Korean SamulNori

SamulNori is a quartet of Korean percussionists that first performed on stage in February 1978. The name, coined a few months later by the folklorist Shim Usŏng, means ‘four things play’; it was once used for four typical percussion instruments encountered at Buddhist temples but now indicates the four core instruments of Korea’s formerly-common local percussion bands and itinerant troupes: small and large hand-held gongs (kkwaenggwari and ching), hourglass-shaped double-headed drum (changgo) and squashed barrel drum (puk).

In reality, samulnori is a recent evolution of something much older. Its antecedents are local percussion bands, known under the umbrella terms of nongak or p’ungmul and itinerant percussion troupes, notably Namsadang. SamulNori rapidly gained considerable popularity, so much so that many other groups emerged, and the quartet’s distinct repertory and style of performance became a genre, samulnori. Today, there are many dozens of amateur and professional samulnori groups, mostly quartets but many with much larger memberships. The genre is taught in dedicated institutes, it features in the state-sanctioned school curriculum, and there are a number of workbooks dedicated to helping aspiring ‘samulnorians’. Abroad, samulnori is a familiar part of Korean performance troupes and Korean diasporic activities, and groups exist in many universities.

Where local percussion bands typically espoused a benign teaching agency through egalitarianism or communitarianism, and where itinerant troupes are reported to have had more formalized apprenticeship systems, samulnori’s emergence in 1978 came after much music training had been institutionalized across Korea with the expansion of school, college and university music programmes. The founding quartet first offered workshops on Wando Island off Korea’s southern coast in 1981, and from 1987 onwards taught camps in Japan and Korea, culminating with the establishment of a training institute in 1994. They developed notations that met nationalistic requirements, fixing Korean identity at the centre of practice. This was done by revisiting a court notation from the fifteenth century and turning its vertical columns through 90 degrees to become horizontal systems, by removing what samulnori musicians perceived to be Eurocentric metric indicators and by substituting a Taoist-derived tripartite idea that divides a single rhythmic pattern (changdan) length into units and sub-unit beats. A system of circles of different sizes to prescribe strikes and the amplitude of strikes was devised to avoid quarter/crotchet and eighth/quaver notes. SamulNori also developed an aesthetic based on breathing and movement, rooted within a Korean dance concept of ‘motion in stillness’ but applied to give unity in performance through the embodiment of a circular method known as ‘hohŭp’.

The teaching method is contained within a series of workbooks, and couples to model performances of canonic pieces on a set of key recordings. Starting in 1989, regular festivals have been held, the Samulnori kyŏrugi, that reflect the standardization of the system of teaching and learning. Attracting groups from Korea and abroad, and although the requirements of individual festivals have differed, SamulNori festivals judge appropriate performances of appropriate repertory that maintain appropriate aesthetics.

Korean percussion soundworlds have iconicity. Domestic and foreign Korean concerts of kugak (Korean traditional music) routinely end with a full company dance to drums and gongs. Demonstrations by Korean workers and students have since the 1970s been routinely choreographed to drums and gongs, and sports events, from the Seoul Olympics in 1988 to Korean supporters at the soccer World Cup, frequently resonate to drums and gongs. The iconicity of percussion has in recent decades shifted from local percussion bands and itinterant troupes to samulnori.

Samulnori is performed by a quartet of drums and gongs, the small and large hand-held gongs ((kkwaenggwari and ching), the hourglass-shaped double-headed drum (changgo) and the squashed barrel drum (puk). Where local bands and itinerant troupes featured much larger numbers of percussionists, and where all the musicians stood and danced, most of the samulnori repertory is performed seated, and usually, only four highly proficient musicians perform. Older styles of bands and troupes performed elastic and flexible pieces for ritual, fund raising, work and entertainment functions, but samulnori features a set canon of pieces. Each piece comprises a fixed and tightly controlled series of discrete episodes and motifs, each episode and motif derived from older repertory, but each piece juxtaposing discrete patterns that formerly had disparate functions or which developed in different regions of Korea. Each piece is virtuosic, requiring expert players who have developed fluency, speed, and am aesthetic that moves beyond instrumental expertise to incorporate shared techniques of breathing and body movement.

