Things 1: Daegeum and Sogeum
June 4, 2007 § 24 Comments
The first in my series on things that I own. Don’t ask why, just receive.
The daegeum is a Korean wind instrument used in two very different types of music: jeong-ak (classical / court music) and minsok-ak (folk music). It is an instrument indigenous to the Korean peninsular and probably originated during the Silla dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). It is the largest in the samjuk (three bamboo) family of instruments, which also contains the junggeum (medium-sized flute) and sogeum (small flute). It is made of a single piece of whangjuk (yellow bamboo), which has a valley-shaped ridge running along both edges. It has a total of eight holes: one chwigu (mouth-peice), one chonggong (over which is placed a resonant membrane made of dried bamboo under a brass cover) and six fingering holes. At least one tuning hole is also present at the end of the instrument. The daegeum varies in size and tuning, depending on which form of music is being played. The jeong-ak daegeum is the larger instrument (at 85-90cm), with the sanjo daegeum (used in minsok-ak) modified during the late Joseon dynasty (1392 – 1910) to around 75cm.
The sogeum is a smaller flute than the daegeum, typically 45cm in length. It lacks the resonant membrane of its larger sister, and is crafted from bamboo of a smaller diameter. It is pitched an octave higher then the daegeum and would be considered the equivalent to that of the piccolo in the western orchestral tradition. It has eight functioning holes and is played using seven fingers. The sogeum is primarily used in court music and julpungryu (traditional ensemble music).
On learning that our good friend Zoe (Hyun Shil) attended a traditional music high school and has played the daegeum since middle school, I got it into my head that I wanted to learn to play this beautiful instrument. When Zoe moved back to Korea after a short-lived stint as an American, I convinced her to teach me the sogeum. After a couple of weeks of deliberation (during which I played a plastic model), she finally selected the right instrument for me.
I named it Chu-kee. Well, Mi Kyeong helped me, and as far as I understood her reasoning, Chu-kee comes from the Chinese characters that represent bamboo, which sounds like the Korean word for generosity. Or something. It was a beautiful moment, and I should have written it down at the time.
Chu-kee and I got to know each other quite well. She was terribly difficult to deal with at the start and it was a while before she felt comfortable giving me her sound. However, I took Zoe’s advice and loved my instrument, talked to it, and let it get used to my body (which isn’t Korean). No one else was allowed to play her during this time, as a new instrument apparently forgets its master very easily. As well as physically learning to play the instrument, I had to learn to recognise the Chinese characters which represent the notes of the Korean scale, and how to interpret the way in which they are recorded on paper. Not being terribly proficient at reading music in the western tradition, I was scared at first, but I am slowly getting the hang of it. Chu-kee and I now have an understanding, and while it’s not everyday that I can achieve a convincing chung (the lowest note on the instrument), it’s coming along quite well.
A couple of months ago however, I convinced Zoe that what I wanted, more than anything, was to learn the sanjo daegeum. The world of Korean music is strange and confusing to the foreigner, but basically traditional music is divided into two different streams. There is the slow, meditative court music of the Joseon Dynasty which was reserved for the pleasure of the king, and is rarely played today. Then there is the music of the commoners (shaky-shaky music, in Zoe’s words), of which the realm of sanjo belongs. Sanjo is an instrumental theme and variations, that is often improvised, and which shifts between different melodic and rhythmical mode, and in Korea is classified as Important Intangible Cultural Property No.45. Its tuning is different from the court music (to which the sogeum belongs), and also, since the daegeum is markedly larger, heavier and harder to play than the sogeum, Zoe had serious misgivings about embarking on a path towards my dream.
I persevered, and eventually acquired my very own daegeum. It belonged to one of Zoe’s oldest friends, a boy she went to school with, and who had switched to the kayageum (a kind of zither) during the course of high school. It was expensive, but not as much as buying one new, and certainly not nearly as much as buying one second hand through the normal channels.
She is, as yet, unnamed, and I talk to her everyday to convince her that she really does want to let me play her, and that we can be the best of friends for a long time to come.
I hope it works out.
I wrote this post almost five years ago now, and for some reason I am suddenly getting a lot of traffic to it.
I am still playing my Daegeum. When I am not rehearsing for a show, she comes out every few weeks. I mostly improvise, or practice the 5 or 6 pages of the 120-page sanjo that I started learning all those years ago. My plan has been to teach myself the whole work, based on the few recordings I have, but there never seems to be enough time. She has become part of my ensemble of instruments employed for various projects, and my Korean friends assure me that I don’t sound half bad. I think I am helped by the fact that I spent some time learning Pansori (traditional opera) and have become obsessed with marrying Korean vocals with my physical dance practice, so Korean melodies and modes are constantly playing in my head.
I am going to try to post more about my experience of playing Daegeum later this week, with some scans of my fingering charts and maybe some sheet music. I am quite busy at the moment though, so I will see how I go.
Well, this is one of my most popular posts! Some people have asked me for a fingering chart for the Sogeum. You can search for these things on the internet, but I found one and am posting it here. I haven’t used it (I don’t have my flutes with me right now) but it seems right. I found it here.