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‘Gugak empowers spirit, feels more like nature’

Most Koreans talk proudly of K-pop for having made inroads overseas where traditional music, or “gugak,” has failed. For Grammy-winner Henry Kaiser, however, gugak is much more fascinating and holds far more power to touch hearts.

“Western music is all straight lines, Korean music is all curved ones. And curved lines are more like nature and feel better to me,” Kaiser said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Kaiser, 60, is among the first generation of American free improvisers to have experimented with diverse music genres from around the world. The California-based musician has won a Grammy and been nominated for the Academy Awards several times. Kaiser, who claims to be a gugak fan of more than 30 years, was in Seoul to participate in the 2012 International Gugak Workshop hosted by the National Gugak Center, an affiliate of the Ministry of Culture.

“I think the music is very powerful and emotional and tests the limits of the voice (particularly) in ‘pansori.’ They use very extended techniques to get the sound that goes beyond (what) the instruments can get,” said William Winant, Kaiser’s long-time friend and a classical percussionist. Winant, a lecturer at Mills College, California, also participated in the program.

Asked about how to promote gugak globally, Kaiser said Korea shouldn’t westernize traditional music instruments like how North Korea transformed the “haegeum” into something similar to a violin.
Grammy winner Henry Kaiser plays a jing, a traditional Korean percussion instrument, at the National Gugak Center in Seoul, Friday. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
Grammy winner Henry Kaiser plays a jing, a traditional Korean percussion instrument, at the National Gugak Center in Seoul, Friday. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
“Its great strength is in everything uniquely Korean. If you change it to Western scale or you try to add keyboard and things like that … that takes away the power to touch people’s hearts,” he said.

Kaiser has recorded more than 40 albums and performed in many countries with artists such as Herbie Hancok, David Lindley and Bob Weir. He has made four albums of cross-cultural collaboration with Korean-American musicians Park Sang-won and Kim Jin-hi. He is also a grandson of Henry J. Kaiser, an American industrialist known as the father of modern American shipping.

After the program, Kaiser said he will let American musicians know more about gugak by introducing it at festivals and concerts. Making a film about gugak is also on his list, added Kaiser, who has also worked as filmmaker and producer.

He was one of 18 expert music educators and musicians from 11 countries invited to the annual program.

The two-week program offers a series of lectures on genres of the country’s centuries-old gugak, from “jeongak,” or court music, to “minsokak,” or folk music.

The workshop in its seventh run has so far encouraged many foreign scholars and artists to learn more about Korean music and promote the music in their homeland. Among the participants, Hillary V. Finchum-Sung became the first foreign gugak professor of Seoul National University; Lee Tong-soon, a Singaporean and ethnomusicology professor at Emory University, teaches gugak to students in the United States; and Jacques-Yves Le Docte, director of Cultural Center of North Brussels, became a Korean traditional music expert and assumed the role of moderator between cultures of two countries.

“Korean traditional music remains more unknown outside of the country than music from China and Japan. The annual workshop is aimed at promoting Korean traditional music through foreign musicians and scholars,” said Lee Bae-won, project manager at National Gugak Center.

By Cho Chung-un (