by Regina Kim

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Photo by Regina Kim

On Thursday, August 2nd, 62 people—both Koreans and non-Koreans alike—attended “The Music of North Korea: Pathos and Passion” concert held at The Korea Society.  Ms. Eun-sun Jung, an award-winning gayageum (traditional Korean stringed instrument similar to a zither) player from South Korea, performed 2 traditional Korean folk pieces (a gayageum sanjo based on the style of the late Master Kim Byung-ho and “Chun Seol 춘설 (Spring Snow)” composed by Master Hwang Byung-ki), 3 North Korean folk pieces (“Hanobaeknyun 한오백년”, a variation of “Tondollari 돈돌나리” composed by Kim Bo-hyun, and “Baekdoraji 백도라지”, one of North Korea’s most popular folk songs based on the original Korean piece “Doraji”), and an improvisational piece titled “Yangcheong Dodeuri 양청도드리”.  

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Photo by The Korea Society 

At the end of the performances, the audience was enthusiastic and gave a warm applause that lasted for a while, after which Ms. Jung treated them to a special encore performance of “Amazing Grace” and the famous Korean folk song “Arirang” on her gayageum.  After the concert ended, many non-Korean members of the audience commented that they loved the performances and didn’t know that traditional Korean music could sound so beautiful.  Even I, a Korean-American who has heard some traditional Korean music before but never really felt drawn to it, was moved to tears when Ms. Jung played “Baekdoraji,” a simple yet very melodic and beautiful folk piece.  (You can watch a clip of Ms. Jung performing "Baekdoraji" on YouTube by clicking here.  There is also a clip of her performance of "Tondollari", available here).

I was lucky to catch up with Ms. Jung the day before her concert for an interview, during which I learned so much about traditional Korean folk music and its evolution in North and South Korea. 

Q:  Can you tell us a little bit about your background?  Where were you born and raised, and how did you become interested in playing the gayageum?  

Eun-sun Jung:  I was born in 1985 in Seoul and grew up there.  I started playing the gayageum when I was in the 4th grade in elementary school—I was 10 years old (in American age) at the time.  My mom’s friend played the gayageum, and one day she played for us at our school.  After seeing her performance, I told my mom I wanted to play the gayageum too.  I had learned to play the piano before that, but that was my first time being exposed to traditional Korean music.  The gayageum’s strings are made of silk, so the sound is clear and beautiful.  I was drawn to the sound, so I started learning it then and later attended Gukak National Middle School and Gukak National High School (South Korea’s top middle and high schools for teaching gugak, which means traditional Korean music—90% of its high school students go on to college and 20% of its high school seniors attend Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in South Korea.).  


Photo by Regina Kim

Q:  It’s interesting that your concert focuses on North Korean music.  Any particular reason why North Korean music was chosen for this performance?  

ESJ:   The Korea Society actually chose the program as part of its Traditional Korean Music Series, so I studied a bit on North Korean music.  North Korean folk music sounds different from South Korean folk music.  It’s hard for foreigners to tell apart North Korean folk music from that of South Korea, but it’s easy for South Koreans to distinguish between the two.  North Korean folk music—both interpretations of traditional folk music as well as shin minyo (신민요, contemporary folk music composed in the traditional style)—sounds more high-pitched and, if sung, more nasal too.  

Since much of North Korean music today is propagandist music, I couldn’t fill a 1-hour program with just North Korean folk music, and of course I didn’t want to play any North Korean propagandist music.  So I included some traditional Korean folk music in the program as well.


Q:  For people who are not familiar with gugak (traditional Korean music) and are not used to hearing it, is there any advice you can give on how to listen to and learn to appreciate traditional Korean music?  Are there any particular artists, songs, and/or albums that you would recommend for people who may be interested in exploring traditional Korean music further?

ESJ:  Some traditional Korean folk pieces are slow, while others are faster and livelier.  One type of slow traditional Korean music is jeong-ahk (정악), which is described as being not too sad nor too upbeat.  Slow music like jeong-ahk has a certain freedom, depth, calmness, and space to it, which can be enjoyable in today’s hectic society.  Faster pieces, like sanjo (산조, gayageum solo), are more colorful and have more variations within them, so they can grab the listener’s attention with their energy.  Listening to them can be kind of like watching a movie or TV series, in a sense—you go through ups and downs and may feel alternating moments of joy, anger, sadness, and happiness.  So I would suggest trying to appreciate each type of music in its own way.

As for traditional Korean music albums I would recommend, I would pick the 21st Century Korean Music Project (21세기 한국음악 프로젝트) album (a different album is released every year; for more information on this, please see the answer to the next question) and albums released by CMEK (Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea), a contemporary music/Korean gugak ensemble that was started by Lee Ji-young, a gayageum player who was my mentor and is now a professor at Seoul National University.  She showed me how to use the gayageum to expand and hone my musical abilities.  She started collaborating with foreign musicians about 10 years ago, when even fewer people knew about traditional Korean music.  (For more information on these albums and/or to purchase them, please see the links at the end of this article.)

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Photo by Regina Kim

Q: With many Koreans these days preferring to listen to K-pop, Korean rock, Korean trot, or Western pop, what is the traditional Korean music scene in South Korea like nowadays?  How popular is it these days, and do people still listen to it?

