A Composer's Travel Journal (5)

- Tradition -

Although it's been only two years since the day I reluctantly brought home my first computer, I realized last week, when it was crippled by a virus, how integral a part of my life the computer has become. I have no idea what the dictionary says about tradition or what a scholar's definition of it would be, but it seems to me that our use of the computer is, for better or for worse, the forming of a new tradition. I think of tradition as something like the air around us. Or rather, like parents for their children. One's first language is tradition. Food eaten while growing up is tradition. The ways of performing ritual are tradition. We choose friends, but not parents or what we breathe. One can choose a religion or philosophy, but not a tradition. In Korea, traditional music seems to have been forgotten by many people. I sense that this is also true in other parts of the world, but I will write only about what I know.

What little I've already learned about traditional Korean music is about playing instruments, not about history or theory. And even this experience in playing is not yet very deep. There are a number of things that come to mind when I attempt to articulate what I've noticed and absorbed about traditional music, particularly within the context of my own personal "musical world". I think first of the sound of court music. A long line of music with very little overall fluctuation of dynamics. Little sense of beginning or ending, especially in slow music with long rhythmic patterns. No exact synchronizing between players. Many people playing the same line, many subtly different lines. Instruments playing in unison, with ornaments and vibrato placed differently by each musician. Group playing that is more like layers of solo lines. Solo lines clearly heard within the color of many instruments. Vocal music that is highly ornamented and almost always melismatic. A sense of hesitation, of not always moving forward, but of lingering on certain notes. Or, repetition of short, simple figures, without hesitating, but without going. Long sections of music without any feeling of development. No transition between sections. Much very slow music. Music simply beginning and ending without big gestures. Sparse punctuation by percussion instruments. Focused, solid lines of wind music (piri) surrounded by a halo of diffused, blurred lines (taegeum, heavily ornamented). One group of instruments shadowing another group. Music of different speeds sounding simultaneously. A new phrase of music beginning before everyone has finished the old phrase. Even the largest group of musicians playing without a conductor. Musicians playing with a feeling of togetherness. Ornaments played at a slower, lazier speed. Ornaments personal to each player. Each note with its own personal ornament. Music of generous length made up of very few notes. A long passage of slow music becoming another long passage of slightly less slow music with no acceleration.

In the past, when I studied with traditional musicians in Korea, I wondered why the teacher didn't seem to have any sense of time. I'd go to a teacher's house and, often, the teacher wouldn't be there or would show up much later than the time we'd agreed on. There would be a group of students practicing together while waiting for their lesson. No one else seemed anxious about the teacher's absence. Or, there would be a few people, each practicing their own music, paying no attention to what the others were playing. How was I supposed to concentrate on what I was doing? Sometimes the teacher would appear, and I'd get an hour-long lesson, a two hour-long lesson, or sometimes, no lesson at all. During the lesson, the teacher would play with me, never demonstrating. So I felt good playing with the teacher and discouraged when I practiced alone. After a lesson I would often stay for a meal, or we'd go out and do ordinary things together.

Korean students don't talk during lessons. I've heard American teachers discuss Asian students who (they think) can't write research papers because they were brought up only to obey and not to think for themselves. They don't understand why Korean students don't talk during classes and lessons, but only listen. If I have a question, I don't ask it right away. I've learned that, simply by remaining silent, the answer will occur to me because of what the teacher has already said. Of course, there are teachers, both bad and good, in both east and west, that have no answers for their students, and that one will never understand.

When I spent two months during the summer of 1999 listening to the daily rehearsals of a Korean traditional orchestra, I noticed, in the midst of older, more conservative, proudly nationalistic musicians, younger players, talking secretly on their cell phones in the middle of rehearsals. No abandonment of tradition, but also no simple repetition of it.

I sometimes think about the way music is similar to life. Korean folk music comes from the people, land, weather, and language of a certain part of the country and sounds direct and undisguised. It reminds me of a saying that goes something like: "There are false stories, but no false songs. Korean court music makes no overt effort to sound beautiful. We might also consider the characteristic of court music where many people play the same melody, without worrying about being exactly together, and with no one dominating, as a way people might live together harmoniously.

At home, every day I work to make "new" music. When I go to Korea, I study traditional music. In a few days, I'm leaving San Francisco for Cholla province in Korea. I'll stay for a month at the house of a traditional singer, take singing lessons with her, meet with other musicians in the area, and do some research for a new project.

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