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from an article published in BIXOBAL by the Ri Be Xibalba label in the Fall of 2007.
Emptyness has been full since the beginning
It will always be that way
Though it is full
You won’t find a bird’s footprint there.
(from Taljin Kim’s, “Korean Zen Poems Ancient and Modern”)
Years ago, a friend was visiting Korea and I asked him to bring back some music. Something “traditional.” This was pre-internet and finding interesting and unusual music from other parts of the planet was not as easy as it is today. The compact disc my friend eventually brought me seemed innocent enough: reddish brown cover, Korean characters, stylized picture of a stringed instrument that might be a koto or ch’in or some cousin thereof. Also a curious little circular design that I have since realized is a 78rpm label. It was on the Cantabile label, manufactured by Seoul Records. Catalog number SRCD 1101. When I put the disc on I think my socks came off through the top of my head. I had never heard anything like it. The music was indeed koto-like, but somehow much more visceral, angular and earthy. Accompanied by a single drum and odd nearly inaudible shouts of encouragement, the sounds seemed to be coming out of a darkness, enveloped in a deep fog. It was not unlike tuning into an old radio station late at night, perhaps a station from 1000 years ago. A short wave between the stations short circuit. Yet the music emerged sounding as relevant, as abstract and every bit as dark and as strange as the contemporary chamber music (Shostakovich, Scelsi, Schnitke, Bartok, Cage, Feldman) that I had been listening to. It sounded more experimental because it wasn’t experimental at all, it felt improvisational, a little raw; it didn’t sound “difficult” or “classical” or advanced, yet somehow it left the avant-garde in the dust. And the surface noise created such an ambiance. It was not a distraction to me but an integral part of the music. A production technique, if you will. You want that heavy rock sound? Hire Butch Vig or Jack Endino with their layering tricks and their tube amps. You want that ethereal reverb fluff? Get Daniel Lanois and record in a church for 1000 dollars a minute. Go to Sun Studios, stand on Elvis’ brylcream stains and pretend you are part of history. Put it on cassette and sell it on myspace. Fine. But I want an older and less self-conscious sound, something grown up through the compost like an impossible tree. Those Korean records had that sound. They were “produced” by the master for me: the secretions of tiny scale insects that had been scrapped off of trees in South Asia to create a hard resin called shellac (sad to say, 78s are not vegan). That’s some serious vintage gear. When mixed with dirt, shellac created the hard surface necessary to wring a sound out of a 78rpm record. Originally, sound reproduction was acoustic. You had to have something pretty heavy pressing a needle hard into sturdy grooves to create enough sound to actually hear. Consequently, mixed with the sounds that had been recorded—music, voices, whatever—there was the rub of friction, the sound of the dirt and shellac itself, a death chorus from the tiny insects as they are reborn into pure sound. To me, this is a perfect blending of medium and information. Modern recording is often about the “air” or ambiance around the sound—the room where it was recorded, the breath of the instrument and the character this imparts. Recording at 78rpm, however, is about the actual material holding the sounds. The material that captured the music like the volcano figures from Pompeii, trapping the winding grooves and driving the needle. An unreachable memory; a distant dream of sound, hollow and viola-like. Each pop a little arrow piercing through the clouds, showing the scars of age, of handling, of its owners; the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the accumulated noise of history; a voice from a place you can’t see but somehow know, the way the bottom of the ocean is present even though you can’t see down to it: mysterious and dark covered in sunken ships and strange fish with headlights for eyes…that crackle was 1942, there is 1933, there are the fingerprints of the record’s fourth owner, there is the imprint of the stack of other records left on it at the garage sale. That smell…musty, fermented, like the fermenting music encased in the stressed grooves. Old 78s just seem to hold secrets: the designs on the sleeves and labels, the stories of forgotten music and musicians. I’m getting carried away as is my wont, but listening to that Korean CD was pretty much the precise moment that the abyss opened up below me and I fell. It was and is a deep deep hole filled with dusty old shellac, dustier collectors, giddy stories of finding rare gems, ridiculous price guides, horribly themed collections, shops filled with scarred relics of the burgeoning entertainment industry, stacks of back breaking 78s in thrift stores, intricate hand lettered labels, crumbling silverfish riddled sleeves, moldy basements, clunking beautifully erratic talking machines…
But back to that Korean CD. Part of its appeal was certainly the seeming affinity between the music and the crackly recording. I have since come to understand that the music was played on a kayagum (or possibly a komungo, though lets not split hairs) in a style called sanjo. These are indeed koto-like zithers and sanjo is generally referred to as a folk music, at least to differentiate it (which we must do, must get everything in its nice little categories) from the equally beautiful Korean classical music. In other words it was not officially played at court or for the nobility, not considered “refined”, but in practice there were certainly overlapping influences and styles and performers in both the folk and classical worlds. Sanjo is often thought of as improvisation, which it is to an extent, but a more correct translation is the lovely phrase “scattered melodies”. Influenced by Korea’s often highly improvised shamanistic music (sinawi) and by the completely other-worldly p’ansori tradition which is a storytelling/operatic style that is beyond belief. (really—p’ansori involves one vocalist playing ALL the characters in an elaborate opera through a startling assortment of vocal techniques to the accompaniment of a single drum. The performances can go on for hours. If that doesn’t intrigue you, go back to watching Cosby re-runs and fuck off.). Kayagum sanjo involves much rhythmic variation and textural techniques including rubbing and snapping the strings, deep bends, crazy vibratos held long after the note has died and so on. It is these rough snaps and pops, the long dramatic pauses, the odd tones, that seemed to blend so well with the 78rpm surface noise on the CD my friend had brought. I fantasized dramatically about an ancient dying art form, the end of a tradition, luckily captured on the first recording devices though otherwise gone forever. But here’s the interesting thing: the sanjo form was essentially developed by one master musician, Kim Chang-jo in 1890. He revamped the kayagum (an ancient instrument) making it smaller and more flexible and extended its playing techniques. In other words, sanjo came in to being at nearly the same time as recording and it is entirely possible that Kim was aware of Edison’s little invention, which was patented in 1877. And so my fantasies turn to kayagum sanjo as being the first music written expressly to exploit recording. But really when you think about it, that’s pretty dumb. Especially when you consider that sanjo as performed takes much longer than the three minutes 78rpm records could hold. However, we often think that recording and the information age killed off the “oral tradition” and most forms of folk music are now merely bugs in amber, unchanged for centuries, but sanjo provides an argument for the continued resilience of so-called “folk” forms, while at the same time pointing out the obvious shortcomings of the term “folk” when used to describe this complex improvisational music. There is even a fantastic more modern variation of the kayagum, based on a steel strung guitar, called chulhyun gum.
Even after knowing the origins and techniques of kayagum sanjo, there is still a wonderful mystery generated by those early recordings. George Martin–Sir George Martin actually–once said that he knew exactly how the Beatles put their songs together, understood harmony and music theory, could pick the songs apart and put them back together, but he could never recreate or explain the appeal and magic at the heart of them. To this I would add that the personal magic, the world we invent into music as we listen, is every bit as indefinable and every bit as important in explaining why certain sounds or songs appeal to us as individuals. So this being the case, please pardon my excessive poetics on the subject of Korean sanjo. But do seek it and other forms of Korean music out for yourself; ancient recordings or contemporary, folk or classical traditions, it is beautiful and strange music. If you find any Korean 78s, however, they are mine. Rest assured I will seek you out and subject you to my will…
I can’t imagine that the Cantabile CD is still in print, but of course I haven’t really looked. After all, I already HAVE it. It’s you suckers who are missing out.
Some gorgeous Korean music can be heard HERE