Cycle of Sixty

A Composer's Travel Journal (11)

- Cycle of Sixty -

Riverside, California, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It's been less than a week since I returned from Korea and I've now accompanied my pianist husband to a convention of the Music Teachers Association of California. He's here to listen to a piano competition, which includes solos and concertos played by young pianists from grade school through college. I find it interesting that all 8 finalists in this competition - 4 from northern California , 4 from southern California - are Asian American, while this is true of only one of the finalists' teachers. There are so many music competitions happening all over the world, and just in the past month I've seen a number of them myself in both Korea and California.

I'm not sure what the value of a competition like this is for the student. The young musician, in preparing for a competition, focuses mostly on the technical aspects of good "competition pieces", learning to play them faster, louder, and in a more flashy manner (like an acrobat) than anyone else. A good "competition piece" is not slow or too difficult for the listener, so there is a world of music that the enthusiastic and successful competitor will never experience. I've learned, from my own experience, that music is a way of life - one of many. It's not one of life's goals or a means to achieve that goal. Music is a form of work (and play) that can give much happiness to the person who does it every day and with diligence. By learning to play many different kinds of music, we experience the joy of learning, we come to appreciate the beauty of the world, we learn to be patient and peaceful. We also learn to be alone.

I met many young pansori students during my 4-week-long stay at my pansori teacher's house in Cholla province. I had a chance to talk more personally with a few of them, even though it was inevitable that I, as a visitor, maintain a certain distance. I couldn't avoid thinking about what brought me together with those particular people in that particular house, a world which I never dreamed existed. Maybe I was thinking in that direction as a result of thinking so much about one of my next projects, a piece entitled "Cycle of Sixty", which I would write for western string orchestra, two percussionists and komungo solo. The komungo is a 6-string zither-like Korean instrument played by striking the strings with a bamboo stick. The komungo virtuoso Yoon-jung Heoh will come from Korea to play the piece with the San Jose Chamber Orchestra on May 18th at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose.

"Cycle of Sixty" will be about 30 minutes long, and its structure will parallel the collection of 10 characters and 12 animals that make up what is called the "cycle of 60" in Chinese culture. These 10 characters, called the 10 Celestial Stems,

   trees (wood)
   hewn timber (wood)
   lightning (fire)
   burning incense (fire)
   hills (earth)
   earthenware (earth)
   metallic ore (metal)
   kettles (metal)
   salt water (water)
   fresh water (water)

include the 5 basic elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), and are paired up with 12 different animals - called the 12 Terrestrial Branches -

A complete cycle of pairings of "stems" with "branches", each pairing lasting one year, is formed after 60 years - the duration of the time considered as one life time.

The traditional Korean instrument Komungo has both frets and moveable bridges. The sounds the instrument produces are determined both by the length of the strings (as is the case with guitar or violin) and by the unique playing technique. Once a player fixes the length of the string by the placing of the finger, the string still must be pushed towards one side in order to determine the specific pitch. This playing technique is called Yuk-an-beop (literally: heavily pressed playing technique) and exists only in the traditional music of Korea. Because it is played by striking the string with a bamboo stick, the Komungo has a sound that is more percussive than that of other string instruments which are plucked or bowed. Only two strings out of six are used to play melodies; the rest are used to create a drone.

When I return home to San Francisco, this time, from Riverside, I'll have to figure out how the laws of the cycle of sixty can be specifically applied to the elements of sound. But, first of all, I'm planning to write back to the young pansori singer. It's inevitable that we continue to make new friends even if it's the beginning of what might include more suffering. Just as the world is interrelated, so are we.

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