|Lim Jae-won, director general of the National Gugak Center Courtesy of the National Gugak Center|
By Park Ji-won
Listening to "gugak," or traditional Korean music, may not be familiar even to many Koreans. Since the influx of Western music after the 1950-53 Korean War, globally popular music has been enjoyed in mainstream culture while the traditional genre has only been consumed among a very small group of people.
However, since the release of BTS's Suga's (August D) "Daechwita," a K-pop song sampling Korea's traditional military band music "Daechwita" in May last year, and thanks to the rising popularity of megahit promotion videos from the Korean Tourism Organization starring Leenalchi, an alternative pop band incorporating pansori (traditional singing performances and lyrics) themes, things started to change. Many saw the possibility of exploiting gugak for financial gain and growing Korea's global brand.
Marking the 70th anniversary of its establishment, Lim Jae-won, director general of the National Gugak Center, which provided the sampling of "Daechwita" for Suga to use, responded to the rising interest in Korea's traditional music with initiatives to expand the center's reach to a wider public with its open music-related sources available for anyone.
The center was founded back in 1951 to succeed and develop the traditional music forms such as court and folk music, traditional dance, and contemporary gugak.
Lim, who started his career as a daegeum (Korean bamboo flute) player at the center in 1982 and has served as a music professor and artistic director in multiple art troupes, said this is the most important period for gugak amid the growing popularity of K-pop and it is the center's calling to provide as much material as can be used in various art forms and to share them with people from all over the world so as to keep the tradition alive.
"Since the release of Suga's Daechwita, there have been a lot of requests asking for more information about gugak. As you can see from the audio sample used in the song, there are so many good materials in gugak which can be used in modern collaboration works. Minyo (folk music), pansori, orchestral music, and so on. Their storylines are funny and well-established reflecting the characteristics of Korean people. So we decided to make an online dictionary of gugak which provides all the information you could want," Lim said during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in the National Gugak Center, Seocho-gu, Seoul, Jan. 8. Lim, who assumed the role of director general there in August 2018, will leave office in March after serving for three years.
The details of the so-called interactive dictionary haven't been finalized, but it secured 3 billion won ($2.73 million) in government subsidies to make the online platform over four years that will include traditional instruments, sounds, scores and music, and also videos.
|The National Gugak Center's Dance Theater Courtesy of National Gugak Center|
|The National Gugak Center's Court Music Orchestra Courtesy of National Gugak Center|
However, Lim stressed that tradition is not something unchangeable and an absolute mission, but a living art form that changes over time.
"Keeping the tradition and transforming the traditional sources with modern tastes cannot be contradictory. Some may say we need to stick to a Korean thing because we are Korean. But I think it won't last long just because of that reason. People will no longer enjoy an art form if it is not valued. Including gugak, any living art form should evoke people's emotions. So, it is natural that traditional music materials should be used in collaborations."
To better connect with the public, the center opened its first museum on North Korean music last year, which features about 82,000 pieces of material gathered over the years from neighboring countries such as the North, Japan and China. It took about 20 years to analyze and gather enough material on North Korea because it is a very sensitive, and sometimes expensive, pursuit.
Opening the museum on North Korean music was not simply about sharing the material with the public for Lim, it was more about rediscovering "Koreanness" on the Korean Peninsula.
"The Korean Peninsula has been divided for over 70 years. But I don't think it will last forever. Our job is to analyze the music the two Koreas have and discover the Koreanness of the two so that we feel less separated when we meet … I hope people will remember the center as the best place to find anything about Korean traditional music on the Korean Peninsula."
There were times that traditional music was not treated well and marginalized because the country was busy chasing economic growth. After the country economically stabilized, people began to appreciate the value of tradition again, he recalled.
"Now you can commonly hear traditional music in subways or buses. But in the past, you could only listen to trot or pop music in the street. There were very few traditional instrument players. But after the 1988 Seoul Olympics, people began to appreciate the value of traditional music and gained a better understanding of cultural assets in the country along with the economic growth of Korea."
Joining hallyu, or the Korean wave, and exploring the possibilities of gugak, the center is launching new programs with masters and K-pop stars. In "K-Maestro," a handful of gugak masters will be introduced in a video series, while "K-rock" program explores the possibilities of collaboration works with gugak and the boundaries of the traditional music with artists from different fields such as K-pop musicians, fashion designers, and authors.
To better promote traditional Korean music to an international audience, the center is also set to launch an online audition program on gugak later this year.
"The gugak audition, which is similar to a Korean speech contest for amateur foreign gugak lovers who play traditional instruments or sing pansori will be held throughout the world in the Korean cultural centers in each region this year. Once the candidate passes the preliminary round, he or she will be invited to Korea for the final in the fall. Due to the spread of COVID-19, a final plan hasn't been set, but I hope the program will raise awareness and create more Korea-savvy people," Lim said.
|Foreigners participate in a janggu class at the National Gugak Center, Seoul, in this undated photo Courtesy of National Gugak Center|