ESJ:  I don’t think you can really compare traditional Korean music to K-pop or those other genres you mentioned.  Traditional Korean music is in a field of its own, similar to how Western classical music can’t be compared to pop music.  That said, these days many Koreans as well as foreigners seem to be listening to K-pop.  Compared to the number of K-pop fans, I think the number of people who listen to traditional Korean music is low.  However, although many Koreans today aren’t very familiar with gugak, the South Korean government and Gugak FM (Korean radio station focusing on traditional Korean music and culture) are making various efforts to create and promote new works of gugak that might appeal more to the 21st-century listener.  For example, about several years ago, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, together with Gugak FM, established an annual competition called the “21st Century Korean Music Project (21세기 한국음악 프로젝트).”  The competition takes place every year in June and invites teams of composers and performers of traditional Korean music to come up with the most creative works.  Teams who do well in the competition hold concerts abroad.  For example, last year, a couple of the groups who placed in the top ten performed at Symphony Space in NYC.  Hopefully through such efforts, the Korean public will become more acquainted with traditional Korean music.  

Q:  Do you know what the North Korean music scene is like?  Is traditional Korean music still very popular in North Korea?

ESJ:  As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t fill an entire hour with only North Korean folk music, so I chose to include traditional Korean pieces.  While North Korea today is making some traditional-style music (referred to as shin minyo), I think that the North Korean music scene is dominated by government propaganda music, but I don’t know how popular such music is in North Korea, if the people actually like it.  In July a group of female singers called the “Moranbong Band” was created in North Korea, and they famously gave a concert wearing tight dresses and performing alongside people dressed up as Disney characters.  I think North Korea is similar to South Korea in that traditional music isn’t popular in either country.

But at least in South Korea, the government supports traditional music because it thinks it must be preserved.  In North Korea, however, the government doesn’t support it because it doesn’t convey government propaganda and thus is deemed useless, and so much of traditional Korean music has disappeared there.  Many famous traditional Korean musicians who had chosen the northern side when the two Koreas split were forced to give up their profession due to lack of support, so their music has been lost forever.  The works performed by two of the most famous gayageum players in history, Ahn Gi-ok and Jung Nam-hee, weren’t able to be preserved in North Korea.  Instead, they are being preserved in South Korea thanks to the efforts of the renowned South Korean composer and gayageum player Hwang Byung-ki.

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Photo by Regina Kim

Q:  You spoke a bit about this earlier, but how does North Korean folk music differ from South Korean folk music?

ESJ:  Just like each province in Korea has a different dialect, different regions of the Korean peninsula have their own versions or flavors of traditional Korean music—we musicians call these versions collectively as tori (토리) and often put the name of the region in front of “-tori” to distinguish among them.  In general, North Korean folk music sounds more high-pitched and flowery than folk music played in South Korea, and North Korean folk songs also often convey the sadness of the North Korean people.  

The North Korean folk song “Baekdoraji,” which is part of the concert’s program and one version of the famous traditional Korean piece “Doraji,” was the first North Korean folk piece I’d ever heard.  It is a fancy piece of music and has many variations within it.  

Also, North Korea has developed its own version of the gayageum called okryugeum (옥류금).  It was originally made to celebrate former leader Kim Il Sung.  The okryugeum today has 36 strings, whereas currently the South Korean gayageum has only up to 25 strings.



Q:  I heard that you’ve lived in NYC quite recently.  What are a few similarities and differences you’ve noticed between NYC and your hometown of Seoul?  Any plans to return to South Korea?

ESJ:  I came to NYC from South Korea last February, but I ended up living in NYC for only 3 months because I got married last June and moved to Pennsylvania to be with my husband who is a Ph.D. student at Penn State University.  So I live near Penn State now.  But I’ve been coming to NYC every month because many of my concerts are in NYC.

NYC and Seoul seem very similar to me.  Seoul is very busy and crowded like NYC.  But NYC has a diversity of cultures, whereas Seoul is still relatively very homogeneous.  The subway system in Seoul is so much cleaner—there are definitely no rats!—but it can be hard to find your way around Seoul even with a map.  In NYC, however, the streets are numbered, so it’s easy to find your way around.

My husband was born in the U.S. and so is a U.S. citizen, so I will probably continue living in the U.S. in the near future.


Q:  Do you have any more upcoming concerts in the U.S. and/or collaborations with other musicians in the U.S.?

ESJ:  Yes, I’ll be giving more concerts in the U.S., though no precise dates have been set yet.  I met Matthew Schreibeis, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who’s a composer and interested in traditional Korean music.  I plan to hold a concert with him in the fall at the Philip Jaisohn Center in Philadelphia.  I’ll also be collaborating with the South Korean guitarist Udro (real name: 유재성, Yoo Jae-seong) on an album that will be released this fall; this will be the first time that a guitar-gayageum duet album will be produced in Korea.

I also hope to study contemporary improvisation in the U.S.  I was surprised to find that in the U.S., there are a lot of books and manuals on musical improvisation.  Traditional Korean music originally used a lot of improvisation and was passed down through oral tradition.  Then we used notes to pass them down, so improvisation largely disappeared from Korean folk music.  Today Korea doesn’t systematically teach you how to do musical improvisation.  So if I get the chance to study in the U.S., I hope to use the improvisational skills I will have learned to help reintroduce improvisation back into Korean folk music.

*Click here to purchase CMEK’s album on YesAsia

**Click here to purchase the 21st Century Korean Music Project album on YesAsia