Ryan Choi ’23
The gayageum is a Korean traditional instrument, like a zither, a sound box made from the paulownia tree connected with twelve strands of silk thread sustained by a small wooden pillar.
The history of the gayageum ascends back to the sixth century during the Gaya confederacy. The gayageum was modeled on an old Chinese instrument. Initially, the instrument was to be played exclusively for the upper class during the era. Later on, the instrument was passed down to the Shilla dynasty. During this time a musician named Wu Ruk improved the gayageum into the instrument we see today.
The musician usually plays by sitting on the floor with the head placed on the right knee. The sound of the instrument is made by plucking the strings with the fingers, similar to the way one plays a guitar. However, the gayageum produces a softer and more delicate sound than other stringed instruments.
The two main types of gayageum are jeong-ak and sanjo-gayageum. Jeong-ak is the traditional type, which is the instrument for Chosun court music. This type holds more history as well as a more melancholic tone. However, when Japan occupied Korea, it discouraged the usage of this type because it was considered to hold too much cultural significance. The sanjo-gayageum was able to survive because it holds more of a western sound. The sanjo-gayageum was modified slightly by the Japanese during this time.
The gayageum we see nowadays is the sanjo. The gayageum is thought to be the best representation of Korea. However, the structural changes of the traditional gayageum can be seen as unfortunate, because it fails to bring the Korean tradition as a whole. On the other hand, it was inevitable to avoid modifications to better accommodate the Korean-Western hybrid music.
Day Kim ’23 skillfully plays the gayageum and keeps a sanjo-gayageum in her room. She believes that playing the gayageum makes her feel like she is “a part of history.”
“I think it is extremely important to continue the culture of Korea. I also think the gayageum carries a unique sound that no other instrument can make. The sound of the gayageum is delicate but beautiful and it has a sentimental taste to the sound and I think that is what makes gayageum special,” said Kim.
It is truly astonishing to find that someone at Mercersburg–so far from Korea–radiates the beauty of Korea’s proud sound.