise apparent in the artist’s conceptualization of her activities within the cultural context. Nevertheless, I wish to move away from a model of new music composition that either contrasts the new compositions with more traditional forms or treats the activities of composers and musicians as a part of monolithic contemporary music culture. While the multifarious discourse regarding “tradition” provides an interpretive lens through which kugak performance can be viewed, the construction of a new traditional music incorporates an artist’s personal experiences, notions of aesthetic validity, and competence. A focus on factors such as these makes possible a more nuanced analysis of the musician’s role in, as well as an appreciation of the contingent nature of, the construction of a contemporary kugak.4


Kugak can be defined as a category of music incorporating multiple court and folk genres. The term kugak emerged in the late nineteenth century to distinguish indigenous music from Western music. Before that time, other terms were employed in reference to Korean music (hyangak) and Chinese music (t’angak). Kuk, meaning “nation,” and ak, meaning “music,” could logically refer to the surfacing of a national or cultural self-consciousness that grew rapidly at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.5 The genres within the kugak category include instrumental ensemble and solo genres (such as banquet music and sanjo), vocal performance (such as p’ansori and sijo), and ceremonial music (such as Confucian shrine music and sinawi). Those who study Korean music employ the general term kugak when referring to music that developed primarily during the Chosǒn Dynasty (1392-1910), and most distinguish “traditional music” from “new compositions.” 6 Here, I follow suit. Individuals draw a line between Chosǒn and post-Chosǒn music primarily because of the massive cultural upheaval induced by the Japanese occupation period (1910-1945), the division of the peninsula, the Korean War (1951-1953), and the rapid industrialization experienced in South Korea from the 1960s onward.

Kugak is not a neutral, independent category that resists change, but rather a performative articulation of a community’s perspectives and aspirations. Kugak is a discursive category that has been developed through and is dependent on human experience and objectives. This has become especially evident in recent years when, following the institution of the munhwajae pohobŏp (cultural properties legislation), attention was directed toward preservation of music within the kugak category. The preservationist attitude has influenced reception of revisions of kugak as well as new compositions loosely based on kugak structures and aesthetics, which have been criticized as derisory and “not really” kugak. Musicologists in Korea have taken issue with these criticisms, as well as adding some of their own, by offering ideas regarding the nature of kugak and its status in contemporary society (Howard 2006). CD liner notes and concert programs add to the din through elucidation regarding a musician’s or composer’s work or a performance’s relevance to the Korean tradition of music performance. Often, in defending a musical piece or performance as truly “national music,” scholars and musicians make reference to the essentially kugak characteristic of improvisational development, arguing that truly Korean music has never been static and always contingent on performer and performance context.

Multiple layers of influence proceed simultaneously in constructing the kugak category, and, with this in mind, it is not as constructive to ask what is kugak but rather more constructive to ask whose kugak is it. In Richard Bauman’s discussion of folklore conceptualizations of genre, he introduces a new twist on the idea of genre, one that is fluid and intersecting rather than static and isolated. Within this framework, genre becomes more of “a communicative practice than typology, viewing genre as an orienting framework for the production and interpretation of discourse” (1992:53). As an orienting framework, the genre of kugak, fluid and contingent, acquires taxonomy from those who engage in kugak performance and composition as well as from those who consume it, evaluate it, and interpret its meaning-for themselves, for South Korean society, and for the world. At the same time, within the framework exist certain assumptions about the character of kugak, which can be used by performers, composers, and critics to include or exclude music within its boundaries. Elements such as form, function, social distribution, manner or contexts of use and orientation to the world help define a genre. Kugak’s definition has depended heavily on its connection to pre-twentieth century Korea, often viewed as “traditional” Korea. Because of the public’s recognition of the terms and their generally understood meanings, terms such as kugak or chǒnt’ong ŭmak (traditional music) set up expectations and bind an art form to the South Korean artistic heritage. A consideration of kugak as performative, rather than static, pays homage to its historical roots yet recognizes the importance of context and performers in the life of the genre.

Ideas determining kugak aesthetics and current musical practice can be imagined to be born of times of fissure. The past and present century’s musical developments take in hand the drastic lifestyle, economic, and political changes. Marina Lobanova (2000) identifies what she terms “epochs of rupture,” referring to periods of great change during which cultural products both respond to and reflect the changing times. In an analysis of Western classical music’s historical transformations, Lobanova draws parallels between the baroque and modern periods as times during which people questioned established canons, a catalyst to welcome musical innovations. Accordingly, she identifies the most overt sign of an “epoch of rupture” as “a predominant orientation towards the violation of canons” (2000:16). It is without a doubt that one could label Korea’s twentieth century a time of great rupture that welcomed several paradigmatic shifts through which traditional values were questioned. The perceived dichotomy separating traditional and modern, or Western, values has figured prominently in attempts to establish a contemporary Korean identity. With its greatest fissure the division of the peninsula, modern Korean history points to fresh wounds, and South Koreans regard acutely any attempts from the outside to represent a comprehensive system of Korean values, be they political, economical, or cultural. Changes in the twentieth century have forced many South Koreans to reconsider themselves on a domestic and international scale, and music has not escaped this critical interpretive glare. Because of this, as Lobanova contends, the extent to which musical ideals are questioned and reconfigured serves as a signifier of the changing times. 7

