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Ancient Sound Reimagined for Modern Times

  • Lonny Shavelson

Composer Jin Hi Kim blends traditional Korean komungo styles with Western music.

Composer Jin Hi Kim blends traditional Korean komungo styles with Western music.

Jin Hi Kim's komungo compositions combine Korean, Western influences

Composer Jin Hi Kim's instrument of choice is the komungo, a traditional Korean instrument which dates back to the 4th century.

"Korean music is based on ritual, Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, ritual," she says. "That means a very meditative energy."

Resembling a lute, the komungo is made of wood and is two meters long. In order to play it, you lay it on your lap and pluck its six strings with a thin bamboo reed.

The komungo remained a ritual instrument, through 1500 years on the Korean peninsula, until 1910 when Japan annexed Korea.

"The Japanese tried to destroy your identity, Korean identity, language and all the culture," Kim says. "Instead, the Japanese actually taught us Western tunes, Western music, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, on and on."

Japan surrendered control of Korea in 1945, at the end of World War ll. The Americans brought their music in 1950, when they arrived to support the Republic of Korea against the North. Thirty years later, when Kim began studying music at Seoul University, Korea was still obsessed with Western music.

Western-style orchestras, she says, paid musicians twice what traditional Korean orchestras did. "Korean music was despised by its own people. They worshipped Western music. I really didn’t agree with that."

So she focused her attention and talent on the traditional komungo.

"And if I carried this komungo on the street, ordinary people would stop me and say, 'What is this?'" she remembers. "I said, 'Komungo.'"

Kim set out to win respect for traditional Korean music - both in Korea and the West. "I wanted to have Korean music and Western music treated equal," she says. "My mission was putting these two cultures together."

She brought the komungo to the United States where, for decades, she's been composing works that blend traditional komungo styles with Western music.

"Eternal Rock," one of her compositions, is about planet Earth as it flies through space. Kim performed the piece at Stanford University’s Pan Asian Music Festival earlier this year.

"When I wrote "Eternal Rock," I tried to understand what actually Western scientists are thinking about this space at the moment," Kim says. "Because the Korean court music, especially, is based on cosmology. All relate to yin and yang. And as we know now, the universe, the gravity, is shifting and the dark energy pushing farther and farther, and the universe is extending."

With her modern arrangements for the ancient komungo, Kim continues to introduce the traditional instrument to new audiences around the world.

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