Dynamic Korea and Rhythmic Form

Dynamic Korea and Rhythmic Form

by Katherine In-Young Lee


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South Korean percussion genre samul nori goes global

Winner of the The Béla Bartók Award for Outstanding Ethnomusicology

The South Korean percussion genre, samul nori, is a world phenomenon whose rhythmic form is the key to its popularity and mobility. Based on both ethnographic research and close formal analysis, author Katherine In-Young Lee focuses on the kinetic experience of samul nori, drawing out the concept of dynamism to show its historical, philosophical, and pedagogical dimensions. Breaking with traditional approaches to the study of world music that privilege political, economic, institutional, or ideological analytical frameworks, Lee argues that because rhythmic forms are experienced on a somatic level, they swiftly move beyond national boundaries and provide sites for cross-cultural interaction.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819577061
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Series: Music / Culture
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

KATHERINE IN-YOUNG LEE is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and her work has appeared in Journal of Korean Studies, Ethnomusicology, and Journal of Korean Traditional Performing Arts.

Read an Excerpt


Space and the Big Bang

In actuality, Konggan [Space] did not embark only to explain Korea to the Koreans; it was its ceaseless wish, too, to explain Korea to other countries.

Alain Delissen, 2001

SamulNori became SamulNori Hanullim, Inc. (Hanullim means big bang) in 1993. This growth from a four-man performance ensemble into a company of thirty artists meant that SamulNori's new genre in traditional Korean arts, music, and dance over the last two decades had now also become a viable educational and research enterprise.

SamulNori Hanullim, n.d.

In 1993 the SamulNori quartet officially disbanded, ending their remarkable run. As many histories of the group narrate, the quartet began as a modest experiment in 1978 and developed unexpectedly into a global musical phenomenon. Few could have predicted this rise, or this spread. Within the span of fifteen years SamulNori claimed over thirty-five hundred performances. They were credited with catapulting their brand of music into South Korea's sonic landscape as the country's representative genre of kugak (literally, "national [Korean] music"). Their success on international stages spurred a reappraisal of the status of traditional Korean arts on a domestic front. And the music that the quartet performed was soon embraced and imitated by many fans both within and outside South Korea.

But as is sometimes the case with things that have a steep and sudden ascent, the ending can be abrupt. Typically glossed over in SamulNori narratives or confined to the domains of conversation and hearsay, such difficulties as internal strife, conflicting agendas, financial disputes, and burnout all factored into the dissolution of the SamulNori quartet. This did not lead to the demise of samul nori as a genre, however. To the contrary, it was during the 1990s that the genre of samul nori flourished. A growing base of fans became samul nori practitioners, owing in large part to pedagogical outreach efforts sponsored first by the quartet, and later by samul nori's most tireless and ambitious advocate, Kim Duk Soo.

Master of the hourglass changgo drum, Kim Duk Soo took up the reins and launched a reconfigured and expanded enterprise in 1993, calling it SamulNori Hanullim. Translated literally, hanullim means "grand reverberation"; Kim Duk Soo chose to render this in English as SamulNori "Big Bang." Broadening his artistic horizons, Kim presided as the director for an organization that featured a roster of samul nori quartet "teams," an educational division, and a managing staff.

The transformation from a stand-alone quartet to an artistic troupe capable of deploying separate teams to different events reflects the popularization of the percussion genre by the early 1990s. Not only was there an increased demand for samul nori performances, but there was also a younger generation of musicians who had essentially become adept (and even fanatic) at playing samul nori. The quartet attracted serious musicians and amateur enthusiasts — many of whom flocked to train with the quartet members at workshops or at the Sinch'on Live House Nanjang Studio. Ethnomusicologist Nathan Hesselink describes the quartet's impact in even broader terms: "By the 1990s, SamulNori / samul nori in various incarnations had become a prominent fixture of the Korean musical landscape, seen on television broadcasts and in concert halls, disseminated on CD, VHS, and DVD recordings, studied in chapters of music history and appreciation textbooks, and taught at the primary, secondary, and collegiate levels throughout the peninsula" (2012, 3). Thus Kim's SamulNori "Big Bang" was a fitting appellation to describe the longer-lasting reverberations of the SamulNori quartet, while at the same time forecasting Kim's more ambitious agendas.