Not a particularly new concept, the revision of music in Korea claims a long history of incorporation, Koreanization, and definition.8 The earliest evidence of these activities comes from court music treatises of the fifteenth century. Here as well, changes in Korean historical circumstances ushered in periods during which cultural products underwent great revisions. The third king of Chosŏn (1392-1910), T’aejong (r. 1400-1418) encouraged a rectification of Korea’s music in order to make it more fitting for the new dynasty and, thus, distant from the corruption of the previous dynasty. His son, Sejong (r. 1418-1450) continued the rectification campaign, through which all forms of court music were revised. Ethnomusicologist Robert Provine noted the significance of these revisions as the foundational criteria on which then-contemporary and future Korean musical principles were or were yet to be built. According to Provine, “The fifteenth century provided the standards against which all subsequent Korean court music developments were compared, and even today there are revivals and resurrections of music and rites founded upon these standards” (1988:13-14). Essential to this standardization was the marked delineation between domestic and foreign music. Sejong clearly distinguished a-ak (Chinese-derived ritual music) and hyang-ak (indigenous music) and called for a more dominant presence of hyang-ak in the court. The scholars of Sejong’s time chose musical sources and altered musical forms that best fit the ideological sentiment most suitable for court performances and discovered new approaches to music that both blended existing forms and paved the way for new genres (Provine 1988; Song 2000). In fifteenth-century activities we find a precedent for present-day evaluations of kugak’s contemporary appropriateness and the debates over new compositions and multiple styles inspired by kugak.

Early twentieth century occurrences, not the least of which include a civil war that left the peninsula in ruins, placed attention on reconstruction away from relatively non-essential activities on the cultural backburner. At this point, a line dividing the Western and the Korean took a more distinctive form as South Koreans strove to construct a new national identity. The shift in attention to industrialization and modernization, which, for many, was synonymous with Westernization, stimulated altered perceptions regarding court and folk music, and Korean institutions of education enforced this divide through establishment of departments of Korean and Western music.9

In the late 1950s, Seoul National University established the first kugak-kwa (Department of Traditional Music) in Korea, which firmly divided the music worlds in Korea between ŭmak (Western music) and kugak since music departments, or ŭmak-kwa, previously centered on Western music performance and theory. This division aided in the formation of the separate and unequal relationship between Korean and Western musics in South Korea. In a sharp criticism of this division, and of the unthinking assumption that Western music is simply “music,” Lee Kang-Sook asked, “What about the West? …. If a person were to ask about the status of an East Asian music department, they would specify “East Asian music department” instead of asking simply about a music department. In our country, why is it that we don’t ask about the status of “Western Music departments” (sŏyang ŭmak-kwa)? (1985: 11-12). The unequal correlation of these music worlds has continued into the new millennium and, as a signifier of the paradigmatic construction of music worlds within South Korea, has reinforced their division.

Since the beginnings of ch’angjak kugak culture in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, composers have borrowed compositional techniques from Western classical compositional pedagogy and understood these to be necessary tools for the development of kugak (Howard 1997; Yi 1994). In interviews I conducted, many composers described the ideal recipe for ch’angjak kugak to be one incorporating all musical influences present on the peninsula, and, thus, crafting a culturally relevant music. The reality, however, is ambivalence toward Western cultural or musical influence. Trusted with modernizing and popularizing kugak, many ch’angjak kugak composers often are subject to criticism for incorporating too many western elements or for creating a shallow sound (kip’ŭji ant’a). It seems a fine line exists between success and failure, and these composers find themselves defending their compositional methods, and sometimes their credentials, to critics. As Laura Nelson discovered in her research on consumer practices in Seoul in the early 1990s, “some people revel in new freedoms and new amenities, while others are concerned about lost traditions” (2000: x). The concern about lost traditions resides, as well, within the discourse about kugak and ch’angjak kugak compositions. Indeed, fear of this loss is an undercurrent throughout much of the discourse. This trepidation stimulates concern over “pure” or “real” Korean music, and it encourages composers and other kugak professionals to engage in discourse regarding “Koreanness.” 10

In South Korea, “tradition” is much debated, and issues related to contemporary South Korean conceptualizations of tradition have come to the fore through two important developments. First, the government established in 1962 the Bureau of Cultural Properties (munhwajae kwalliguk) as a way to preserve cultural forms that were disappearing from popular use. The designation of certain cultural forms as tangible or intangible cultural properties, or of an individual as a human cultural treasure, increased the visibility of older forms of cultural creation by encouraging cultural education.11 Second, in the 1980s, often cited as a reaction to Westernization, an emphasis on indigenous modernity found a voice through the minjung (the masses/the people) movement (minjung munhwa undong). The minjung movement, identified by a master narrative that “[struggles for a] definition, for a sense of what it means to be and act as ‘the Korean people’ amid the far-reaching global and domestic changes that have affected them personally,” strove to find an indigenous modernity amid a seemingly endless influx of foreign influence (Wells 1995:3). These developments are important to a discussion of kugak because they have set the tone for discourse regarding Korean traditional music and the transformation of this music by concurrently essentializing a Korean sound and categorically identifying “official” performance styles. This discourse contours ideas regarding music making for contemporary composers and performers.

The context of ch’angjak kugak is that of a community of South Korean music specialists who are seeking to persuade fellow citizens to support and enjoy traditional music as a part of daily life. These specialists endeavor to incorporate the music into the Korean saenghwal (daily life) by transforming an old music into music accessible to contemporary audiences. Composition has become the principal tool in this transformation, and desires to renew or recreate Korean traditional music have opened the flood gates of opinions concerning the proper way to reference pre-twentieth century aesthetics while competently making a compelling music for contemporary audiences.

Discourse surrounding new music composition refers to uri chŏngsŏ, which literally translates as “our sentiment” or “our emotion,” and is considered an essential ingredient in artistic expression that can be identified as Korean. Musical formulae identified as encapsulating this essence are those which most clearly reference idioms predominant in classical folk and court music genres. Aesthetic elements such as variable rhythms, subtle and often indistinguishable beginnings and endings of musical phrases (often expressed as a continuation of sound from one phrase to the next), pentatonic scale, and contrasts between short and long rhythms, loud and soft sounds, form the desirable foundations of a Korean sound. While the older forms of music serve as a standard or a foundation for current music composition, capturing a Korean essence involves more than musical structure, incorporating assumptions about national and cultural character, collective memory, personal responsibility, and instinctive aesthetic sensibilities. The dialectic of pre-twentieth century Korean music and a cultural essence marks the two as distinct players in current debates regarding the legitimacy of contemporary music seeking classification as part of a Korean musical tradition.

