Korean Studies Internet Discussion List


Contemporary Directions: Korean Folk Music Engaging the Twentieth Century and Beyond, edited by Nathan Hesselink. Berkeley (California): The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2001. vii, 262 pages (B&W photos, figures),
(ISBN 1-55729-074-1, paper).

reviewed by Roald H. Maliangkay
Leiden University

[This review first appeared in Acta Koreana, 6.2 (July 2003): 167-171. Acta Koreana is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

Over the last few decades, the South Korean government has spared little effort to promote Korean folk music abroad, but unfortunately there are still very few academic works on the topic in English. To my knowledge Contemporary Directions: Korean Folk Music Engaging the Twentieth Century and Beyond constitutes the first monograph that is entirely concerned with folk music, while comprising the work of both Korean and Western scholars. The eight articles it consists of were first presented at a symposium held at the University of California, Berkeley, in May 1999. As the contributing editor Nathan Hesselink explains in his introduction, the contributors all attempt to define the nature of Korean folk music, each taking his or her area of expertise to explore related issues. Most of these revolve around traditionalism, be it from a historical, a social or an intercultural viewpoint, while due to the dissimilarity in approaches there is little repetition. Together the articles recount some of the major issues in the history of today’s folk traditions, such as the 1962 Cultural Asset Protection Law (Munhwajae pohobŏp) and the impact of South Korea’s military past. Apart from a few minor weaknesses and one substandard article, this is an inspiring volume that asks important questions and offers novel insights regarding the tradition of Korean folk music today.

It is unfortunate that this collection of papers opens with Song Bang-Song’s ‘The Historical Development of Folk Music’ (pp. 5–21) as in terms of scholarship it dramatically falls short of the others, constituting no more than an unbalanced, unevaluated summary of facts. Song starts out by dividing Korean traditional music neatly into court and folk music, but the data he then lays out proves that the “fallen aristocrat and intelligent middle classes” (p. 12), which surely would not fit into either category, were also of crucial importance to folk music traditions. The significant role played by the several classes of professional entertainment women (kisaeng) are not mentioned anywhere either, probably because they would further blur Song’s untenable and irresponsible simplification. Although Song mentions many of the terms used in the other papers, his article has no value beyond that and should not have been included.

In ‘The Traditional Opera of the Future? Ch’anggŭk’s First Century’ (pp. 22–53), Andrew Killick gives a critical account of the history of the opera-style drama known as ch’anggŭk . Killick describes both the art form’s “traditionesque” foundations and the reasons behind its oft-biased historiography. Although it was first put together in the early years of the twentieth century by the collaborator Yi Injik, who found his inspiration in Japanese novels and new-school dramas (shimpa geki), in terms of performing style and repertoire ch’anggŭk also borrowed from p’ansori (long narrative song or one-man opera) and the indigenous itinerant performing groups (kwangdae) who originated it. In the late 1920s, the Korean Vocal Music Association (Chosŏn sŏngak yŏn’guhoe) developed ch’anggŭk into something grander, more akin to Western-style drama, and further adapted the repertoire in an effort to compete with the myriad forms of entertainment that were increasingly being offered in the cities. Following the art form’s demise in the 1940s, it was reinvented in the 1960s by the National Ch’anggŭk Troupe (Kungnip ch’anggŭktan) and the Committee for the Establishment of Ch’anggŭk (Ch’anggŭk chŏngnip wiw ŏ nhoe). The new form they created emphasized the art form’s association with tradition and that of p’ansori in particular (pp. 37 and 39). In the 1990s, efforts began to be made to correct some of the mistakes made in the reinvention process, but due to what Killick justly, if somewhat harshly, calls “a persistent lack of respect” for the genre’s unwanted history (p. 49), the tradition of Ch’anggŭk may well be altered again in the future.

Nathan Hesselink’s ‘On the Road with “Och’ae Chilgut”: Stages in the Development of Korean Percussion Band Music and Dance’ (pp. 54–75) analyzes the essential differences in performing space that may exist between the various forms of a single musical piece. Focusing on the rhythmic pattern of Och’ae chilgut (“five-stroke road ritual”), one of the four movements that comprise the celebratory performance (p’an kut) of folk bands from North Ch ŏ lla Province in the southwest, Hesselink finds that when the music moved from the countryside to the city to the global scene, the separate products greatly differed in terms of their implications to the musical participants. The evidence towards the transformation from “one of closeness to one of distance” (p. 70) that is presented is intriguing because it comprises clearly separate forms of music that exist simultaneously and involve a great deal of overlap in terms of audiences.

In ‘Some Westernized Aspects in Korean Folk Songs’ (pp. 76–95), Sheen Dae-Cheol looks into the Western influences on Korean traditional-style folksongs since the late nineteenth century. Using music notation to illustrate his findings, Sheen relates the early efforts to make the subsequently composed “new folksongs” (sin minyo) sound more traditional, a process he calls “re-Korean- ization” (pp. 79, 84 and 91). In arguing that it was commercialism that caused the advent of the genre, Sheen surprisingly disregards the influence of ch’angga and the underlying gospel songs that had also become popular since the late 19 th century. Rather than further exploring the subject, however, Sheen goes on to illustrate where the influence of Western music on Korean folksongs is still strong today. He takes on a surprisingly traditionalist viewpoint that seems to suggest all folksongs were constant phenomena before the end of the nineteenth century. This perspective, which is further exemplified by his categorization of transformations into internal and external changes (p. 92), prevents him from drawing practicable conclusions. In deploring, for example, the compromise of using Western notation in school music books (p. 90), Sheen does not give ideas regarding alternative teaching methods and overlooks the fact that school teachers are certain to be unfamiliar with alternative notation systems.

