Random Play by Graham Reid


Encounter with a master musician

So did I mention that right next to the Ahnkook Zen Centre in Seoul is the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art? Or that at the performance of The Princess Who Fell in Love With B-Boy (a cross-genre dance production with pounding hip-hop which is going to Broadway in October) that there were four middle-aged monks behind me in the audience of screaming girls and air-punching young men?

Or that to get to the home of Professor Hwang -- the master of the 12-stringed gayageum and who perhaps single-handedly preserved the traditional music of Korea and has been taking it to the world -- you walk up typically narrow and unglamourous streets and alleys.

Of course once inside his house you get a spectacular view over the low and high-rise buiildings of the city, and his upstairs lounge which is a clutter of papers, shopping baskets of CDs, instruments and documents feels quite remote from the noise and tawdry chaos outside.

Hwang Byungki is an extraordinary man: when he first started learning the gayageum (like a zither) in the early 50s his country was recovering from the Japanese colonial era, the Second World War and the invasion of North Korea and China down the peninsula.

There was very little information about either traditional court music or folk music (none or very little of which was written down) and many of its practitioners had passed on.

"When I began to learn gayageum in 1950," he said, "only about a dozen new gayageum were being sold each year. Now there are 10,000 a year."

For which the quiet and composed professor should take credit.

Now there are well-established music departments teaching traditional music and the sound of the gayageum is so popular that there has emerged the inevitable fusion movement where the instrument is found in the context of synthesisers, drums and electric guitars.

The man who has rarely incorporated Western classical instrumentation with gayagem passes lightly over what he thinks of that.

What he does say -- and he also said how much he enjoyed being in New Zealand for a concert some years ago -- is that Korean music is the least known music from the Orient in the Western world.

That is because the music of Indonesia, Japan, India, Vietnam and so on filtered back to the West through the colonial powers. Korea's colonial power was Japan and so the music remains, and to a great extent still remans, in the East.

To meet this man was one of the highlights of this visit to Seoul and when I asked for an interview with him -- like a Korean journalist going to Wellington and asking if they could pop around for a chinwag with Peter Jackson -- I never expectd to meet him.

And yet . . . .

That's pretty much what is happening here: doors are opening, tea is drunk, many hours are spent cross-legged and there is the usual hurry-up and wait.

Much of what I am picking up will of course make its way at greater length and with more consideration into other media outlets in NZ and abroad, and today -- after stumbling on terrific gallery of cutting edge art -- I have a meeting with someone who is going to talk about the digital art movements here which I have encountered at the Venice Biennale and elsewhere. If there is one thing Korean artists, and the people in general, are comfortable with it is technology. They use it in every aspect of their lives frm social networking to reaching out into the world via the arts.

Today there is also a meeting at our High Commission which I have requested -- and much more before dinner with the mayor of Seoul. That's why I packed the jacket.

Meantime if you want to hear some gayageum music by Professor Hwang turn your ears here. I find it beguiling.

May I also say that I have appreciated your comments about how you would like to see the role of the Auckland War Memorial Museum and how it can have a deeper engagement with the city. Feel free to let me know your ideas via the discussion thread here or, if you wish you can make some more private comment through the e-mail link at Elsewhere.

Righto, off to encounter yet another cultural collision which I will not only survive but be delighted and informed by.

Graham Reid is in Seoul as guest of the Seoul Metropoliatan Government

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