Korea's Unique Komun'go Zither and Its Roles in Korean Music: Challenging the Dichotomies of "Traditional" Kugak and "Creative" Ch'angjak Kugak
Chun, In-pyong, Korean Studies
The komun'go (six-string long zither) is unique among Korean instruments in sound and playing technique, with no comparable instrument in Asia or elsewhere. As such it is especially effective in offering a strong Korean "feel," even in ch'angjak kugak ("creative" Korean music) pieces that use many nontraditional techniques. This article provides background on the social function of the komun'go and its essential performance techniques--nonghyon and sigimsae. It then compares the older ("traditional") styles and repertory and recent compositions with respect to modal systems, tonal organization, and changdan (rhythmic patterns), with analysis of three newly composed pieces featuring komun'go by Chun In-pyong, Yi Hae-sik, and Ahn Hyun-jung, identifying traditional elements and newly added creative aspects, showing different ways that this conservative Korean instrument fits in Ch'angjak kugak. The essay argues for a dynamic understanding of Koreanness in conceptualizing and evaluating contemporary pieces.
Among the many musical instruments used in the music rooted in Korea s past, what is now widely identified as kugak and rendered in English as "Korean traditional music," the komun'go occupies a unique place. This six-stringed zither, plucked by a sturdy wooden stick, produces what we often identify as a dark tone. Its timbre, the relatively muted resonance of its thick strings, the contrast between the initial snap, which may be sharp and loud, and the wide vibrato and bending of tones, which may be soft and extended, make this not only an unusual instrument among Korean traditional instruments, but also one with no comparable extant instrument, in Asia or elsewhere. While haegum (Korean fiddle) and taegum (Korean transverse flute) have close relatives in neighboring China (erhu and dizi), and comparable instruments (violin and flute) in the West, the komun'go stands apart. As such, it presents a challenge to composers and performing musicians in using this instrument in hybrid combination with foreign instruments or as part of a (plucked) string section in what has developed as the Korean orchestra (kwanhyon akdan). Yet this very uniqueness gives komun'go a certain purchase, a certain advantage or privilege in conveying a strong sense of Koreanness in nontraditional Korean music-making, whether "creative"/new/modern (ch'angjak) kugak, or the more recent and more often commercial "fusion" (p'yujon) kugak (categories that can, in fact, overlap).
The komun'go, in a sense, can be regarded as one of the most conservative Korean instruments--associated with the aristocratic class of previous centuries and nowadays used far less frequently in trendy, current kugak-inspired music than the kayagum (long zither with twelve or more strings, each with a moveable bridge), haegum (two-stringed fiddle), or taegum (transverse bamboo flute). This article offers first an introduction to the social function of the komun'go and its essential performance techniques and proceeds to analyze and discuss three newly composed pieces--by Chun In-pyong (Chon In-p'yong), Yi Hae-sik, and Ahn Hyun-jung (An Hyon-chong)--and aims to compare these pieces with each other with focus on the use (or avoidance) of traditional elements and the incorporation of new, nontraditional elements. Scrutinizing the ways in which the komun'go is played in these three ch'angjak'gok (new pieces) provides an understanding of how such a traditional instrument can work aesthetically in progressive ch'angjak'gok. In the process we will uncover certain distinctiveness between the two basic kinds of music (kugak and ch'angjak kugak) performed on the komun'go, as its usage moves from a traditional Korean musical practice to a more globalized contemporary Korean practice.
Since the creation in about 1895 of sanjo (a highly virtuosic and once improvisatory folk solo instrumental form), which was initially applied to the kayagum and then to other traditional instruments, the komun'go was actually the last instrument to be adapted to the sanjo music (in what is, appropriately, referred to as komun'go sanjo). …