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Scent of Culture IV
Samulnori Strikes a Chord with Classical Music Devotees

Samulnori Strikes a Chord with Classical Music Devotees
Ju Jae-yeon
President, Nanjang Cultures Inc.
The Samulnori Hanullim Art Troupe, led by maestro Kim Duk-soo, filled the concert venue with the pulsating rhythms of traditional Korean music in the resort area of Courchevel, France, on July 27, 2009. The audience was comprised mainly of young music students, from about 30 countries, who will soon emerge at the forefront of the classical music scene. Deeply impressed by their first encounter with samulnori (quartet of traditional Korean percussionists) and traditional Korean culture, they expressed their appreciation with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Classical Music Meets Samulnori
On February 22, 1983, at the 290th subscription concert of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, it presented something new for its finale: the premiere of “Madang,” a samulnori concerto composed by Kang Jun-il. When this novel performance came to an end, the audience at the Sejong Center loudly applauded and cheered, without letting up until the group had made five curtain calls. Indeed, this unprecedented performance marked an unforgettable highlight of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra’s endeavors to present a diversity of creative music. Thanks to the rousing success of this performance, samulnori music, which is rooted in the traditions of pungmul gut (shaman ritual), advanced to the center stage of the Korean musical world. For sometime, classical music artists, who had received a Western-style musical education, would tend to dismiss traditional Korean music for its supposed lack of artistic value and musical sophistication. Nonetheless, samulnori’s performance at the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra concert showed the vibrancy of Korea’s all-percussion music, which had been long ignored by the music circles and general public. At that time, it was practically unheard of for performers of traditional Korean music to take the stage with a Western-style orchestra, although this kind of scene is more common these days, in various formats.
After having demonstrating the robust harmony that can be created by combining Korean percussion and Western music, samulnori sought to focus renewed attention on Korea’s traditional music. In addition, when Madang was played at a commemorative concert conducted by Chung Myungwhun at the UN General Assembly Hall in 1995, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN’s founding, the audience was so impressed with the dynamic Korean rhythms it gave the performers an ovation which continued for some 15 minutes. In this way, samulnori has now gained recognition for its unique musical structure and aesthetic value, rather than simply being thought of as a symbol of traditional Korean culture. An especially noteworthy trend of the international music scene is the sudden emergence of world music, like samulnori, as the result of a reexamination of various folk beats and percussion rhythms.
As such, the discovery of the rhythm of Korea’s traditional music has been like finding buried treasure. If Western music is measured by metronomic beats, Korea’s traditional rhythm might be compared to the wind, like a soothing breeze and then a powerful gust, along with twists and turns. This flexibility thus lends itself to an endless arrangement of musical instruments and performance types, related to a variety of polyrhythmic beats. In fact, the open structure and comprehensive character of Korean rhythm enables it to be gracefully blended with any musical genre.

Global Spotlight on Samulnori
The Samulnori Hanullim Art Troupe, led by maestro Kim Duksoo, staged a rousing performance at Courchevel, a resort area of France in late July. Most of the 600 or so people who crammed into the 450-seat concert hall were young students, from about 30 countries, who are poised to influence the classical music arena in the near future. Deeply impressed by their first encounter with samulnori and traditional Korean culture, the audience expressed their exuberant appreciation with a lengthy ovation. This performance resulted from an invitation from the Music Alp Festival, an annual summer event of Courchevel, along with support from the festival’s artistic director and violinist Kang Dong-suk and sponsorship assistance from the Korea Foundation.
Music Alp is a month-long festival of master classes that includes the participation of about 40 renowned classical music practitioners and some 700 students. Although smaller in scale than the Aspen Music Festival held in Colorado, of the U.S., Music Alp has emerged as a top-level classical music gathering in Europe. The samulnori performance at Music Alp was part of related to efforts to localize traditional culture, beyond a simple introduction. Getting people around the world to understand and appreciate Korean culture cannot be attained through occasional performances alone. It is thus more important to create conditions so that local artists can adopt traditional influences into their regular work, actively and effectively, based on an in-depth understanding of Korean music.
A prominent example of this kind of approach is a six-month workshop program involving members of the Théâtre du Soleil (Theater of the Sun), which is overseen by world-renowned theatrical director Ariane Mnouchkine. This group has masterfully integrated samulnori into their “Drums on the Dike” work (2001). Similarly, Pina Bausch, a notable choreographer of modern dance who recently passed away, also attracted attention by adapting samulnori and traditional Korean dance moves into her works.
There is much ongoing discussion about the limitations and problems of the so-called “Korean wave” phenomenon (Korean popular culture), which is mainly concentrated on cinema, TV dramas, and popular music. Exchange of culture, including popular culture, starts from an acknowledgement of the diversity of other peoples’ culture, along with a principle of reciprocity. In order to sustain the spread of the Korean wave, continuous efforts must be made to create contents that are based on Korea’s unique identity and traditions. Based on the recent success of the samulnori performances at Music Alp, I am confident that it is well within Korea’s capability to further popularize Korean culture through our concerted efforts.

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