Lee Chaesuk’s ‘The Development of the Construction and Performing Techniques of the Kayagŭm’ (pp. 96–120) offers a factual history of the different forms of the Korean zither and a description of its most common playing techniques. Regrettably, Lee’s account is dispassionate and short of ideas regarding the possible reasons behind the myriad creations. As there are still very few sources on the history of the instrument in English, however, I am certain that this article, which is clearly based on thorough research, will prove its worth as an index. Not only does it offer handy musical transcriptions and pictures, but the plain structure makes it an easy piece to browse for information.

In the first half of ‘“Recycling” an Oral Tradition Transnationally’ (pp. 121–148), Chan E. Park, a trained p’ansori singer, explores the difficulties in creating a “traditional” performance for a modern, intercultural audience. Park relates how in South Korea the concept of folk music has changed since the 1960s and recounts significant changes in the performing style of p’ansori, while mixing these with questions raised from the viewpoint of tradition. The chronological disorder and the fact that the questions posed here are never directly dealt with are frustrating, in particular because it often leaves Park’s views on specific matters unclear. The second half of Park’s article, however, comprises a brilliant translation of a short version of one repertoire, ‘Song of Hŭngbu’, in which each line follows the prescribed rhythmic cycle. The translation, which Park uses as a “metatext” (pp. 134–135) in combination with Korean singing, seems to suggest that some of the questions she poses are rhetorical. Park’s deliberations are certainly worth considering, but it is somewhat regrettable that one has to make so many guesses about someone’s actual views.

Keith Howard’s ‘Korean Folk Songs for a Contemporary World’ (pp. 149–172) deals with the perception and adaptation of folksongs in Korea. Using the ubiquitous song Arirang to show why and to what extent Korean folksongs may be reinvented, he finds that “inherited definitions of the essence of folk culture are often at odds with historic reality” (p. 152). Following several examples of the elusiveness of Korean folksongs, Howard assesses the ways in which folksongs are generally defined in Korea and the West. He discusses the effect of the 1962 Cultural Asset Preservation Law on notions of tradition and subsequently relates the work of Yong Woo Kim, who has successfully experimented with folksongs using a novel singing and arranging style. The dichotomy of traditionalism and popularization that Howard describes not only sheds light on the effectiveness of South Korea’s cultural policy, but also puts Sheen Dae-Cheol’s article in perspective.

Margaret Dilling’s thought-provoking study ‘The Script, Sound, and Sense of the Seoul Olympic Ceremonies’ (pp. 173–234), which was published post- humously, makes up the final and by far the longest chapter of this book. Dilling looks into the theoretical framework for the ceremonial music for the 1988 Olympics and shows how the end product’s traditional and nationalist connotations were of much greater concern to the planners than any artistic value. Her approach is primarily anthropological as she recounts the comments and ideas of artists, performers, administrators, sportspeople, media experts and others. It was decided that the ceremony had to be choreographed in a way that projected the harmony of heaven, earth and humans “beyond all barriers” while avoiding any connotation with Korea’s twentieth-century history of suppression and disturbing student demonstrations (p. 179). Dilling relates how successful the music and lyrics were in conveying this and how, for example, the phrase “breaking down the wall” in the official Olympic song “Hand in Hand”, before being softened for fear of invoking a violent image, became a popular demonstration song on the international scene (p. 217). The military’s unwillingness to see taekwondo performed in a somewhat moderated fashion in order for it to be accompanied by an artistic kagok performance constitutes just one of many interesting illustrations of the many dilemmas faced by the organizers (pp. 220–222).

In spite of the fairly dull layout and typography of this series, which is, I hasten to add, still very reasonably priced, Hesselink’s scrupulous work on the texts has optimized the overall structural clarity and visual appeal. The music notation, pictures and tables are also helpful, though I did not particularly like the overly large size of some (see pp. 66, 98 and 102) and the vertical placement of others (see pp. 58, 63 and 106). The editing throughout the compilation, however, is excellent. The very small number of typos I came across all concerned romanizations (see p’yon [p’yŏn] on p. 8, “chalnatta” [challatta] on p. 254, and “Sungung-ga” [Sugungga] on p. 255) that were all printed correctly when repeated. Since the generous 23-page index also serves as a glossary any confusion is pre-empted.

Apart from the short opening chapter, this is a wonderful collection that offers very valuable and inspiring as well as comprehensive studies of Korean music. None of the English-language studies of Korean music currently available offer such a great combination of different approaches to key issues in folk music today. I am certain that this book will prove to be an important companion to those teaching Korean music or cultural studies, as well as a useful set of cases and ideas to those interested in performing art and tradition in a more general sense.

Maliangkay, Roald H. 2006
Review of Contemporary Directions: Korean Folk Music Engaging the Twentieth Century and Beyond, edited by Nathan Hesselink (2001)
Korean Studies Review 2006, no. 06
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr06-06.htm

Return to Index of Reviews
Return to Entry Page