The ancient Korean gayageum is well-known throughout its native land, but its recognition does not frequently stretch overseas. Masters of this stringed instrument allow their fingers to move furiously, effectively, but calmly along each thread, owning the sounds that follow thereafter.
Next week, however, this Korean antiquity and its musicians will grace the Portland State community with a debut performance.
On Feb. 21, the Department of Music and the Institute for Asian Studies will host three South Korean musicians: Dr. Hyun Su Chung, composer; Dr. Hyun Ok Moon, pianist; and Dr. Ai-Soon Seong, gayageum performer, will all play for members of PSU and greater Portland.
The event is not just a performance by three renowned international musicians performing together for the first time, nor is it simply a rare occasion of a piano and gayageum performing together: The PSU event marks the world premiere of Chung’s most recent work.
Katherine Morrow, program administrator for the institute, put the event in a larger perspective: “This concert fits into kind of a larger program series—that is, the February focus on Korea coordinated by the Institute for Asian Studies,” she said. “It also fits into the East Asian Performance Series, which is coordinated by the Department of Music.”
The concert is the result of several confluent factors: Moon reached out to PSU professors Julia Lee and Dr. Wynn Kiyama; the Department of Music wanted to increase knowledge of Asian performance; and the Institute for Asian Studies thought the event was timely because of a Korean screen restoration underway at the Portland Art Museum.
Chonnam National University in South Korea, which funded the musicians and their travels, proved to be a great resource for both the music department and the institute. Morrow explained the desire to further all aspects of Korean knowledge at PSU.
“We want to introduce the campus and greater Portland community to Korean music as well as highlight Korean culture,” she said. “There is greater interest at PSU for Korean culture. We’ve noticed enrollment growth in Korean language classes, and Korean pop culture is becoming more known in the U.S., so it provides a perfect opportunity to showcase more of Korea.”
The night will kick off with Seong performing a few pieces of traditional Korean music on the gayageum. Thereafter, she will stay onstage, and Moon will join her in a gayageum-and-piano ensemble with music composed by Chung.
To conclude the night Lee will join the two artists in a gayageum-and-piano “four hands” performance, in which two people will play the piano simultaneously. Chung composed this work as well. Lee described the emotions evoked by playing with these musicians in such a unique experience.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s the first time that I will have ever heard the gayageum and the piano played together,” she said. “Gayageum is a tiny instrument compared to the piano. I feel very excited, curious and, well, everything, about the sonority that it will produce.
“It’s a really rare opportunity to hear a Korean traditional instrument,” Lee continued. “It will be a wonderful experience and a new project to combine [a] Korean traditional instrument with Western instruments. I hope the audience will enjoy it and come and experience it with us.”
For those who can’t make Thursday night’s performance, there’s no need to fret: This event is two-fold. The night after the concert, PSU will also host three artists performing on different zithers, ancient instruments from around Asia. Morrow however, encourages curious music fans to attend both.
“It is a very rare and special opportunity to hear Korean music performed live in Portland, especially that of the gayageum instrument,” she said. “I’m only aware of concerts like this that occur in Portland every 5 years, so it really is a special treat. This type of concert normally would have expensive tickets but, due to the support of Chonnam University, we’re able to bring them here for free—so it’s accessible to anybody with an interest in Korea.”
Music lovers and arts revelers: Come prepared for a new experience and a musical event unlike any other. Portland State’s music department will host a night of music from all different parts of East Asia, titled “From Asia to Zither.”
The concert’s three featured instruments are the Korean gayageum, the Chinese guzheng and the Japanese koto. All are zithers, or instruments from the ancient world.
“Never before have I heard all three on one stage,” said Dr. Julia Lee, an adjunct professor of piano in the PSU music department.
The sounds these three instruments make are very different, and the pieces that will be performed on the zithers range in variation, as well—from ancient traditional songs to contemporary pieces that require more modern and complicated techniques.
Generally speaking, “There is not much communication between Chinese and Korean zither players,” said Ruisi Li, the evening’s guzheng performer, who is also being admitted to Portland State’s music department.
“While these stringed instruments are related, they have each developed unique bodies of repertoire and performance techniques,” added Dr. Wynn Kiyama, assistant professor of musicology and ethnomusicology at Portland State. “It is unusual to hear these instruments on the same program, and I think the audience will appreciate both the similarities and differences.”
The concert on Friday is a collaborative effort between the Institute for Asian Studies and the university’s music department. Dr. Ai-Soon Seong, who has performed all over the world, including England, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Canada and her native Korea, will play first, demonstrating her mastery of and passion for the gayageum.
Seong is a professor of Korean music at Chonnam National University in South Korea. Among other numerous honors, she was the Grand Prize Winner for the stringed instrument section at the KBS Korean Music Competition in 1999.
Li, who won the National Competition for Young Artists in China in 2002, will be playing the second zither, the Chinese guzheng, which Li has been playing for almost a decade.
Li, who is also a member of China Nationalities Orchestra Society, said that part of her “endeavor as an artist is to promote the communication between Chinese music and Western music.”
One of the pieces that Li will play is “Missing in the Spring.” This piece was a “turning point and milestone in guzheng history,” Li said, because it combines a traditional work with new techniques. “The composition of the music was inspired by a poem written during the Tang Dynasty by the most famous poet in China’s history, Li Bai.”
The song is “about a young lady missing her husband, who is forced into the army far away. He must go to the north of China while she remains in the south. It is a very emotional piece,” Li said.
Li selected these songs because of both their natural and human resonance.
“I want to show that this music depicts both nature and the inner emotion of people,” Li said.
Mitsuki Dazai, a local performer who graduated from Japan’s renowned Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, will play the final zither of the evening, the Japanese koto.
Dazai was featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Art Beat TV program and recently released her new album, Far Away: Romances for Koto, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
The free concert is a tremendous chance to see and hear unique Eastern instruments that most Westerners will never experience. Katherine Morrow, the program administrator for the Institute for Asian Studies, reiterated how unique a treat the concert is for attendees.
“The opportunity to come and hear the three different types of zithers from East Asia is an incredibly rare opportunity,” she said.