Beginning this story with the quartet's demise is an unconventional narrative move. But it strategically foregrounds SamulNori's popular reception — a reception that outlived the quartet's dissolution. It shifts the emphasis away from SamulNori the quartet to samul nori the global music genre. It also offers another way of thinking of SamulNori — not as a singular, all-star quartet that emerged fully formed overnight — but as part of an evolving musical collaboration and a cultural project. As many Korean music insiders already know, what is usually referred to as the first or "original SamulNori quartet" is actually a misnomer.

The quartet's membership was never truly fixed, as the "original" designation suggests. One of the founding members, Kim Yong-bae [Kim Yongbae], left the quartet in 1984 when he was recruited by the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (now known as the National Gugak Center) to establish its own in-house samul nori quartet. Kim was replaced by Kang Min-seok [Kang Minsok]. And Choi Jong Sil [Ch'oe Chongsil] departed the group in 1989 in order to pursue academic studies. Because of the fluid membership of the group — even from the first performances at the Space Theater — it is problematic to liberally use the term "original" (see Hesselink 2012, 56–57). Viewing the quartet less as a fixed entity and more as a collaborative project that involved numerous individuals and membership changes over time will be instructive here.

Dynamic Korea hews closely to the book's animating question of how a musical genre goes global. While this chapter chronicles some of the early history of the SamulNori quartet, it does so for the purpose of bringing into relief the social and cultural environment that facilitated the quartet's emergence and development at a specific moment in South Korean history. And since early accounts of the SamulNori quartet already exist, I direct readers with interest in finer historical details to monographs in both Korean and English (Kim Honson 1988, [1991] 1994, 1995, 1998; Hesselink 2012; Howard 2015; SamulNori Hanullim t'ansaeng samsip chunyon kinyom saophoe 2009). I also base my analysis of samul nori's global journeys through two groups in particular: the SamulNori quartet and SamulNori Hanullim. The stories of professional samul nori groups such as Durae Pae SamulNori, Dulsori, and Samul Gwangdae — while important in the context of samul nori's globalization — are not featured here.

In this chapter I begin with a description of the setting — the Seoul-based Konggan Sarang and the community of cultural activists who nurtured what I call the SamulNori project. This is followed by my examination of the ways in which the sounds of samul nori first captivated listeners. Through careful analysis of ethnographic interviews, oral histories, and the accounts of music critics and fans, I reveal the strands of the positive reception that eventually led to the outward spread of the genre and the South Korean government's promotion of this repertory of music as a dynamic symbol of South Korean culture.


Most histories of SamulNori begin by paying tribute to the Space Theater / Konggan Sarang Sogukchang ("Love of Space" Small Theater) located in northern Seoul (figure 1.1). This was the vaunted place where the percussion quartet first debuted in 1978. More precisely, it was a small theater tucked in the basement of a redbrick building that became the site of many important performances of traditional Korean music (figure 1.2). The building served as the headquarters for the Konggan (Space) Group and was designed by Kim Sugun (1931–1986), one of South Korea's most esteemed architects of the twentieth century. Kim's Konggan Group oversaw distinct but connected ventures: an architectural firm; an influential monthly publication; an art gallery and café; and the Space Theater.

Konggan — an arts, architecture, and culture periodical — frequently published Kim's thoughts on a wide range of topics. Kim wrote essays on history, culture, and identity. He also reflected frequently on South Korea as a modernizing nation. Historian Alain Delissen's meticulous survey and analysis of the Konggan publications from 1960 to 1990 paint a portrait of Kim Sugun as an ardent cultural nationalist who was simultaneously invested in researching and reclaiming South Korea's "lost" history while also contributing to its modern infrastructure. As an architect, Kim chose to "pursue the bolder ambition of pulling architecture out of the then purely technical field of construction engineering for transformation into an art, socially legitimate, that would be both genuinely Korean (rooted in the past) and distinctively modern (opened onto the time of the world)" (Delissen 2001, 246). His commitment to the traditional culture of Korea's past was reflected in his patronage of the arts. As a "cultural activist" interested in giving voice and a venue to traditional Korean culture, Kim Sugun was instrumental in creating the artistic milieu that fostered the genesis of the SamulNori quartet.

