Modernized Korean zither makes harmony with world instruments

홍기인 기자l승인2020.04.22l수정2020.04.22 10:36






▲ Zither player Kyungju Seo

By some chance I might hurt you
I embrace you and pluck carefully the strings
Affection resides each trembling finger
Wailing is the zither with sorrow when I touch you
<Jokuk> by Wanyoung Jeong

Korean zither ‘gayageum’ is loved by many for its delicate and feminine sound. Also known as ‘gayatgo’ archaically, Korean zither is experiencing modernization and it is attracting a great attention by making deep resonance and harmony with a variety of instruments on the global stage. <PowerKorea> met Seo and learned about Korean zither and stories of her life. 

Feast of strings
From 12 strings to 25 strings on royal foxglove wood, Korean zither creates a cheerful feast once touched by master’s fingers. We might compare the sound with harp to enjoy the similarities yet uniqueness. Korean zither has many kinds but ‘poongryu zither (wind flow zither)’ also known as ‘bubgeum’ is regarded as the standard. ‘Sanzo zither (solo zither)’, on the other hand, is used widely from folk song and chorus to ‘sinawe (impromptu)’. 

The most popular form of performance is ‘gayageum sanjo (zither solo)’ that accompanies rhythm of the drum and it means ‘scattering melodies’. Gayageum sanjo is one of the most played impromptus used especially in shamanism rituals in southwest Jeolla Province. 

Advent of modernized zither
It is mid 20th century that modernized Korean zither started to appear on stages. Improvements were made on string positioning, resonance, sound range and volume. Strings were mixed with silk and steel wire in order to make an ideal sound for instrumental and creative music. Many zither players use 12 strings for sanjo and jeongak (court music) and 25 strings for creative music. 

Kyungju Seo
Many of traditional Korean music players are highly skilled. A zither player Kyungju Seo is one of them. She has lived with zither for 20 years and is received as a master player of 12 and 25 string zithers. Her skills have been well recognized in a variety of genres from sanjo and solo to instrumental and sinawe. 

Seo was born to a gym teacher father and a music loving mother as only daughter of four siblings. In her younger years, her mother showed great talent in ballet, Korean opera and zither playing and she hung around with famous pipe player Saengkang Lee and zither player Gyeongju Im. 

Hugely influenced by this environment, Seo started to learn zither under the instruction of Gyeongju Im at the age of 15 and made for Gugak National High School. Im is a presidential prize winner and is one of the few who attaches firmly to keeping the traditional way of playing.

Unquenchable enthusiasm for music
Living an artist is a luck and a pain at the same time. With unquenchable enthusiasm and high level of skill, Seo made for Chung-Ang University School of Korean Music and pushed herself further at Chung-Ang University Graduate School of Education. 

She proved her mastery performance in numerous concerts and competitions home and abroad. Apart from zither, Seo plays ‘chulhyungeum’, the 8 metal string modernized zither designed and developed by a tightrope master Youngchul Kim of Namsadang Troupe in 1940. Holding this new instrument at her hands, she made differentiation by creating unique sound with her unique rhythms and melodies which she calls ‘ryu or body’. 

Seokyungjuryu. It is the name of her unique style. It contains her philosophy of harmony between tradition and contemporariness, meaning a challenge is made while tradition is intact. When asked about future plan, she said “The year 2020 will be a time for me to look back and regain energy for a new leap forward. I will pour this new energy into making myself a good player over a skilled player.” 

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