Komungo

Jin Hi Kim

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

When I began my komungo studies, I never imagined that my career on this instrument would take place largely in the USA. It’s certainly safe to say that my success in creating new music for the komungo would not have been possible had I remained in Korea. As an expatriate, I have been fortunate to meet and collaborate with great virtuoso musicians from around the world. O.O. Discs has released five CDs of my works, the most recent, in March, simply called KOMUNGO. The instrument of the disc’s title is six feet long and indigenous to Korea, having originated in the fourth century in the northern part of the country (Koguryo). It is played on the lap or on the foot in the sitting (meditation) position. It is also plucked with a baby bamboo stick. This six-string, sixteen-fret-board zither was mainly used in the orchestra court music and kagok ensemble for the performance of aristocratic lyric songs. Traditionally, male Confucian scholars performed on the komungo as a solo instrument for meditation.

When I was thirteen, my father recommended that I study Korean music. After the Japanese occupation and the Korean war, my devastated country was in danger of losing its cultural traditions. Korean court music had been performed at the palace over 750 years, but after the war there was no palace. Korea was governed with a Western political structure. The unemployed court musicians were scattered and close to extinction. No young musicians were being trained this kind of music. happily, the government founded the first national high school for Korean traditional music under full scholarship in 1973. I was one of 60 students accepted in the first year. I learned both court and folk styles of singing, drumming, bamboo flutes, plus one major instrument. I was told that the komungo was a male scholar’s instrument. Most girls took kayagum as their major, but I choose komungo for the challenge.

The only traditional solo repertory for komungo is sanjo, a 40-minute-long, folk-style virtuoso form based on six rhythmic cycles moving from slow to fast. My compositions for komungo, a development I have pursued over the past twenty years, represent an evolution of the instrument into the twenty-first century. I have created a wide array of compositions for the komungo as a soloist, collaborating with leading Western contemporary classical musicians, jazz musicians, improvisers, world musicians and a computer MIDI system for the world’s only electric komungo.

I studied traditional Korean music with National Living Treasures from the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts and with Korea’s leading ethno-musicologists. I earned a BA degree in Korean Traditional Music at Seoul National University before coming to the United States. However, the situation in Korea gave me great concern. The Korean people were rejecting Korean music as inferior to the music of the West. I decided to challenge that attitude by composing new pieces for combinations of Korean and Western instruments. This was my primary motivation for working on cross-cultural music. Subsequently, I received an MFA in electronic music/composition at Mills College, CA in 1985. In 1987, I was invited by avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser to improvise on komungo with him in the San Francisco Bay Area. This initial foray resulted in a decade of creative activity with leading improvisers in jazz and avant-garde throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Russia. I have been so lucky to have performed with leading improvisers from Europe and the USA such as William Parker, Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, Elliott Sharp, Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, James Newton, Joelle Leandre, Mark Dresser, Jane Ira Bloom, Evan Parker, Hans Reichel, Rudiger Carl and Joseph Celli. I also traveled in Asia and collaborated with national stars of Indian sitar, Japanese koto, African drum, Chinese pipa, Indonesian gamelan, Australian didgeridoo, Tuvan throat singing and Korean kagok singing on my various CD projects.

One of my great interests is the connection of a fourth-century instrument with 21st-century technology: thus the world’s only electric komungo. Henry Kaiser introduced me to his friend Danny Ferrington in Los Angeles who built my first electric komungo as an experiment in 1989. It was short and without a sound-board. I was advised to use metal strings for the pick ups, but when I did that, it sounded like an electric guitar. I returned to the three original silk strings, preparing one of them with a short piece of wire. I used a Chinese cheng string and a bass guitar string modified with a alligator pin for the fourth and the fifth strings, and a Japanese shamisen string for the sixth. I made music on that version using processors such as the Lexicon LXP-5. Ten years later, Elliott Sharp introduced me to his friend Joseph Yanuziello in Toronto who built for me the electric komungo I’ve since been using. The new version is almost big as the traditional komungo and has a beautiful acoustic sound. I extended the strings: three crossing the frets and five open. You can hear my music for both instruments on KOMUNGO. In collaboration with Alex Noyes, I have created interactive pieces for the new electric komungo and a MIDI computer system, which I premiered at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, and at the Asia Society in New York City. By way of the MAX/MSP computer program, I am able to manipulate sounds using manual switches and foot pedals. In live performance, I can trigger interactive digital animations through the foot pedals, as in, for example, my theater piece Touching the Moons in New York’s Kitchen performance space in 2000. This computer/komungo synthesis allows me to blend acoustic and processed sounds, achieving a fusion of ancient Korean forms with new mechanisms for sound manipulation made possible through Western technology.

I improvise on my compositions. Through this practice I hope to convey Korean court music’s meditative energy and time sense, as well as folk music’s vigorous vibrations. For over twenty years, I have developed the concept of “Living Tones, ” the central premise of which is that each tone is alive, embodying its own individual shape, sound and sub-text deeply rooted in Korean traditional music. In Korean music, we usually use five notes and no harmony, a rather limited palette for making music rich. In Korean pansori dramatic song, the singer generates each tone with various articulations from Shamanistic vibration. This technique is called “sigimse.” Like spices in food, a good pansori singer makes spicy “sigimse.” This concept was practiced in court music under the meditational context at a slow tempo. Living Tones can be better realized when there is a space in time. My Living Tones’ philosophy comes from Buddhism’s reverence for the life, specifically the life of each tone, coupled with Shamanistic expression’s color and nuance. I have developed a Living Tones notational system for written compositions employing Western instruments, with many of the graphic symbols representing various vibrations and gestures. I also use Living Tones in my solo improvisations, for which I require no notation. I have discovered that many jazz musicians also work with Living Tones, but theirs occur in a different context: usually as texture rather than reverence for each living note. They also engage in a different time sense.

I always try to choose musicians who can realize this Living Tone concept. Among those with whom I’ve worked, some have professed incomprehension with regard to Living Tones, but I knew by listening to them that they had Living Tones in their music, and that’s what’s important. I choose musicianship over instruments.