Within the South Korean context, kugak’s meaning extends beyond the immediate creation and reception of sonic sensations to connect with historical, contemporary, and future cultural dimensions. In the construction of kugak, people disclose their personal experience and objectives, and these individual voices contribute to the community construct of kugak. In his examination of the process of musical change, John Blacking points to the individual as the key to constructing new musical forms and ideas about these forms. Like Blacking’s assertion that “[music and cultural changes] are the results of decisions made by individuals about music-making and music” (Blacking 1986:3), I emphasize the significance of the musician’s experience and personal history within the broader cultural context.

Yi Ji-Young represents the quintessential Korean musician of the twenty-first century. Well-trained, respectful of traditional parameters, and both daring and talented enough to stretch these parameters, Yi’s case provides an example both of the present context and of the future trajectory of South Korean musicianship. Like Yi Ji-Young, contemporary kugak musicians and composers in South Korea make critical decisions regarding the relationship of musical form to Korean identity. These decisions are not made lightly and reflect the struggles of the individual in defining their activities as part of the process of musical tradition. The following examines the experiences of a contemporary musician within this context. My goal is to present, using Yi’s own words, a portrait of a musician stretching musical boundaries in South Korea and abroad.

Yi Ji Young: The Innovative Traditionalist

I first met Yi, a professor in the kugak-kwa of Yong-in University, in 2000 while conducting research on a community of composers in Seoul contributing to the growing meta-genre of ch’angjak kugak. Yi welcomed me into her home where we spent an entire afternoon discussing the current state of contemporary composition. Over green tea and melon slices, she assessed the music culture of contemporary kugak musicians as conservative and, though active, a mess. Yi revealed her struggles with current problems in kugak and ch’angjak kugak circles, asserting that these problems rest in the modifications that have occurred in the name of development. Contemporary musicians’ and composers’ desire to expand beyond traditional boundaries, which themselves are laid out in present-day discourse, has led to the invention of relatively new instruments, the most noted of these being the seventeen, twenty-one and twenty-five string kayagŭm. While such developments have increased possibilities for compositional creativity by expanding tonal and melodic potential, they have done nothing to ease debates concerning if and how kugak should be developed. If nothing else, these kinds of developments, she contended, have added to an environment of uncertainty and confusion. Her mission, in part, has been to lend clarity to this creative milieu.

Cover of Yi Ji-Young’s 2004 CD release Contemporary Music for Kayagǔm: Eight Scenes.
  • Cover of Yi Ji-Young’s 2004 CD release Contemporary Music for Kayagǔm: Eight Scenes

Yi-the first musician to earn a Ph.D. in Kayagŭm Performance in Korea-began her musical journey at the tender age of five through lessons on the kayagŭm and in singing and dancing. Yi remarked on the persistence of her mother, who insisted boldly that she learn the kayagŭm, contrary to the choices of most middle class parents of the 1970s. Family and friends urged her mother to find a more “appropriate” instrument for the child, asking, “Are you trying to turn her into a kisaeng?”12 Undeterred, Yi’s mother enrolled her in lessons. According to Yi, her mother stuck to her conviction that the child should learn the kayagŭm in hopes that learning the instrument would prepare Yi for a self-sufficient future. At that time, most women did not participate actively in the professional realm, and there were limited possibilities for young girls. Aware of the security the munhwajae pohobǒp afforded outstanding traditional music specialists, a security not readily attained in the Western classical world of South Korea, a world overrun with middle-class hopefuls, Yi’s mother’s choice of the kayagŭm for her daughter was a strategic one. The cultural properties legislation created a functional space for the traditional arts in Korean society as well as opportunities for those who, in the momentum of modernization, were not part of the developments in business and industry. Yi credits this initial training in the Korean tradition to her perseverance and success as a musician:

Learning the kayagŭm was like play for me when I was little. Because I liked kayagŭm so much then, I continue to enjoy it. I learned kayagŭm without any knowledge of Western music; therefore, the aesthetics of kayagŭm performance became natural to me, familiar to my body and my ears. I think if I were not exposed to Korean traditional music first, it would have been much more difficult for me now to express music through the kayagŭm.

Yi continued her training at the Sŏn-hwa Arts Middle and High School, and received both her BA and MA from the College of Music at Seoul National University. After years of performing as a soloist and member of orchestras and chamber ensembles, Yi returned to academia for doctoral studies in kayagŭm performance at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul.

Because musicians trace their lineage through their teachers and the school of performance practice with which these teachers are associated, it is logical to proceed with a description of Yi’s musical lineage. Through imitation and repetition, young instrumentalists learn the repertoire and are expected to re-create the pieces in their own style through improvisation. In the twentieth century, increased reliance on written notation as a learning tool and preservation legislation nurtured a generation of musicians who imitated rather than created musical pieces and styles (Howard 1989). Many of Yi Ji-young’s teachers, despite being part of this historical legacy, were among the innovative few who stepped outside of the derivative box in search of outlets to satisfy their need for creative expression. Their innovations have impacted Yi’s musical choices and outlook.

Yi’s Musical Lineage

Yi recognizes the significant contribution of each teacher to her development as a performer. Seven all total, they represent a mixture of conservative convention and progressive experimentation.13 Yi recognizes how important her teachers have been to her musical maturation:

If I had learned from different teachers, I probably would perform much differently. [My style] would have been much less refined and would not have been so traditional. [Creativity] is integral to my personality. I look pretty sensitive, quiet, and sharp on the outside but on the inside I am like fire. Also, I have a tendency to resist things, but once I decide to do it, I tend to carry it out foolishly. This kind of personality and the things I learned from many teachers are incorporated well into my kayagŭm playing.

