Geomungo music is dubbed ‘baegakjijang백악지장,” which means the best of all music. You might wonder why the geomungo is regarded as the best instrument. The geomungo’s beginning was extraordinary. A Goguryeo고구려 minister named Wang San-ak왕산악 modified the seven-stringed Chinese instrument and came up with geomungo. While he was playing the instrument, a black crane flew in and danced to the tune. The crane is known as an auspicious bird in Korea and the color black represents the sky, the universe, and the ways of the world. This folklore about the geomungo suggests that the propitious sound of geomungo reaches the heavens, giving rise to a story that geomungo virtuoso Ok Bo-go오보고 of the Unified Silla period rose to heaven and became a divine being. Since the old days, Confucian students known as seonbi선비 played the geomungo to relax and calm their troubled hearts, which may be why the geomungo was nicknamed the finest instrument of all.
At the end of the Joseon Dynasty, however, a new genre of geomungo music came into being – sanjo or freestyle solo. Geomungo sanjo pieces were new and exciting, prompting the conservative seonbi scholars to lament that the world is coming to an end. But today’s young gugak musicians are experimenting with geomungo to create new music. Today’s first piece is “Kwae쾌” inspired by the new Kwaedong쾌동 style geomungo sanjo and performed by gugak duo Sinnoi.
Kwae/ Performed by Sinnoi
Seonbi scholars who loved the geomungo used to carve their favorite poems on their instruments. A seonbi named Jang Yu wrote the following verse on his geomungo.
So clear is its pure sound! So serene is its sweet sound!
I know not much about playing the geomungo, but my heart becomes one with it.
Forbid impious thoughts, nurture the wide, deep, and simple heart.
The mountains are high and the waters deep. There is no past and no present.
His aspiration to understand human nature and the workings of the world was admirable. Instead of carving poems on the instrument, today’s young musicians write their own music pieces and their opinions on them. Geomungo player Park Dawool박다울, who gained a big following after competing in a TV music audition program, likened the geomungo to a toy and wrote a song entitled “Geomun Toy.” The following is how he explained his composition.
It was fun, but not solely fun.
I didn’t think about it much but came to have many thoughts about it.
I wanted to have fun but also succeed in what I do.
I wanted to do this and that. So, this music is also doing this and that.
You may be familiar with his music since “Geomun Toy” was featured as background music in an automobile commercial.
Geomun Toy/ Geomungo by Park Dawool
Coming up is “Black Forest” written by a traditional geomungo virtuoso and rising star Hwang Jin-ah. Following is her description of the piece.
A girl, led by something, arrives at a black forest. She has no idea what called to her, but she starts walking into the forest. With every step, she feels that the hanging lives and the moss covering the rocks are stopping her from turning back. The farther she walks into the forest, the more she feels like crying. But it’s too late for her to turn back and the road back home has been gone for a long time. She didn’t stop walking.
The girl in Hwang Jin-ah’s explanation cannot stop walking although she is afraid and tired. The girl’s endeavor seems to represent the various attempts of today’s geomungo players make to popularize the instrument. Today’s Sounds of Korea concludes with Hwang Jin-ah performing “Black Forest.”
Black Forest/ Geomungo by Hwang Jin-ah