28 January 2013

Traditional Korean Music and Korean Kinesthetics

One of my closest friends is genetically Korean but while he was still a toddler he was adopted by a Dutch family and so he grew up in the Netherlands. Although my friend looks Korean, when he walks or moves in a crowd of Koreans I can easily recognize him because his motions, his “rhythm,” is different from the other Koreans around him. Similarly, when I walk the streets in Korea it is surprisingly easy to spot non-Koreans, even from behind, merely by the way they carry themselves.

People from different cultures move differently. Allow me momentary stereotyping as I expand on this idea. An African American from the Bronx has a completely different stride than a Texan cowboy. I'm confident that if one were to look at the music from these two cultures (hip-hop in the case of the African-American from the Bronx, and country music in the case of the Texan cowboy) one would notice similarities between the way they move, and the qualities of the music that represent their respective sub-cultures.

In this post I will give a short overview of traditional Korean music and highlight points of overlap with some Korean martial arts, particularly the folk art Taekkyeon and ITF Taekwon-Do.

I recently attended a lecture hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society (Korean Branch), presented by Professor Sheen Dae-Cheol 신대철 of the Academy of Korean Studies, on the topic “Calm and Dynamic: Two Differing Aesthetic Aspects of Korean Traditional Music.”

Traditional Korean music can be divided into two groups: upperclass music known as Jeongak 전각 (music for royalty and noblemen) and Minsogak 민소각 (folk music). Jeongak can further be grouped into Court Ritual Music, such as Royal Shrine Music and Confucian Shrine Music; Court party music for royal birthdays, weddings, etc.; Royal Procession Music; and Literati Music, which is music listened to by the upperclass, but which is not court music. Although different types of traditional music exist, they all share certain recognizable characteristics.

Professor Sheen lists the following characteristics for traditional Korean music:

1. Monophony (instead of polyphony)
2. Pentatonic and tri-tonic scales
3. Breath tempo (Heterophony)
4. Triple rhythm
5. Downbeat start and upbeat cadence
6. Short consonants and extra long vowels in vocal music
7. Rhythmic pattern
8. Curved melodic line with typical vibrato known as nonghyeon or nongeum

Not everything in this list is directly relevant, but there are certain points that definitely stands out for me. First, points #4 and #5 I think are significant. Traditional Korean music follows a "triple rhythm", or a three beat rhythm. The three beat rhythm is also quite popular in Western music in the form of the Waltz: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. The Korean triple rhythm works the opposite way however, starting with a downbeat. Instead of ONE-two-three, the Korean three beat is more likely to be a one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE. The Korean triple rhythm is noticeable in different forms of traditional dance. It is also very easily recognized in the Korean folk martial art Taekkyeon where it is the foundation for the basic stepping known as pumbalbki 품밟기. Similarly ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners will also recognize this, as they are often coached by their instructors to do their patterns "one-and-TWO, one-and-TWO" or "one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE"; in other words, three beats, starting with a downbeat—or starting relaxed. The full sine wave motion manifested as down-up-DOWN or relax-rise-FALL adheres to this three beat rhythm.

Another point from Professor Sheen's list I wish to highlight is #8. In traditional Korean music, when a melody moves from one note to another that is some distance away, it would often not abruptly jump to the next note. Instead there would often be a smooth transition through all the notes in between until it reaches the desired note; i.e. it moves in a "curved melodic line". Furthermore, upon reaching a note, it is not merely kept at that pitch, but rather the voice or instrument would oscillate around that note as a very noticeable vibrato. (In court music the vibrato is narrow, but in folk music the amplitude is greater.) Such vibrato, or moving in a wave up and down the music scale, translates as up and down movements in traditional Korean dance, as a form of bounciness in the movements of Taekkyeon, as a type of bobbing in the sparring stance in WTF Taekwondo, and possibly as the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Different cultures move differently, which is often a reflection of the music and the innate rhythm of the culture. It is quite possible that such cultural rhythms may also influence the rhythms of the martial arts practiced in those cultures. The triple rhythm of the Korean folk martial art Taekkyeon resembles that of traditional Korean dances, which in turn is based on the triple rhythm of traditional Korean music. ITF Taekwon-Do has a root in Taekkyeon, and therefore is influenced by similar cultural movements. Although the sine wave motion has clear technical considerations, it is also in harmony with traditional Korean kinesthetics.

Following are some samples of traditional Korean music. The first is known as Sujecheon 수제천 and is a court piece wishing the king longevity dating back 1300 years. (The title translates roughly to 'a life as long as the heavens'.) During the Joseon period one beat lasted about three seconds, so it is difficult to discern the beats in this piece of music. One can however appreciated the curved melodic line and vibrato.

The following song is probably Korea's most famous folk song, Arirang 아리랑. The leading vocalist in the video is pansori maestro Jang Sa Ik. Try to listen for the Korean three-beat rhythm and also notice his body movements; in other words, notice how he interprets the rhythm kinetically.

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