Each worth a manuscript-length examination of their lives and contributions, I will briefly highlight those who helped mold Yi’s musical abilities.

Yi’s earliest training was steeped deeply in traditional folk and court music genres as she learned from musicians whose pedagogy mirrored the pedagogical approaches of their teachers. Master Lee Mal-yang, who was affiliated with a kwŏnbŏn training academy for courtesans, instructed Yi in court and folk performance on the kayagŭm as well as in folk song and dance. From Lee, the groundwork for her engagement in kugak was set, and the absence of previous exposure to Western music performance, Yi asserts, helped facilitate her easy understanding of traditional performance: “While learning from him, I recognized that I was able to accept everything about traditional music from my whole body because I knew nothing else at that time. From Lee sŏnsaeng-nim (honored teacher), I learned all the basics of Korean music such as hŭng (passion/energy) and style.”14 From Lee and Ch’oe Ch’ung-ung, who taught primarily kayagŭm chŏngak (court/elegant music), Yi learned by rote. While Lee’s approach encouraged play with the student (“I remember that Lee sŏnsaeng-nim was always dancing and singing”), Ch’oe strictly enforced a strategy of repetition and memorization: “Ch’oe sŏnsaeng-nim always sang the melody of chŏngak and played with me without speaking. At that [time] I thought it was an outdated method of teaching but if I think it over now, I think it is the most Korean style teaching method.”

Yi identifies Yang Yŏn-sŏp as possibly her most influential teacher “because he actually taught me 90 percent of the performance techniques.” Yang introduced Yi to the Kim Pyŏng-ho School of kayagǔm sanjo (folk instrumental genre), which initiated her into the improvisatory performance techniques central to the genre.15 Yet, she is quick to point out that Kang Chŏng-suk, a teacher from the Sŏ Kong-ch’ŏl sanjo tradition, inspired her musical vision:

Until my early thirties, my performance style was [very restrained]. However, the older I’ve become the more I’ve recognized that I have a fire in my heart… I developed a more passionate performance style after I met Kang Chŏng-suk. The sanjo that I knew before was [nothing like I experienced hearing Kang sŏnsaeng-nim perform] and when she played sanjo in class, I cried in front of her.

No surprise considering her initial training, Yi describes herself as most comfortable performing traditional music, and many of her arrangements are based on traditional genres. Yet, her passion for performance has instilled a need to exceed the technical limitations dictated by the standard court and folk genres. Yi has, in fact, become known for her active experimentation and her willingness to step out of the conventional musician’s comfort zone. Yi’s personal aesthetic is one of adherence to traditional techniques while surfacing into the experimental realm of the contemporary. Still, Yi reveals a discomfort with new music experimentation and a profound ease performing within more traditional perimeters:

I’ve always considered myself a traditional musician. Both the practice and performance [of modern music] stresses me out, so I don’t think my personality is suitable for it. I always impress on the students who learn modern music from me the importance of traditional music. If the kayagŭm performer is not good at traditional music, one can never be good at modern music. When I perform modern music, all the expressive techniques-subtle aspects that are not found in the score-are pulled from many elements of traditional music, and I always think it is possible to do so.

Her 2000 recording Yi Jiyoung’s Kayagum Pohŏsa features pieces from Korea’s classical court repertoire, pieces that demand a high-level of technical skill.16 It is through the performance of such works that Yi proves her capabilities as a master musician. Renowned composer and kayagŭm performer, Hwang Byung-ki, in a written introduction included in the CD liner notes, highlights Yi’s accomplishments in the realms of “classical, folk, and contemporary musical genres.” He points to her arrangement and performance of the classical pieces as “a meaningful attempt to revive a vanishing classical Kayagŭm music” (2000).

The influence of Kim Chŏng-ja provided an existential shift in Yi’s relationship with kayagŭm performance. Yi’s teacher in her early twenties, Kim trained Yi in the subtleties of melody in chŏngak kayagŭm. Kim emphasized the flow of ki (energy) and the importance of each note as an expressive unit. Beyond music performance, Kim’s most vital lesson was that of the musician’s responsibility to music development. According to Yi, “The most important thing is that as a person who studies Korean music, she taught the consciousness and sense of duty [to that music].” Yi’s years of training up to that point had provided her with the solid competency required for innovative change in musical form, and her sense of responsibility in developing that music combined with raw skill to transform the musician into an activist. Yi’s efforts to revive and promote traditional performing standards have, ironically, led her to develop those fundamental skills within a more experimental musical context.

Her love of expressive musicianship has supported a desire for innovative performance techniques. This yearning for innovation appears to contrast, at times, with the performance of standard traditional genres. In present-day South Korea, performance of “old” music has become closely aligned with the act of preservation, and, thus, uninspiring for the performer while marginally novel for the audience. According to Yi, “Playing traditional music is very important, but as a performer [in this] particular era, to only play traditional music on the kayagŭm is like making kayagŭm music in a museum. Many people have naturally helped me to develop my work step by step.” A traditionalist at heart, Yi succumbs to the virtuoso’s quest to further nurture her performance skills by stepping outside of current musical limits. This rather personal act inadvertently bleeds into a public space concerned with keeping indigenous cultural forms alive and relevant. Her participation in a community of new music specialists marks her as a trendsetter. While Yang Yŏn-sŏp nurtured the techniques and Kang Chŏng-suk set free the artist’s soul, the influence of Hwang Byung-ki and Lee Chae-suk is without a doubt evident in Yi’s drive for innovation.

