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[Eye Plus]Geomungo, a beloved ancient instrument, still captivates

By Lim Jae-seong

Published : Oct. 2, 2023 - 16:01

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“The geomungo has been called ‘baekakjijang,’ which means the ultimate instrument,” Park Chae-won said, introducing her instrument.

Park is a Korean music major specializing in the geomungo at Seoul National University.

The geomungo is an ancient Korean instrument with a hollow wooden body and six silk strings. It is played with a pencil-sized bamboo stick called a suldae.

Since being invented by Wang San-ak, a prime minister during Korea’s Goguryeo kingdom (37 B.C.-668 A.D.), in the fourth century, the geomungo has long enchanted scholars with its deep and clear sound, thereby earning admiration above all other instruments.

“The geomungo's tone can be compared to the color black. It’s chic, sophisticated and cool,” Park said.

“Just like a drop of sparkling paint on black paper appears brighter, the geomungo supports the tones of other instruments in an ensemble to sound more beautiful and adds majestic depth,” she added.

Park was captivated by the sound of the geomungo.

“I fell in love with the geomungo's dignified and grand sound in a gugak performance I saw when I was young,” Park said.

“As I play this instrument, I also find beauty in its hybrid nature. Even though it is a string instrument, I feel like I'm playing a percussion instrument when I hit it from above or move the suldae rapidly,” Park added.

Park’s goal in studying the geomungo is to encourage more people to enjoy the 1,700-year-old instrument.

“Traditional music must be inherited without changing tradition, but only when various attempts and creations are made as much as possible, can it develop rather than remain in the past," Park said.

Based on this belief, she wears a hanbok, Korean traditional attire, when playing traditional music styles such as the sanjo, a kind of solo geomungo performance with the rhythm kept by the janggu drum. But she also wears contemporary Western-style clothing when playing works that she created or taking part in an orchestra.

“As a member of Generation Z, I enjoy pop music like K-pop. I am someone who preserves traditions, but I also hope that I can perform and compose things that many people are able to enjoy without difficulty,” Park added.

Photos by Lee Sang-sub

Written by Lee Sang-sub, Lim Jae-seong