Yeongsanhoesang: Refinement through Variation
Meditative, enharmonic, soothing and at times jarring, the sonorities of Korean traditional music (gugak) are often disconcerting at first exposure. Yet, with each successive listening, these sonorities become ever more familiar. Perfect for entry into the world of gugak are the pieces from the pungnyu (chamber music) repertory. Slow and simple enough in structure to ease initial insight, pungnyu also represents gugak’s ever-developing form and, thus, the complexities that make it often difficult for contemporary audiences to grasp. The music does not tick-tock along to the pulse of a metronome, but, rather moves forth and recedes as the performers synchronize their breathing, or hoheup, in musical progression. As you listen, imagine your breath matching that of the performers, taking you inside the rhythmic and melodic contours. These performances from the pungnyu repertory offer a window on the world of gugak; one in which listening is required and tranquility is within reach.
Expressing the pungnyu aesthetic: Yeongsanhoesang
The term ‘pungnyu’ appears in the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi, 1145) in reference to a way of life incorporating and expressing the teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism through educational, artistic, and contemplative endeavors. Overall the principles of self-control and enjoyment of nature dominated the activities of those adhering to the pungnyu lifestyle, and music served as a crucial vehicle through which self-cultivation could be achieved. While generally associated with court life, pungnyu music draws on the expressivities of diverse social contexts, integrating these varied influences into performance. The pungnyu repertoire is limited, yet features a great number of compositional variations derived from shifts in register, incorporation of new pieces, and varying instrumentation. Variations formed within the context of pungnyu rooms, informal sites of performance and learning for professional and amateur musicians predominantly of the literati and broadly defined ‘middle class’ (jungin) of the latter part of the Joseon (1392-1910) era. Music at once simple and intricate developed at the core of the pungnyu lifestyle and from this aesthetic foundation Yeongsanhoesang emerged.
According to records in the Akhakgwebeom (Treatise of Music, 1493), the suite is based on a vocal piece with the sutra ‘yeong san hoe sang bulbo sal’ comprising the lyrics. Beginning in the 17th century, however, the text was dropped and the piece developed as an exclusively instrumental one. Yeongsanhoesang has undergone continuous change with current versions taking form sometime in the 19th century. The first piece of the suite, “Sangryeongsan,” appears to be the original piece to which the text was appended. The following pieces “Jungryeongsan” and “Seryeongsan” make use of the central melodic motif of “Sangryeongsan” and develop this through melodic transposition, ornamentation, and slight shifts in rhythm. The other six pieces included in the suite draw on popular melodies and dance pieces of the Joseon era. The contemporary suite consists of nine pieces, the afore-mentioned “Sangryeongsan,” “Jungryeongsan” and “Seryeongsan,” plus “Garakdeori,” “Sanghyeondodeuri,” “Hahyeondodeuri,” “Yeombuldodeuri,” “Taryeong,” and “Gunak,” respectively. Yeongsanhoesang can be described as a medley of pieces connected through melodic variation.
Yeongsanhoesang typifies the structure and ensemble dynamics of pungnyu music. All instruments perform the same core pentatonic, melismatic melody but express this melody differently based on instrument register and performance capabilities. In a mixed string-wind ensemble, for example, the plucked zither performs the core skeletal melody as the reed piri takes the melodic lead and the bamboo flute offers delicate ornamentation in the higher registers. The musical technique yeoneum, a continuation of a melodic line by some instruments as others temporarily rest, accentuates the rich texture of the ensemble. In addition, a gradual increase in tempo characterizes the overall structure. The suite begins at a ploddingly slow pace and as the tempo increases, so does the complexity of the melodies as more ornamentation is integrated. Through this structure, the piece advances from a rather majestic and somber feel to one that is lighter and more dance-like.
The pieces described below, while essentially variations on the same instrumental suite, demonstrate the extent to which variations have led to a diverse and rich repertory. The versions you will hear represent “Seoul pungnyu,” or the court tradition of pungnyu. The regional folk varieties represent both regional and individual versions of the repertory.
Gajeunhoesang is a string and wind variation of Yeongsanhoesang extended by the incorporation of the piece “Dodeuri” and the short suite Cheonnyeonmanse. This version is meant for indoor chamber ensemble performance and is, thus, a serene and meditative version of the suite. Typical instruments include the geomungo (6-string fretted zither), gayageum (12-string zither), yanggeum (hammered dulcimer), janggu (hourglass-shaped double-headed drum), haegeum (2-string fiddle), sepiri (a small, soft-playing double reed instrument), daegeum (large transverse bamboo flute), and danso (notched end-blown vertical bamboo flute). The ensemble characteristically includes one of each instrument, but contemporary staged versions will double or triple the number of some of the instruments to allow for a more balanced sound on stage.
Gajeunhoesang incorporates “Dodeuri” in between the 5th and 6th pieces, which not only lengthens the whole performance but lends a different mood as “Dodeuri” uses a slightly different scale and ornamentation style from that used throughout Yeongsanhoesang. To continue the momentum created by the danceable rhythms of the final two pieces of Yeongsanhoesang, “Taryeong” and “Gunak,” the three-piece suite Cheonnyeonmanse (meaning “long live a thousand years”) is appended. This short suite starts with a moderate tempo, quickens in the second piece, and returns to its moderate pace for the last piece.
While overall characterized by a quiet elegance, the spirit of Gajeunhoesang advances from a more serene and contemplative atmosphere to one of sweet exuberance. Through the mellow layering of the melodic lines and the soft instrumental textures, one can imagine the calm intimacy of a pungnyu room. The music, as well, has contemporary relevance; providing a space for peaceful reflection, a chance to recover—if only for a moment—from our busy and rushed lives.
Department of Korean Music
Seoul National University