Hwang Byung-ki is celebrated today as perhaps the most visible kayagŭm performer in Korea and abroad. Hwang’s teacher was Kim Yun-dŏk, whom the Korean government designated as a national cultural treasure for preservation of Chŏng Nam-hee’s sanjo. After performing Chŏng Nam-hee sanjo for years, Hwang became dissatisfied with the limited kayagŭm repertoire of the time. According to Hwang, “It’s obvious that the society I live in is different from the one in which sanjo developed” (Na 2001:49). Hwang asserted that a different era called for a variety of creative outlets and he began to create music he calls “programmatic” (p’yojejŏk) or music that is expressive of a dramatic scene or sentiment.17 With his contributions to contemporary instrumental music, Hwang arguably brought kayagŭm performance into the twentieth century while adding dramatically to the repertoire. In doing so, he raised the bar on performance techniques.

Hwang’s bold innovations in kayagŭm composition and performance without a doubt changed the face of contemporary kayagŭm performance for succeeding generations of musicians. His choice to compose new music for the kayagŭm came precisely at a moment in time when music conventions placed a heavy emphasis on preservation. Yi says the following about Hwang’s influence:

I learned from Hwang Byung-ki sŏnsaeng-nim the kind of tone I should make-how to make a deep sound-and gained a better understanding of elegant music. After that I decided that, before I die, I want to play a piece only with one tone. And through that one tone performance, I want to express all my thoughts, feelings, experience, wisdom of age, sadness, suffering in my music.

Expressivity of one tone, encapsulating the communicative goals of a performer, underscores the crucial import of the individual in musical development in South Korea. Like Hwang, Yi Ji-Young, while following personal requisites for artistic challenge and integrity, inevitably molds ch’angjak kugak’s ever-changing shape.

The crossing of the traditional court/folk ambits in contemporary composition marks one way through which older forms are morphing into the new. In the history of Korean music development, contact with and incorporation of non-indigenous music forms into Korean music (“Koreanization”) has been well documented. In the twentieth century, however, such a strong emphasis was placed on preservation of national music that the lines between indigenous/old and foreign/new were more firmly drawn. Recently, however, composition and performance experimentations have lead many to work together with foreign musical genres and instruments to further develop the possibilities for Korean contemporary music. Yi Ji-Young’s teacher Lee Chae-suk’s experimental approach to music performance has inspired the next generation of performers to think outside the box, or outside of the traditional repertoire. “Fusion” performances with Western classical musicians and artists from Japan and Southeast Asia have marked Lee as an innovator.18

Lee was the first Korean who earned bachelor and master’s degrees in Korean traditional music and became the first Korean to gain a performing knowledge of the six most famous sanjo, exceeding the average potential for kayagŭm performers. While many musicians specialized in a particular genre or area-court or folk-Lee Chae-suk presented a solo concert in which she not only performed in both areas, but also in contemporary styles. Speaking on Lee’s influence, Yi Ji Young states:

[From] Lee Chae-suk sŏnsaeng-nim I learned the techniques and interpretation of modern music of the kayagŭm, including the most efficient fingering, phrasing, and an understanding of the hidden music from the score. If I had not met Lee Chae-suk sŏnsaeng-nim, I would not have been able to play modern music as I do now.

Taking her cue from this influential teacher, Yi Ji-young has become known for her work with “modern traditional/national music,” or hyǒndae (modern) kugak, a label indicating contemporary experimentation with Korean musical structure, sound, and presentation.19

Beginning with a Ph.D. completion performance in 2000 that consisted entirely of newly composed pieces, Yi has dedicated herself to encouraging the development of kayagŭm performance techniques:

I want kayagŭm techniques to surpass those used in traditional performance and increase the quality of the performance technique so that the kayagŭm performer can play any kind of piece. This is not only my responsibility but that of my colleagues and younger students.

With this statement, Yi emphasizes the accountability of the instrumentalist. It no longer remains adequate for the performer to simply execute the repertoire designated for the instrument. In a postmodernist twist, the musician must look beyond the twentieth-century rubric of preservation to the roots of Korean music aesthetics in order to reinvent an environment encouraging of musical change. “Tradition,” therefore, does not equate with stasis, but exists within the fundamental fluidity of societal transitions.

Yi’s philosophy centers on integration of influences from multiple spheres of time, space, and culture. Tradition, for Yi, is a part of the present and informs future potential:

[I hope] the kayagŭm will not be just a traditional instrument. I want it to be the most important instrument in the study of Korean music of today and of the future. And, through this process I want it to spread over the world, so that many composers will wish to compose a piece for the kayagŭm. As our ancestor musicians did, I want the various Western instruments that came to Korea to become Korean style and play along with Korean traditional instruments to create contemporary and future Korean music.

Tradition, as a continuous point of reference for Korean sensibility, guides present-day musical decisions regarding revision and composition. Together with fellow musicians, while adhering to a kugak paradigm, Yi has been working toward musical integration and an augmented global presence of Korean music.

Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea

Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea has become the vehicle through which Yi is working to achieve the dual goal of revision and internationalization of contemporary kugak. Consisting of nine members, the ensemble incorporates Korean and Western instruments and compositions by American, European, and Korean composers into performances.20 The inspiration for participation in a music ensemble characterized as inclusive rather than exclusive came from Yi’s experiences as a young student in a climate in which Korean traditional music and Western music were not on equal footing:

I first thought about it when I was attending Sunhwa High School of the Arts. Most of us [studying traditional music] studied with those who study Western music, and we had a difficult time. From this environment I asked myself why, within same country, those who study Korean music and those who study Western music must study separately. I thought it is nonsense to distinguish between the two. I learned, as well, that I was capable of familiarity with foreign music just I had learned traditional music. At the same time, although I did not reject other type of music, a pride in me developed about studying Korean music primarily because it was not easy to study with those who study Western music.

This early experience, combined with music history lessons through which Yi learned of her “musical ancestors,” the practice of musical incorporation prompted Yi to take an active role in developing music within the tradition that did not deny foreign influence. Enthusiastic audience reactions from a 1998 CMEK performance in Germany confirmed Yi’s belief in the world’s readiness for this new music.