As in much of the world, Korean musicians in the past customarily occupied low status positions when performing for money or payment-in-kind. While this no longer applies, the wholesale adoption of Western music in the twentieth century created a hierarchy, where percussionists were situated below string players (and Korean traditional musicians below Korean musicians specialising in Western music). However, the first SamulNori quartet had the quality of stars, and Kim Duk Soo, the changgo hourglass drum player, continues to have both national and international fame. The success of the first SamulNori quartet meant that additional groups soon took to the stage, some maintaining the canonic repertoire (such as groups at the government-funded National Gugak Centre) and some exploring adaptations of samulnori for larger crossover groups (such as Durae Pae SamulNori and Dulsori, and more recently The Gwangdae and SamulGwangdae). In 1993, the first quartet transformed itself into a foundation, SamulNori Hanullim, bringing together an arts organization, a training facility, many additional groups whose names and personnel continuously changed, and an instrument retailer.

Where the first quartet comprised musicians who had been child stars, performing in their youth with remnants of itinerant troupes or with touring groups such as the Little Angels, samulnori is today taught in many schools, so that emerging professionals master the genre over a decade or more at school then in dedicated programmes at Chungang University or the Korea National University of Arts. Starting with Nant’a/Cookin’, a theatrical show that proved a great success at the Edinburgh International Festival, samulnori is today found in many contemporary Korean theatre, film, multimedia, and music productions.

October 2014 saw the twenty-first SamulNori festival, held in Ch’olgok, near Taegu in Korea. It attracted eight primary and six middle and high school teams, six university and six ‘creative’ teams, seven foreign teams, 26 community teams and 20 local bands, with the battle for prizes taking place on three stages over three days. But, the small number of canonic pieces, after 35 years, remains largely cemented in place in a way that limits creativity and questions are being raised about the ability of the genre to be sustained into the future…

The first quartet, SamulNori, established a genre, samulnori: a set of discrete pieces that were shared among emerging groups as a canon. Three pieces descending from local percussion bands and itinerant troupes were premiered within an initial fifteen month period. The pieces were regionally distinct, using rhythmic structures from troupes that had once operated in the central Kyŏnggi and Ch’ungch’ŏng provinces, and bands from the southeastern South Kyŏngsang province and the southwestern Chŏlla provinces. To these, four further pieces were added by 1982 to give a total repertoire more than large enough to sustain interest over a whole concert.

As new quartets formed, they retained this canon, seeking distinction by extending or compressing each piece. The narrow prism of the canon challenges sustainability, at least when compared with ever-developing genres in other music cultures. However, broadly speaking, an intense period of creativity in Korean musical production has often been followed by an extended period of stasis, as is seen in the lyric song genre of kagok (all songs within which follow a single melody), the three-line sung poems of shijo (all using a restricted tritonic mode), the five p’ansori epic storytelling through song repertoires, and the six primary sanjo melodic pieces for the Korean kayagŭm zither.

The samulnori canon is increasingly replacing the regional variety once inherent in local percussion bands and itinerant troupes as it is taught in schools and performed in Korea and abroad. It recontextualizes rhythmic structures that once functioned for different ritual, work and entertainment activities, and juxtaposes them in a way that prioritizes musical integrity over social function, thereby removing long-established relationships between music and place.

