Improvisation in Traditional Korean Music: 한국 전통 음악의 즉흥

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A wonderful part of my study of improvisation has been discovering South Korean folk music (minsog’ak) and the presence of improvisation in sanjo and sinawi music, descendants of ritual shamanistic music (muak) from the Cholla Province: examples of structurally unpredictable music to a degree not found elsewhere in East Asia. When the sanjo or sinawi musician begins an extensive extemporization, the performances become spontaneous and unpredictable, and compositional structure is pretty much left behind.

The style of sinawi performance resembles (to some scholars at least) the fixed-motif style of composing popularized by Terry Riley’s composition In C, in that it is a unique form of improvisatory music that is more easily compared to modern jazz (though it doesn’t contain as much collective improvising as sinawi does). Sanjo (“scattered melodies”) is also an improvised instrumental solo music whose structure and performance practice are somewhat similar to those of the Indian raga (Tamil: ragam), Arab maqamaat, and Persian dastgah systems, except that sanjo does not contain a shiftatelli ostinato or a droned tonic. And, as in Noh theater music, the drummer serves as a main source of direction or inspiration for the pace and feel of the sanjo, in this case by interjecting exclamations such as ‘choch’i!’ or ‘chot’a!’ at appropriate moments, much like the cries of encouragement (ch’uimsae) from the knowledgeable audience member or drummer in Korean epic song (p’ansori), and/or the cries of ‘Hau!’ in encouragement and appreciation of a singer/actor in Peking Opera. Every presentation of sanjo also consists of several passages of differing rhythms and structures, which flow and merge with one another: chinyang (slow), chungmori (medium), and chajinmori (fast), reminiscent of Noh theater’s jo – ha – kyu concept (or vice versa). 동아시아 음악이 재미있다, 그렇지?

©2010 Daniel Schnee
©2013 Daniel Schnee.danielpaulschnee.wordpress.com

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