  • CMEK, from left to right: Kim Jeong-seung, Park Jeung-min, Rhee Kyu-bong, Lee Hyang-hee, Lim Myoung-jin, Yi Ji-young, Park Chi-wan, Kim Woo-jae, Kim Woong-sik

In configuring the position of CMEK among the multitude of contemporary artists and ensembles in South Korea today, Yi articulates CMEK’s ambition to create music that is equally unique, exemplary, and authentically Korean:

I think CMEK is continuing Korean tradition….The instruments in the ensemble are Korean traditional instruments such as the kayagǔm, taegǔm, p’iri, saenghwang, and percussion, and the performers are all trained in Korean traditional genres. I am proud about this. I think that these factors make it possible for CMEK members to create new Korean music with authenticity… However… I think it is more important [to create] a better music… Whatever [the origins of the music] I have tried to put it together with traditional elements.

In the ensemble’s 2006 CD release Beyond the Passion, composers contributed pieces that coincide with Yi’s inclusive paradigm of music development. “Hŭimun,” South Korean composer Kim Dae-song’s arrangement of a court music piece, incorporates instruments such as the cello and marimba to add to the “richness of tone color to the piece” (liner notes, 2006). “One Thread,” a piece composed by Stefano Bellon, weaves a juxtaposition of Korean and Venetian musical elements into “a personal meditation on the partial and limited aspects of two deeply distant worlds” (liner notes, 2006). In the case of composer Koo Bonu’s, “Canti di Bocca Chiusa e Melisma,” Western classical and Korean instruments combine in a play on Korean traditional aesthetic techniques. Koo writes in the liner note introduction to his piece, “[O]ne needs to put aside cultural bias and listen with an open mind” (2006). CMEK contributing composers and musicians alike bring to the fore their particularized musical expertise and philosophies as they seek to create a new music for South Korea’s twenty-first century. These individuals, together with Yi, share ambitions to pay homage to expressive aesthetic roots nurtured over time, take what has grown from these roots, and transform them in ways that best fit the perspectives and standards of our time.

The Past into the Future

The contemporary practitioner of kugak interacts with a local musical form and community in a context that demands broadening once-clear boundaries from local and traditional to global and contemporary. The transformation of the musical category of kugak remains controversial after decades of debate regarding its true character or essence and whether changes within this category degrade its character. The looming legacy of cultural preservation systems and the grassroots minjung movement set perimeters for “authentic” national music to which contemporary artists are bound. Consequently, many musicians and composers in contemporary South Korea must struggle between artistic integrity and fears of musical assimilation creating a muddled music without specific cultural ties or identifiable roots. Robert Morgan described the process as one through which musical languages dissolved into artificial and foreign forms: “The inevitable consequence of the loss of a central musical language is that music speaks in many tongues. Some of us may know several of these, but the more of them we know, the less fluently we speak and understand them” (1992). The fears related to composition of an indecipherable music of unidentifiable origins makes those involved in musical experimentation open to the critical glare of colleagues. Yet, from the perspective of Yi and others involved in South Korea’s contemporary kugak scene, the benefits outweigh the risks as the transformation of “old” music strengthens its chances for survival in the new millennium by ensuring a more solid representation of contemporary aesthetics.

From Morgan’s perspective, the muddled musical forms create an artificial musical language, equally distant from and misunderstood by the very people who have created it. Yet, the perspectives of many music specialists in South Korea differ. As in Hwang Byung-ki’s assertion regarding the inherent artificiality of centuries-old music staged for a contemporary audience, these composers and musicians emphasize the insincerity of not revising or recreating kugak in present times. Over the past one-hundred years Korean cultural values and assumptions, social structure, and the very geopolitical makeup of the peninsula have gone through astonishing changes. Composers, musicians, and audiences are simply not the same as they were during the Chosŏn era. However, threads of consistency, present in cultural mores and ideals, remain and shape the nucleus of readily-recognized Korean sonic values. In music, although the performance context has changed, the musical threads expressive of a Korean musical mother-tongue remain. An examination of the artist Yi Ji-Young presents a glimpse in the life of a musician deeply entrenched in Korean musical tradition yet actively reshaping it. Yi’s musical lineage and training, her notions of an aesthetically valid music, and her sheer musical competence demonstrate the subtle shades of meaning in contemporary kugak musical performance.

Yi’s ideas regarding kugak’s contemporary manifestations are invariably tied to the rhetorical framework of tradition and its association with the meta-genre of kugak. One can see a desire for rootedness within kugak ancestry in her insistence that she is, despite a reputation as an innovator, a traditionalist. The contemporary kugak she constructs draws on an arguably rich musical lineage and musical abilities honed within that lineage. In addition, it requires the musician to step into an advocacy role, serving the contemporary kugak community through performance practice, education, and innovation. Yi’s acceptance of this responsibility ties her to current debates regarding Korean identity and globalization, such as in the minjung movement’s emphasis on indigenous modernity. Asserting that preservation is not the answer, she grapples with the notion that a Korean music incorporating Western musical idioms, scales, and instruments can still be Korean. Admittedly imperfect, the trial-and-error nature of ch’angjak or hyŏndae kugak has instilled in Yi a determination to get it right.

