The rare art of uniting Korean court and folk music

NEW YORK — Gugak, Korean traditional music, is an umbrella term that includes both court and folk instruments. But the two couldn’t be more different.

The rare art of uniting Korean court and folk music

Court music tends to be ritualistic, its instruments elaborately adorned and so precious they are rarely seen by the public, while folk is by its nature earthier and more visceral. Their sound worlds are vastly different; their histories, even more so.

Which is why it was so unusual — unheard-of, really — for an ensemble of 20 court and folk instrumentalists to share the stage earlier this summer at Alice Tully Hall for “Kokdu,” a Korean film screened with a live soundtrack, presented by Film at Lincoln Center, the New York Asian Film Festival and the Korean Cultural Center New York.

The film is a fairy tale with heft, a story of two children who find themselves in the realm of the dead after losing their grandmother’s shoes in a Faustian deal. As they search the netherworld, they come by a band of living kokdu — figurines, traditionally made of wood, that are said to guide souls into the afterlife.

Bang Jun-suk, the composer of the “Kokdu” score, said that he had been asked to create something that would showcase the resources of the National Gugak Center in Seoul, South Korea. The original intention was to alternate between court and folk music. But then he had another idea: Combine them.

“At first, there was a bit of hesitation, as the venture was so different and this type of genre mixing had not been done before,” Bang said.

He quickly learned that the two styles can be a peculiar fit: “The tone of court music lacks the emotional peaks and valleys. This is not to say it’s bland, but it’s of a sense of calm due to its sheer depth. And, on the other hand, folk music is one of extremes. There are places where it’s extremely aggressive, other times it’s very tender and soft, and of course it, too, has a sense of depth.”

Lee Jong Gil, the concertmaster and a gugak specialist, played at a station of seldom seen court instruments that were carefully transported to the United States, including the pyeonjong, a set of bronze bells hung from a colorfully decorated wooden frame, and the banghyang, metal plates hung and hit with a stick made from cow horn.

He said that he was struck by the sounds created by combining court and folk, describing the music as “not the creation of a new genre, but somehow familiar.” It’s more like, he added, “two dragons intertwining.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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