My father built pipe organs, so I learned about music from an early age. He had a large record collection of mostly Bach with a sprinkling of Beethoven, Mozart, and other big names. Our family often went to concerts, and one day, I remember asking my father what a concerto was. He told me that it was a battle between the orchestra and the solo instrument. He then said that the battle pushes the solo instrument to its limit, which is what makes a concerto interesting. I thought of my father’s words as I listened to the tracks in this, the first official album by the Bulsechul Ensemble, a Korean traditional music ensemble formed in 2006.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Bulsechul Ensemble was about traditional Korean music. Composed of seven traditional Korean instruments: gayageum, geomungo, heageum, ajaeng, daegeum, piri, and percussion — and the guitar, Bulsechul Ensemble performs original compositions that use all or some of the instruments. As in a concerto, the solo instrument is highlighted and pushed to its creative limit. The solo instrument sometimes invites the other instruments into concerto-like turn taking. At other times, the solo instrument improvises and then lets the other instruments applaud through their own flurry of improvisation.
Traditional Korean instruments are composed of strings, winds, and percussion. The most commonly used string instrument is the plucked 12-string gayageum, which has a bright, harmonious sound. The six-string geomungo, which is plucked with a short stick, has deeper, more austere, sound. The ajaeng has eight or ten strings and is played with a short bow and has a melancholy sound. These three string instruments are played with the instrument resting on the floor. The haegeum has two thick silk strings and is played vertically with a bow. The daegeum, another one of the most commonly taught instruments, is a transverse bamboo flute and the piri is a double reed instrument. Korean percussion includes drums, gongs, chimes, and cymbals.
Bulsechul Ensemble makes the most use of the janggu, an hourglass-shaped drum played by hand or by a short stick. The guitar, the only non-Korean instrument in the group, adds interest and surprise as it punctuates the flow of the music.
Korean traditional music, like music elsewhere, has formal and codified forms associated with the royal court and the aristocracy and informal forms associated with the religious and social practices of the common people. Both are still performed today, but forms associated with the common people are taught and performed far more frequently. The underlying aesthetic in these forms is heung, which means a combination of fun, pleasure, and excitement.
Heung is spontaneous, but not light; it is intense, but not heavy. Heung comes from a sense of joy and liberation in the performers, but with Bulsechul, it takes on another dimension as the performers thrive in the aesthetic battle.