Yi Ji-young’s training prepared her well for a life as a kugak instrumentalist. As noted by her teacher Hwang Byung-ki, Yi Ji-young’s musical competence granted her the respect of colleagues and the aptitude to broaden the kugak repertoire through contemporary composition. Her experience as someone who trained exclusively in kugak performance, never receiving training in Western classical music, is rare and affords her an ease with which she approaches innovation. Her mentors in performance, from Lee Mal-yang to Kim Chŏng-ja, Hwang Byung-ki to Kang Chŏng-suk, permeated the young artist’s world with the repertoire, skills, and love for performance necessary to the making of a virtuoso. With virtuosic sophistication, she has demonstrated her abilities in both kugak and ch’angjak kugak performance contexts and, with her colleagues in CMEK, has navigated a path into an international contemporary composition world. Performances in Europe and the United States, as well as serving as inspiration for composers such as Korean American composer Na Hyo-shin and Italian composer Stefano Bellon, have pulled Yi from the local contemporary context to an international one in which she serves as a representative of Korean musical tradition.

Yi Ji-young’s musical endeavors have, for the most part, been undoubtedly successful. Yet, she must still own up to criticisms regarding the authenticity of her musical activities as “Korean” as well as to her personal musical preferences. Those who do not believe involvement in the revision of Korean musical tradition to be a worthy pursuit level the most stringent criticism at Yi. Most critical are some of her own teachers of traditional performance genres such as chŏngak or sanjo:

Many of my teachers do not like me playing modern music. The ones that taught me chŏngak want me to only play chŏngak, and those who taught me sanjo want me to play sanjo well. They tell me this very directly. Some have criticized my performance after seeing a CMEK performance. But I still go my way. Yet, I hold out hope that sometime in the future I will only want to play chŏngak and sanjo.

The preceding statement appears contradictory to her role in modern Korean music yet reveals explicitly Yi’s internal dilemma. The very passion for traditional music performance that brought her to choosing a life as a musician has encouraged her to find ways to ensure its vivacity in contemporary society. For Yi, participation in the creation and promotion of a hyŏndae kugak is a duty, a responsibility in which all involved in the South Korean contemporary music scene must play a part. The challenge presented by innovations in performance techniques appeal to her need to stretch the technical limits set within the traditional repertoire. A natural-born virtuoso, she is part musical innovator and part advocate for Korean music’s more visible global presence. Yet, at heart, Yi holds onto the love for traditional Korean music that captured her as a child. For this love, Yi Ji-Young simply wants to play kayagŭm.


1 I offer heartfelt gratitude to Yi Ji-young who generously offered her time and energy to my list of inquiries despite her busy teaching and performance schedule. I pull the majority of the narrative below from interviews conducted via email in the fall of 2006.

2 This article would not have materialized had it not been for the contributions and insights of friends and colleagues. Sang-Yeon Sung helped considerably with the translation of the interview texts taken from a series of email exchanges with Yi Ji-young. Translation, a laborious process, was greatly eased by her magnanimous gift of time. Roald Maliangkay, in good humor and grace, provided insights, corrections, and suggestions that helped transform this piece into a workable article. I am indebted to them both. I am thankful, as well, to the anonymous readers and editors of Folklore Forum for their meticulous attention to detail, patience, and their insightful comments and suggestions.

3 See, for example, H. Finchum-Sung, “Uri Saenghwal Ŭmak: Music, Discourse, and Identity in South Korea.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 2002.

4 Ian Condry’s treatment of hip-hop in Japan as a transnational phenomenon emerging from the context of performance (2006) has impacted my consideration of the role of kugak in contemporary Korean society. Most significantly, his examination offers a unique perspective on the internationalization of a once clearly-defined and bound local form (African American music) that attempts to eliminate the binaries of the local and global, traditional and modern to make way for more constructive discussions of musical aesthetics and meaning.

5 The Korean ‘nation’ as we know it today is fairly new. However , for centuries prior to the advent of the modern nation, ideas recognizing unity of cultural practices developed in Korea. Martina Deuchler (1992) details the societal changes that occurred between the Koryŏ (918-1392) and Chosŏn (1392-1910) Dynasties as a result of the importation of Confucian ideas from China. Deuchler demonstrates that the Korean society emerging from this transformation was compellingly Korean in character despite initial momentum from a Chinese-based ideology. Korean Neo-Confucians accentuated the strength of Korean values through such observances as “national practice” (kuksok) and “practical learning” (sirhak).

6 Contemporary manifestations of traditional Korean music have been known by many labels, some clearly distinguishable, some not. The terms sin kugak (lit. new national music), ch’angjak kugak (lit. created national music), and hyǒndae kugak (lit. modern national music) are used when referring to music primarily employing Korean traditional instruments and musical idioms in a “revision” of the tradition. The appropriation of these particular terms appears to depend on the preference of the user and not on clearly distinguishable sonic factors. Yet, in conversations with musicians and composers, some have noted distinctions between the application of the term and music sound.

7 My approach to canon or the canonic resembles Lobanova’s, that of the canon as paradigm. The canon offers an ideal, a guideline for replication, but also provides a definitional foundation for appropriate form.

8 “Koreanization” refers to the process by which a foreign artifact transforms into a Korean one: “A historical characteristic [of kugak] is the adoption of foreign music, but changes occur in the lyrics and instrumental style to fit our own style” (Ch’oe Chong-Min in Yun Myŏng-Wŏn 2000:27).

9 In a study on music conservatories in South Korea, Okon Hwang (2001) detailed the inequity between money and energy devoted to departments of Western music and departments of Korean music.

10 Similar to Gordon Matthews’s examination of “Japaneseness” among Japanese artisans, I observed a conscious construction of “Koreanness” on the part of many musicians and composers through their activities. “Koreanness” refers to the extent to which something expresses an essentialized Korean identity.

11 The cultural properties system has been widely criticized as a system through which the “museumification” of Korean culture takes place. Some scholars have determined that the system changed the structure of music performance and education pedagogy. Instead of the student learning a foundation and embellishing the tradition with his/her own style (a sign of good musicianship), the student became an apprentice who studied a master’s style and then replicated the master’s style as part of his/her legacy. Other identified problems include favoritism (certain artists singled out over others not according to their skills but personal connections) and censorship, such as with the subjective singling out of certain characteristics of an art form and discarding of others (Howard 1989, Maliangkay 2004, Yang 1995).

