Book Review: Hwang Byungki: Traditional Music and the Contemporary Composer in the Republic of Korea by Andrew Killick

Andrew Killick: Hwang Byungki: Traditional Music and the Contemporary Composer in the Republic of Korea.
xi + 237pp. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4094-2030-9.


Aiming for a confluence between East and West, as Chou Wen-chung (Chang 2006; Lai 2009) argues, Andrew Killick’s book on Hwang Byungki attempts to show how the two regions could be merged while at the same time being adapted by both sides. Killick teaches at the University of Sheffield. Taking advantage of his close friendship with Hwang, Killick introduces a panorama of Hwang’s rich life as a kayagŭm master, acclaimed composer and cultural ambassador for Korea. His focus on this Korean composer, who has always worked in the field of traditional music, brings up the question of how East Asian traditional music, while obviously having a fixed form of cultural aesthetic, could submissively affect new trends in Western contemporary music. This question permeates the ‘macro’ contextual background as well as the ‘micro’ analysis of Hwang’s compositions, although at the same time a chronology of his music naturally touches on significant phases of recent Korean history. Instead of using a chronological order, each chapter illustrates a different strand of Hwang’s compositional method, accompanied by in-depth analyses and recorded examples on an accompanying 18-track CD. Killick bravely takes on the challenge of studying a musician’s life through an intimate encounter with the subject. However, the question of how to observe a familiar subject while being objective lingers.

The opening chapter explores the basis of Hwang Byungki’s inspiration—the folk genre, sanjo. Killick chose to start by using Hwang’s creations on sanjo to explain his perception of the process of composing. The traditional process of creation is referred to as ‘tchada’ (to weave), which infers that traditional composing is in fact a rearrangement of pre-existing materials rather than the creation of something new. This is certainly inherent in the principles of sanjo, which is mainly led by structure rather than melodies or rhythms. Hwang first learned sanjo from the changgo player Kim Yundŏk, who was later appointed as the first holder of the Intangible Cultural Property as a sanjo player. Kim Yundŏk’s interpretation of sanjo derived heavily from the style of Chŏng Namhŭi, who had migrated to North Korea. This connection led Hwang to establish the concept of ‘ryu’ (school) and to call his own sanjo school the ‘Chŏng Namhŭi-je Hwang Pyŏnggi-ryu kayagŭm sanjo’. One feels that there is more room for critical review of the sanjo recordings of Chŏng Namhŭirelied on by Hwang, and how these led to the formation of Hwang’s school.

Chapter 2 highlights Hwang as a composer. Killick reminds the readers of Hwang’s distinctive techniques regarding syncretism, not only between court and folk styles but also between Korean and Western ideologies. Killick uses the piece ‘Kukhwa-yŏp’esŏ’ (Beside a Chrysanthemum, 1962) to show the reconciliation of traditional Korean and contemporary Western styles, and finds in ‘Sup’ (The Forest, 1962) an example of the amalgamation of Korean court and folk music. In comparing Hwang’s pieces with the timbral music of Edward MacDowell (after Howard, 2002: 955), Killick efficiently identifies the apparent influence of twentieth-century Western art music on Hwang’s compositions. He argues that Hwang expanded his stylistic techniques through friendships with contemporary composers from both the West and Korea, including Lou Harrison, Paik Byung-dong and Kang Sukhi, all of whom are heavily influenced by European contemporary music as experienced in academia. Curiously, almost no Korean composer working within the traditional genre is mentioned as being among his circle of friends.

Chapter 3 explores Hwang’s approach based on Buddhism and Taoism. Mainly inspired by the Buddhist culture of the Shilla dynasty(57BCE–935CE), he distinguishes it from the majority of compositions for Korean traditional music, which are predominantly influenced by Confucian ideas from the much later Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910).Killick emphasises this when he analyses the piece ‘Ch’imhyangmu’ (Dance in the Perfume of Aloes, 1974), alluding to the influence of pŏmp’ae, a style of Buddhist chant imported from China during the Shilla dynasty. He also touches on the other ideological background in Hwang’s music, Taoism, mainly dealing with the aesthetic notions associated with literati instruments such as the Korean kŏmun’go and Chinese qin.It is interesting to assess the qualitative development of the composer, but the discussion on the technical ideas of Buddhism and the ideological aesthetics of Taoism needs more methodological consistency.

Hwang’s soundworld is further explored in Chapter 4, dividing into three categories, each being ideological extensions from West Asian, avant-garde, and Western art music. Unlike his earlier attempt to detach the composer’s works from the social and historical context of the mid- to late-1970s Korea, Killick emphasises in Chapter 5 Hwang’s contribution to South and North Korean relations in the 1990s. He first discusses Hwang’s role as a representative of Korean music and as a cultural ambassador organising cultural events for exchange between the two Koreas. He points out that the exchange affected Hwang’s style in the compositions‘Uri-nŭn Hana’(We Are One: 1990)and ‘T’ongil-ŭi kil’(The Road of Unification: 1990); bothwere composedfor the 1990 Pan-Korean Unification Concerts. These two pieces are characterised by harmonic progressions, regular rhythms and repetitive patterns— stylistic characteristics rarely found in Hwang’s compositions. Secondly, Killick examines Hwang’s use of the modified kayagŭm, which is a modernised version of the instrument with nylon strings as preferred by the North Koreans. Interestingly, harmonic progressions and recursive melodic patterns on the modified instrument are also part of the kugak fusion wave of the 1990s, as “music that combines identifiably Korean and non-Korean elements in pieces generally aimed at a wider public” (R. Anderson Sutton 2008: 2). Despite Hwang’s well-known dislike of the populist and Westernised kugak fusion, Killick notes how the modified kayagŭm was actively employed in Hwang’s later pieces such as ‘Ch’unsŏl’ (Spring Snow, 1991) and ‘Tarha nop’igom’ (1996).

Lastly, detailing Hwang’s recent experiments as an artistic director organising cultural events with Western chamber ensembles and modern dance companies, Killick reassures readers that Hwang’s contributions to date are interwoven with other inputs into contemporary interpretations of Korean traditional music. Killick approaches this by scrutinising the firmly rooted tradition, and with his substantial analyses of the various musical strands manages to avoid partiality in respect to Hwang’s life. At the same time, through his intimate communication with Hwang, Killick presents a personal tribute to the composer. The selective fragments of tradition transformed the composer’s life into a creative artist, communicating with his contemporaries, forming a living culture that preserves the tradition—much as Chou Wen-chung earlier noted (1983: 224). Killick, in this book, successfully explores the structure of Korean music, built on processes of rearranging and reworking the past, in the creation of the living cultural legacy of Hwang Byungki.


HYELIM KIM, SOAS, University of London



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Chou, Wen-Chung, ‘Asian Influence on Western Music: Influence or Confluence?’, in Korean National Commission for UNESCO, ed., Traditional Korean Music: 177-87 (Seoul: Si-sa-yong-o-sa, 1983).

Howard, Keith, ‘Contemporary Genres’, in Robert C. Provine, Yoshihiko Tokumaru and J. Lawrence Witzleben, eds, Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 7: East Asia: 951-74 (New York: Garland, 2002).

Lai, Eric C, The Music of Chou Wen-chung (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).

Sutton, R. Anderson, ‘What’s that sound? Korean fusion music and the ascendancy of the haegŭm’, Asian Music 39/2(2008): 1-27.