Elements of Korean Folk Music
Hyo Han September 13, 2019
The award-winning Korean percussionist Kim So Ra makes her Lincoln Center debut on September 19 at the David Rubenstein Atrium. To get us ready, Hyo Han, Director of Performing Arts at the Korean Cultural Center New York, introduces us to the musical style of samulnori and the four instruments it uses—each representing an element in nature.
A Style and an Ensemble
The Korean words samul means “four things” and nori means “to play.” In the case of samulnori, it refers to the four musicians playing and dancing with four percussion instruments. It can refer both to a style of Korean traditional music and dance, but also to the actual ensemble (stylized as “SamulNori” in such cases). Since samulnori as a genre and performing group was established in 1978, it has sparked a renaissance in Korea’s music scene and gained worldwide acclaim.
The theory of yin and yang (in Korean, um and yang) is illustrated throughout samulnori music. It’s seen in the balance of the two metal instruments with two leather instruments. The steel instruments represent yang—the heavens, male energy, and light. The leather ones represent um—the earth, female, and darkness.
Even though Kim So Ra's music is not technically samulnori, it’s based on the rhythms of samulnori and developed into her own creative music.
Four Instruments, Four Elements
Kim So Ra’s instrument, the janggu, is the most popular Korean folk instrument. It’s often called the hourglass drum in reference to its shape. The drum has two sides, each with different types of leather skin. One side produces a high-pitched sound while the other produces a lower one. The edges of the drum are also used to make even more variations of sounds. The janggu is used to represents the "rain" sound.
The kkwaenggwari (small gong) is made mainly of brass with traces of gold or silver. It’s handheld and played with a bamboo mallet. One hand holds the mallet while the other hand dampens the sound as needed. The player of this instrument often plays the role of leader, signaling transitions in the music when all four instruments are played together. The kkwaenggwari is associated with lightning.
The jing is a large gong that is struck with a padded stick. This instrument can be played in a number of ways: hung on a frame, held by handle, or played with two hands. The jing makes a vibrating, oscillating sound, imitating the shapes of the valleys of Korea. It’s associated with the wind.
The buk is a barrel drum made of a piece of hollowed out wood and two leather skins tied to the wood. It’s played by a single stick and provides the deepest bass sounds of the group. The buk is associated with the clouds.
Music to Restore Balance
Our modern world is full of conflict. With the development of industry and technology, there has arisen an imbalance of the natural world order and these days we often feel the devastating impact mother nature’s counterattacks. Harmony, tolerance, and understanding are desperately needed to maintain stability and restore balance.
Samulnori understands this need for harmony, as each of the instruments’ sounds differ, yet combine to create a unified music. It’s only when this mutual consideration of sounds, rhythms, communication, and breath occur that the art of samulnori can reach its musical height.
In parallel, through respect and consideration of others, we can nurture a culture not just of survival, but of regeneration, revival, and resonance in harmony with nature.