12 Kisaeng were courtesans during the Chosŏn period (1392-1910) trained in dance, singing, and musical instruments. The twelve-string zither became associated with the kisaseng, and Yi’s earliest teacher, Lee Mal-yang, was at one time affiliated with a kwŏnbǒn, an institute established for the education of kisaeng. The negative association her mother’s friends had with the kayagŭm had much to do with the infamy of the samp’ae kisaeng, third-tier courtesans who engaged in sexual favors. For this reason, despite the fact that the first or second-tier kisaeng did not engage in such sexual activities, court sanctioned prostitution has come to form part of the connotation of the term kisaeng.

13 See the complete list in the appendix at the end of the article.

14 Sŏnsaeng-nim is a deferential term used when referring to one’s teacher. Yi uses this term when discussing her kayagŭm teachers, and I choose to use sŏnsaeng-nim instead of the translation “honorable teacher” because it best fits within the flow of the narrative.

15 Sanjo, literally “scattered melodies,” is a folk instrumental performance genre. Consisting of folk melodies divided into mini-movements, and with a heavy reliance on improvisation and a combination of rhythmic cycles progressing from moderate to rapid tempos, sanjo is considered to be the genre of instrumental virtuosi. There are a variety of sanjo schools, each reflecting a performance style developed by a particular teacher.

16 The original title of the CD recording was Art World of Yi, Jiyoung’s Kayagum (Classical Music Live) and has since changed. Pohŏsa is an instrumental piece well-known in the kugak repertoire and is featured on the recording.

17 An early example of this effort is the piece Forest (1962). In this composition, “the first kayagŭm piece to be composed in a modern idiom in the history of Korean music” (liner notes, 1993), Hwang crosses the kugak realms of folk and court rhythms, melodies, and tone colors to represent sounds in nature such as rainfall and rustling leaves. In the movement “The Cuckoo,” Hwang artfully mimics the cry of the bird as he shapes the sonic aura of the forest for the listener.

18 Fusion, or p’yujŏn, has emerged fairly recently as a distinct genre of new music composition. P’yujŏn takes its cue from jazz fusion as a genre that both mixes genres and brings together unexpected combinations of musical instruments to create a new sound.

19 The many manifestations of kugak terminology have been discussed briefly in this article. Yi prefers the term “hyŏndae kugak” as it parallels with the term “hyŏndae ŭmak” (modern music— ŭmak /music often refers to Western classical music, while kugak to Korean), a term referring to the general category of twentieth century Western classical composition. Hyŏndae kugak, as well, appears to be preferable for its descriptive character, referring to the activities in music development occurring right now.

20 The composers ethnically and musically originate from the United States, Europe, and South Korea. In addition to country of origin, the composers play on their musical roots in revisions of traditional music genres and/or interweaving of Korean and Western musical elements.


Yi’s musical lineage includes the following:

Lee Mal-yang (5 to 7 years old)—affiliated with the kwŏnbŏn, an institute established for the education of kisaeng and was a performer in the 1960s; learned court kayagŭm music, folk kayagŭm music, folk song, and folk dance.

Ch’oe Chung-ung (9 to 15 years old)—taught original kayagŭm chŏngak (court/’elegant’ music). Teacher always sang the melody and played without speaking, Yi learned by rote.

Yang Yŏn-sŏp (16 to 22 years old) —taught Kim Byung Ho style kayagŭm sanjo at Kim Pyŏng-ho school. According to Yi used the minimum hand action but made the most sensitive and profound tone color.

Kim Chŏng-ja (19, 20, 24 years old)—emphasized flow of ki (energy) in chŏngak kayagŭm; instilled in Yi the consciousness and sense of duty as a person who studies Korean music.

Lee Chae-suk (23, 24 years old)—taught Choi Ok-san School of kayagŭm sanjo.

Hwang Byung-ki (mid-20s; 32- 35 years old) —a Ph.D. program professor

Kang Chŏng-suk (37 to 40 years old)—Says Yi, “Before I met her, I thought I understood kayagŭm sanjo because I learned dance and p’ansori when I was young, but it was as if somebody hit me from behind. The sanjo that I knew before was not the sanjo and when she played sanjo during class, I cried in front of her. At that time, I also think I was a person who had not experienced han (deep sorrow) or sadness in her heart; without this, it would be difficult to play sanjo. While I was learning Sŏ Kong-ch’ŏl sanjo from Kang Chŏng-suk, I understood sanjo melody as fundamentally sorrowful, so I cried often while I practiced. It was a wonderful experience and still now, when I think of Sŏ Kong-ch’ŏl sanjo, I feel pain in my heart.”


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Hilary Finchum-Sung earned a B.A. from Middle Tennessee State University in Sociology (1992), an M.A. in Folklore (1997) and a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology (2002) from Indiana University. Her research has focused on a community of composers and musicians in Seoul engaged in the process of revising traditional music forms. Finchum-Sung is currently an adjunct professor in Pacific Rim studies at the University of San Francisco and an administrator in student affairs and program development at UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian studies. Her research interests include contemporary Korean composition, shin minyo [new folk songs] in occupation-era Korea, and gender dynamics in South Korean music society.


One thought on “Performing the ‘Traditional’ in the South Korean Musical World

  1. Where are you currently teaching gayageum class in San Francisco. I totally agree with your article in order to play you have to have had some type of deep sorrow. I understand the melody inside of my head that has a more masculine sound originated from Koguryo, an old old Kingdom during the 4th century.

    I know it should be a difficult process to learn how to at least play for meditation purposes, or just to learn how to play but most importantly its call Introduction to Korean Traditional Music 101. For the last three years I have search for an instructor. Is there anyone you can recommend apart from yourself.

    For the arts,
    Joan Potter

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