Kim appointed Kang Chunhyok [also written as Kang Joon-hyuk] as the artistic director of the Space Theater. Kang (1947–2014) had a background in Western classical music and earned a degree in aesthetics from Seoul National University. He presided over a diverse range of programming; regular series included the Evening of Ballet, the Evening of Jazz, and traditional Korean dance. Kang utilized Konggan Sarang's austere form to his advantage in planning an adventurous array of performances:

It [Konggan] wasn't an example of a proscenium stage — there was no such operative concept. That's likely what people dubbed it, though, since it seemed [superficially] to meet some of the criteria. But there was really no place to call a "stage" as such, no seats. ... You place seats in that open space, and that becomes the seated area, and the remaining area will become a stage. So to call it a conventional theater would really be a misnomer. I think the only way you could characterize Konggan would be to call it an experimental stage. (Kang Chunhyok interview, September 8, 2009)

Kim and Kang's "experimental stage" — also known as a black box theater — was a flexible space that could accommodate a variety of different configurations and performances. Dancers, chamber musicians, singers, actors, puppeteers, and even shamans performed at Konggan Sarang. In its heyday the Space Theater was at times an avant-garde venue in Seoul that brought together a coterie of like-minded individuals, interested in the folk and modern arts and cultural activism. It was also the first theater of its kind to regularly sponsor and promote traditional Korean music (kugak), inaugurating the monthly Evening of Traditional Music series in 1978. Many of South Korea's most famous and revered figures in traditional arts performed at the theater (including p'ansori artists Kim Sohui and Im Pang'ul, kayagum player Pak Kwihui, and dancer Yi Maebang). This high-caliber presentation of Korean folk music was facilitated in large part by Kang's discriminating ear and Kim's personal interest in preserving and revitalizing Korean traditional arts and culture. A year prior to the opening of the Space Theater in April 1977, Kim Sugun elaborated on his vision for the experimental stage: "Beyond providing the place to nurture traditional arts, as a theater space, we aim to expand the possibilities and cultivate creative work. The small theater was built in a way so that its form could facilitate the creation of new [types of] theatrical plays. But besides theater, there are also plans to present the best quality chamber music, and to have monthly musical appreciation concerts of p'ansori."

February 22–23, 1978, marked the first installment of the Evening of Traditional Music series at the Space Theater. In this program a group of Korean folk music specialists who were part of the Minsogakhoe Sinawi (Folk Music Society "Sinawi") performed a selection of pieces. At the end of the evening a new work was debuted. Four musicians — Kim Duk Soo, Kim Yong-bae [Kim Yongbae], Ch'oe T'aehyon, and Yi Chongdae — performed a percussion improvisation called "Uttari p'ungmul." Taking the core percussion instruments used in an older genre of percussion music and dance known as p'ungmul, the quartet offered a sampling of rhythmic patterns drawn from regional p'ungmul variants of South Korea's Kyonggi and Ch'ungch'ong Provinces (sometimes referred to as the Uttari region). Inside the Space Theater, the four men presented rural percussion music that was traditionally performed outdoors by a large number of farmers and villagers.

Kim Duk Soo and Kim Yong-bae were the bona fide percussionists of the group; Ch'oe had majored in haegum (two-string fiddle), and Yi specialized in wind instruments. But as many folk musicians are proficient in more than one instrument, this difference in musical training did not hinder the performance. The reception of that first performance was unexpectedly enthusiastic, and it has since been inscribed with mythic import as the "birth of SamulNori" (samul nori ui t'ansaeng) by the South Korean media and in SamulNori's own press materials. Although the "original SamulNori quartet" with members Kim Duk Soo, Kim Yong-bae, Lee Kwang Soo [Yi Kwangsu], and Choi Jong Sil [Ch'oe Chongsil] did not actually convene on February 22, 1978, the seed of the samul nori genre sprouted at that first performance.


A symposium organized by SamulNori Hanullim in 2006 brought together experts and scholars to examine SamulNori / samul nori's past, present, and future. Reflecting on SamulNori's "past," Kang Chunhyok discussed the reception and unforeseen impact of the first performance of "Uttari p'ungmul" at the Space Theater.

On that day, the audience heard nongak [literally, "farming music"] being performed in a seated position for the very first time. The karak [rhythmic patterns] themselves were old since they were steeped in the world of nongak; rather it was the configuration of such rhythmic patterns that was new. If in the past, the people who came to see nongak were spectators, then on that day, these were the curiously inquisitive who came to see a musical performance — thus, an audience. In other words, it was the first performance of its kind where we were able to focus more on the auditory dimensions over the visual ones in our [p'ungmul] rhythms. It was a revelation to both the performers themselves and the audience alike that our rhythms were this diverse, charming, exciting and energetic. (Kang Joon-hyuk 2006, 11)

