[Weekender] An unlikely love affair with Korean music

By Korea Herald

Hilary Finchum-Sung, SNU professor, offers an outsider’s view on future of Korean music

  • Published : Jun 13, 2014 - 21:06
  • Updated : Jun 19, 2014 - 15:19
When time allows, Hilary Finchum-Sung travels to rural villages on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, interviewing elderly people and recording songs that they used to sing in kitchens, on farms or during special occasions like funerals.

She is on a self-imposed mission to study and preserve a disappearing musical tradition in Korea which its people don’t seem to care much about.

“It (the music) is real. It’s not something performed on stage for an audience,” she said, as she sat down for an interview at her Seoul National University office last month. “Pity that it’s dying.”

Like in the Jindo countryside, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired native of Nashville, Tennessee, cuts a pretty conspicuous figure here at SNU, too. Not just because of her looks. She is the first and only foreigner on the faculty of the Department of Korean Music ― “gugak” in Korean.

In 2009, she became a professor of gugak at Korea’s most prestigious university. It was about 13 years after her first encounter with gugak back in the U.S.

“It was in my M.A. years at Indiana University, probably in 1996,” the professor said, recalling the day she first listened to sinawi, a genre of gugak that is performed impromptu by an ensemble and traditionally accompanies shamanic rites.

As an ethnomusicology major, she used to listen to music from different parts of the world, but what she heard that day caught her totally off guard.

“I had no experience with Korean music. I thought it might sound like Chinese or Japanese music. But the music I heard was so different,” she said. 
Professor Hilary Finchum-Sung poses with a haegeum, a two-string Korean fiddle, in her office at Seoul National University. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Earthy, raw, unpredictable and “as if breathing” are some of the words that she used to describe her first impression of the sounds from a country that she had no particular interest in.

“I grew up in the South of the U.S., listening to a lot of different music. Southern (U.S.) music is also raw and improvisatory. We just sit down with people and make stuff up. That kind of thing really appealed to me, and I kind of sensed that when I first heard gugak,” she explained.

To her, if the sound of Western musical instruments are “from heaven,” Korean ones have a very different “earthy” tone or timbre. “It’s not really a clean sound. It sounds more like it’s breathing. Just very much alive.”

So in the middle of Indiana, her love affair with gugak began.

Back in the ’90s, there was no Google or YouTube. It was difficult to find information on Korean music, and she gobbled up whatever resources were available at libraries and record shops. She also started taking Korean classes. In 1999, she first came to Korea for a year and returned several times while studying for her doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. She also started learning the haegeum, a two-string Korean fiddle.

“I don’t even know how I did it then. Now I can read articles in Korean and understand them. I look back on my old notes, and every single word is translated,” she said.

During her first year in Korea, she met her Korean husband. The “Sung” in her name is his family name. The couple has a daughter and twin sons who now go to Korean schools.

What she finds ironic is that her children are learning at school “Oh! Susanna” and “Dixie” on the harmonium or piano, instead of Korean folk songs, whereas she came here all the way from Nashville, “Music City” of the U.S., to teach gugak.

In fact, she believes that education ― the lack of education, to be precise ― is the biggest problem where gugak is concerned.

Even though Koreans call gugak “our music,” it’s not properly being taught at schools, she said.

“Most Koreans in contemporary Korean society are enculturated into studying, understanding and listening to Western music. All Koreans I know can read ‘Do Re Mi,’ but they don’t know about ‘Hwang Tae Jum Im Nam’ (the five notes of gugak).”

The result is most Koreans are now missing out on the rich musical world that was once part of their daily life.

The American professor said she listens to different genres of gugak depending on her mood.

When she’s stressed out or needs some rest, she puts on recordings of her favorite pungnyu (chamber music) repertories.

“It’s kind of slow, nice and pleasant overall. It can be nice background music, too, because it is not incredibly dark or bright but a nice gentle music,” she explained.

When she is sad, upset or just doesn’t feel good, it’s time for sanjo. Literally meaning “scattered melodies,” sanjo is a stylized string improvisation accompanied by drumming on the janggu, an hourglass-shaped drum.

“Right now, I am really into Donghaean byeolsingut (shaman music from the East Coast). The rhythms are incredibly complicated and the vocals are so intense. I listen to it only when I am alone, because my kids say it sounds scary.”

She enjoys fusion gugak, too. It’s good that a lot of gugak musicians nowadays try new things and engage composers and artists from abroad, she said. “These kinds of exchanges are really important in opening up the possibilities for gugak in the future. The broader the better.”

“Fusion gugak has a good function to attract new audiences who normally wouldn’t listen to gugak,” she added.

In fusing different sounds, however, musicians have to be careful and try to maintain the essence of gugak, like its special tone colors, ornamentations and rhythms, she said.

The professor also has a lot to say about a widespread notion here that gugak is a thing of the past that needs to be preserved. According to her, it has survived partly due to measures that the government took in the past few decades to save it from extinction during the country’s breakneck period of industrialization, urbanization and Westernization.

“Without the measures, a lot of music wouldn’t have survived. But they created the idea that gugak has to be preserved and couldn’t be changed.”

“If music doesn’t change, it ceases to be relevant to contemporary society.”

Some of the most popular forms of gugak now are newly invented genres like sanjo and the percussion quartet samul nori, she pointed out.

“Sanjo for haegum that we have now dates back to the 1960s. It’s like 50 years old. Samul nori has existed since 1978-’79. It draws on tradition, has developed it and taken it to a new level.”

Fortunately, she said, there have been some positive changes in the ways Koreans treat their music. When she first came to Korea, she was shocked by how little Koreans knew about gugak and how little they cared about it. But things are starting to get better, she said.

“I hope that maybe in 20 years every single Korean will know Korean music and be able to really say ‘our music.’ Right now, I don’t think people can really say that with confidence.”

By Lee Sun-young (