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Traditional Korean music with a modern twist

National Theater of Korea to showcase annual Yeowoorak Festival in July

More often than not, long-held stereotypes about traditional Korean music have positioned the art form as difficult and boring, with some dismissing it as “old” under the assumption that what is traditional must remain preserved in its purest form.

This summer, however, the National Theater of Korea is providing a rare opportunity to enjoy a special blend of gugak, traditional Korean music, at its annual Yeowoorak Festival scheduled to take place throughout the month of July.

The Yeowoorak ― an acronym for the Korean phrase “here is our music” ― Festival aims to bring gugak closer to modern audiences through 20 performances staged by a spectrum of contemporary artists whose creative works are based in traditional Korean music.

The artists featured in Yeowoorak come from different genres and have infused gugak with their own colors and styles, and a touch of modernity, to create unique sounds that blur the boundary between contemporary Western and traditional Korean music.

“Though I did not major in gugak, my thoughts about it change every year through Yeowoorak,” said the festival’s artistic director and renowned Korean-Japanese pianist and composer Yang Bang-ean at a press conference on Tuesday. Yang has been in charge of the festival along with music director Jang Jae-hyo for the last three years.

“I always find that our traditional music has such diverse colors and immense potential, and most importantly there are many excellent Korean artists out there who are producing new sounds based on gugak ... I hope that Yeowoorak can continue to remain creative and evolve in the long run,” he said.
Artists peform a contemporary rendition of minyo. (National Theater of Korea)
Artists peform a contemporary rendition of minyo. (National Theater of Korea)

Unlike previous years, every performance staged at Yeowoorak will be a joint performance by at least two acts or more.

“Why collaboration? Because it’s fun ― it’s as simple as that. Artists get to naturally perform music that they wouldn’t be able to play otherwise on their own,” said Yang.

In the first week of Yeowoorak, Yang himself together with musicians specializing in different instruments will showcase an opening performance titled “Yeowoorak Fantasy” on July 4.

Under the theme “crossover,” the second week of the festival will feature a special collaborative performance by fusion band Second Moon and Coreyah, a crossover ethnic music ensemble. Veteran jazz bassist Seo Young-do and his electric ensemble and the principal players from the National Orchestra of Korea, the nation’s traditional instrumental orchestra, will come together to stage a unique joint performance as well.

The third week of the festival will take place under the theme of “sensation.” Renowned composers and directors Chang Young-kyu and Lee Tae-won will revive minyo, traditional Korean folk songs closely related to the lives and sentiments of commoners. Folk singer Hang Seung-seok and singer Jung Jae-il will present the tale of “Princess Bari” through pansori, Korean folk narrative, infused with classical piano.

The fourth and last week of the festival, given the theme “choice,” will present a joint performance by haegeum artist Kang Eun-il, Japanese jazz artist Saitoh Tetsu on contra bass and Sawai Kazue on the koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument. The festival will come to a close with the Yeowoorak All Stars, a finale featuring all of the festival’s artists, on July 25 and 26.

As part of the festival, various events including talk sessions with Yeowoorak artists, hands-on music sessions for children, and a workshop camp for university students majoring in gugak will be offered at the National Theater of Korea as well.

“I hope that gugak will not remain in the past, but be able to communicate with today’s generation through the Yeowoorak Festival. I believe that the festival can become a base from which our Korean music can expand into the future,” said president of the National Theater of Korea Ahn Ho-sang on Tuesday.

The fifth annual Yeowoorak Festival will take place from July 4-26 at 8 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends at the KB Hanueul Youth Theater and Dal Theater located at the National Theater of Korea. All tickets are priced at 30,000 won and can be purchased through Interpark or For more information, call (02) 2280-4114.

By Sohn Ji-young (
Korea Herald Youtube