Kang's testimony conveys the sense of wonder that audience members felt at hearing something that was at once both new and familiar. Although Koreans were well acquainted with the sounds of p'ungmul as part of Korea's folk heritage and agrarian past, the setting for the performance of "Uttari p'ungmul" at the Space Theater was a drastic change from p'ungmul's outdoor context. The quartet took music that was traditionally performed by local percussion bands (for hours at a time, by large groups of people) and streamlined it into a more concise form. This recontexualized performance of p'ungmul directed the audience's attention to p'ungmul's sonic features — in a way that had not been so isolated before. As we know now, the quartet and its arrangement of p'ungmul rhythms proved to be a big hit. And in many ways, the quartet's spirit of experimentation resonated with the Konggan Group's philosophy of being at the vanguard of innovation while maintaining a firm sense of tradition.

Kim Duk Soo explained in his 2007 autobiography that the idea to perform the rhythms from p'ungmul in a new presentational format was not his own. Instead, he credits folklorist Sim Usong (b. 1934) as the one to suggest to Kim (and the other performers) to take the four primary percussion instruments from p'ungmul — one of each — and create a piece with them while playing in a seated position. Kim acknowledged that Sim's proposal was a great idea — recalling that he was "full of excitement and anticipation" at trying out this suggestion on that "unforgettable evening" (Kim Duk Soo 2007, 180–82).


Before moving on, it is necessary to pause and explain Sim Usong's central role in supporting the percussion quartet. Although he has worn many hats, Sim is best regarded for his work as a researcher of the folk performing arts and culture of Korea. During the 1960s he began extensive research on the tradition of itinerant performing arts troupes known as yurang tanch'e, focusing in particular on the namsadang (itinerant troupes of male performers). Sim was part of the first generation of South Korean folklorists to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with folk musicians. He also served as an advocate for the preservation of folk arts. Through his research on the namsadang, Sim met Kim Duk Soo, whose father (Kim Munhak) was a member of the 1960s Minsokkukhoe Namsadang (Folk Theater Association Namsadang) (Hesselink 2012, 32; Sim Usong [1974] 1994, 53). Sim taught Korean music history and theory at the Seoul Arts High School and also served as the faculty adviser for the Minsogakhoe Sinawi ensemble — a group that he named and helped to form (Ch'oe T'aehyon 1991, 31–32; Hesselink 2012, 53). He later introduced Kim Yong-bae (a member of the Seoul-based namsadang troupe in the 1970s) to the folk arts society. It was Sim who was in fact the link between the Minsogakhoe Sinawi group and the Space Theater's Kang Chunhyok. From this connection arose the artistic roster at the Space Theater in its early years.


Excerpted from "Dynamic Korea and Rhythmic Form"
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Copyright © 2018 Katherine In-Young Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Notes on Translation and Romanization
1. Space and the Big Bang
2. The Dynamics of Rhythmic Form
3. Dynamic Korea and Samul nori
4. Global Encounters with Samul nori
5. Transnational Samul nori and the Politics of Place
Appendix 1. Pinari—English translation
Appendix 2. SamulNori: "Tradition Meets the Present"

What People are Saying About This

Roald Maliangkay

“Lee demonstrates how the focus on form contributed to the development of samul nori into one of Korea’s key cultural exports. For those interested in Korean music, contemporary Korean culture, and nation building, this is a must-read.”

Nathan Hesselink

“This book is a timely and sorely needed contribution to ongoing intellectual debates within ethnomusicology and world music studies. Lee’s investment in musical form as both a physical force and explanatory object reveals processes and motivations not solely accessible by so-called “cultural” or “extra”-musical explanations.”

From the Publisher

"Lee demonstrates how the focus on form contributed to the development of samul nori into one of Korea's key cultural exports. For those interested in Korean music, contemporary Korean culture, and nation building, this is a must-read."—Roald Maliangkay, author of Broken Voices: Postcolonial Entanglements and the Preservation of Korea's Central Folksong Traditions

"Lee demonstrates how the focus on form contributed to the development of samul nori into one of Korea's key cultural exports. For those interested in Korean music, contemporary Korean culture, and nation building, this is a must-read."—Roald Maliangkay, author of Broken Voices: Postcolonial Entanglements and the Preservation of Korea's Central Folksong Traditions

"This book is a timely and sorely needed contribution to ongoing intellectual debates within ethnomusicology and world music studies. Lee's investment in musical form as both a physical force and explanatory object reveals processes and motivations not solely accessible by so-called cultural or extra-musical explanations."—Nathan Hesselink, professor of ethnomusicology, University of British Columbia

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