SamulNori fits the highly urbanized modernity of Korea, and fits with a population nostalgic for the rural idyll of the forefathers. It emerged at a time when concert culture was rapidly expanding, not least with the opening of grand performance venues modelled after European and American concert halls and needing Korean artistic performances that could match imported Western forms. The proscenium stages of such venues did not suit local percussion bands or itinerant troupes, but was perfect for SamulNori. Through to 1989, and excluding repeat performances, the first SamulNori quartet listed 278 domestic and 275 foreign concerts. A brochure from 1994 stated that SamulNori had by then given more than 1500 performances in total; by 2003, one website claimed that the quartet had performed nearly 5500 times on ‘more than 3000’ stages. The availability of rehearsal spaces provided a further element in the genre’s popularization, fitting with both the government’s preservation of traditional culture as Intangible Cultural Properties and by the student populist minjung munhwa movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Local percussion bands are preserved as icons from Korea’s past within Important Intangible Cultural Property (Chungyo muhyŏng munhwajae) 11, and itinerant percussion troupes as Important Intangible Cultural Property 3. The preservation agenda, distinct but relating to UNESCO’s intangible heritage activities, sponsors local bands and itinerant troupes of old, but struggles to accommodate samulnori: how can a genre first performed in 1978 be preserved? However, the music preserved from previous generations is, within the system, captured in a snapshot taken at a particular time, and may have no more historical legitimacy than samulnori, after almost 40 years, has today.

Korea has long been one of the most broadband-savvy places on earth, and the highly urbanized population seems to require a diet of novelty. Samulnori is embedded in many media productions, in films and dramas, theatre shows and performance extravaganzas. The canon of samulnori pieces is well represented in audio recordings, with key recordings from the 1990s of the first SamulNori and the National Gugak Centre Samulnori functioning as models that other groups seek to emulate. Recent audio recordings tend to feature fusions of samulnori and other musics, from didjeridu and berimbau through to tuned plastic tubes, pianos and synths, rather than renditions of the canonic pieces.

The first SamulNori quartet proved itself particularly adept at stretching boundaries, working with jazz musicians such as Kang Tae Hwan, Herbie Hancock and an Austrian group known as Red Sun, with rap artists such as Seo Taiji, and with orchestras of Korean and Western instruments. They began the process of embedding the percussion genre in a diversity of artistic production. Hence, a snapshot in April 2010 of Seoul’s theatre culture revealed samulnori being performed in different venues with the kitchen-pot show Nant’a/Cookin’, with taekwŏndo martial art, with traditional dance, masked dance drama infused with shaman ritual, live art, hip-hop and B-boys, ballet, and in a mega-percussion show.

Sustainability must, inevitably, challenge the freezing of cultural production at a specific point in time, although this characterizes many of the preservation systems that operate in the world. Today, however, many scholars and officials find it problematic to accept that samulnori has either a sufficient historicity or faces a sufficient decline to merit support within the Korean preservation system. Almost 40 years since its inception, though, much of what justifies the preservation and sponsorship of other traditional music genres applies to samulnori. Samulnori retains a core repertory, and this, as a canon, fits authenticity and originality requirements. Albeit highly creative, this canon was put in place during a known period, 1978–1982, and its continued performance constitutes a faithful transmission of archetypal forms. Sustainability requires both preservation and promotion, and each samulnori piece offers updated versions of material from local band and itinerant troupe repertoires while functioning as a core part of many Korean performance events at home and abroad. Samulnori has become iconic, and it would not be an overstatement to say that the individual canonic pieces have made samulnori an essential part of Korea’s concert culture, much, or more than, as have the individual items prescribed as archetypes within Properties. However, in some ways samulnori has become too traditional, and many musicians feel that it is bound to decline unless ways can be found to increase creativity and innovation.

Much of the innovation apparent among younger musicians involves taking episodes and motifs of samulnori, lifting them out of canonic pieces, and combining them in novel ways, often transposing them to different instruments or different contexts. Specific episodes and motifs, then, are iconic, and iconicity is ultimately vested in a specific grammar of cells, units, variant patterns and ‘archetype streams’, as much as it is in episodes and motifs. Sustainability, then, may not require the maintenance of whole pieces, but the continuing use of elements of this grammar, taken out of pieces to be used in similar or other genres of musical creativity. The most urgent question facing samulnori is whether sustainability requires the genre to be maintained, or whether samulnori can decline and disappear, leaving just some of its key elements.


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