Taking its roots from the heritage of the Goryeo Dynasty, modern Korean music strikes with its authenticity and mystic charm. The indigenous sounds of the instruments, the names of which are associated with elements of nature (Hesselink 167) seem to be the magical element that links the past, the present and the future of the Korean culture, allowing for the evolution of the unique music culture.
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In his book, SamulNori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of the Itinerant Performance Culture, Nathan Hesselink provides a detailed overview of one of the most popular music genre of percussion music in Korea.
Although the details that the author discloses about the genre of SamulNori seems to concern solely the Korean music, several parallels in the evolution of the Korean and the Western music can be drawn, mainly regarding the reinvention of the old traditions in search for the new ways of expression through music.
The combination of the ancient music traditions and the modern sound and the secret of the increasing popularity and the unique sound of the Korean SamulNori music, which is revealed in the very first sentence of the introduction to the SamulNori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of the Itinerant Performance Culture, is truly fascinating.
Indeed, listening to a single composition performed in the SamulNori genre is enough to realize that the music incorporates enough modern elements to appeal to the general XXI century audience and to provide something for the Korean people to relate to. This, however, begs several questions, the first one concerning the time gap between the SamulNori genre and the present-day music.
In other words, one may wonder if it is actually possible to create the music that will both speak to the general audience and contain enough references to the authentic culture so that it could remain unique. Another issue worth bringing up concerns music as a marker of the identity of a particular nation or ethnicity.
On the one hand, it goes without saying that each nation has a range of unique music traditions that define the specifics of its genres, thus, allowing for the national music to remain unique. Hence, the question of whether national music traditions can coexist with the fast-changing course of popular music.
Finally, Hesselink mentions that the SamulNori members have recently been criticized for putting so much emphasis on the traditions that may have worn out their welcome centuries ago and that their music may actually turn out pointless. It seems that the critics’ argumentation pertains to the domain of politics much more than it does to actual culture issue.
Therefore, it will be reasonable to ask whether music – or culture in general, for that matter – can ever be possibly separated from politics. Though the link between the two is not obvious, it is clear that music as an important part of a nation’s culture constitutes an important part of one’s national identity; as a result, aggression, which the SamulNori members have faced, can be seen as an attempt to bring the spirit of the Samul Nori people down.
The second chapter also poses a range of questions to the readers, both revealing a plethora of interesting facts and at the same time opening the readers’ minds to number of dilemmas that the SamulNori band had to encounter over the course of its existence. This chapter, however, focuses not on the famous band, but on the way in which the Korean people accept the very idea of going to a concert hall.
It is quite remarkable that the author tied in the phenomenon of a concert hall with the process of urbanization. Seeing how the unique ethnic sound and the enthusiasm to restoring the traditions of the Korean music was mentioned in the previous chapter, one might wonder whether the members of the band are actually working for the restoration of the Korean national music or moving towards making it more general crowd oriented.
The idea of the “urbanization” (Hesselink 59) of the Samul Nori music also raises a number of questions concerning the reasonability of the given choice. Although adding a more urban sound to the traditional Samul Nori melodies might be viewed as a foot forward in the evolution of the genre, the band also faces the threat of transforming the genre into something that it was never meant to be.
Finally, the issue concerning the SamulNori appealing to the younger audience should be addressed. Seeing how the modern popular music differs greatly from what the SamulNori band tries to offer, it will be quite peculiar to find out how the band is going to appeal to the younger demographic without changing the genre and not diverging from the trail that SamulNori has chosen.
The third chapter reveals the phenomenon of the “Och’ae chilgut” (Hesselink 61), which is often rendered as a type of a rhythmic pattern, or cycle, in the Samul Nori musical tradition. Despite the fact that the information presented in this chapter is not usually considered the material for the general audience, Nathan Hesselink gets the key points across in a very simple manner.
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The fact that for the Samul Nori music, the location of the musicians and the audience matters immensely raises a few questions. To start with, it makes one wonder whether music is actually more than merely a combination of sounds and whether it can affect people’s mood and emotions. Second, it is quite intriguing whether music in general and the Samul Nomi music, in particular, affect different people in the same way.
While it hardly seems possible to stir the same emotions in two completely different people by making them listed to the same music score, the SamulNori band does manage to create a unique atmosphere during their performances and help people “tune” into the performance.
Therefore, it can be assumed that music can create the chemistry that affects different people in a relatively similar way. The third question, which is in what way different elements of distance affect the Samul Nomi music, can only be answered by watching the band perform live.
The very title of the fourth chapter prompts the next question, which is what cosmological didacticism is and how it helps understand the Samul Nomi music. The chapter, which provides a number of graphic elements related to music somehow, makes one wonder how close a sound and its visual representation are; in fact, the chapter also makes one ask whether the two are necessarily related.
Though in nature, a sound is inseparable from what triggers it, in art and particularly music, the sound can hypothetically be a “thing in itself,” the so-called “ars gratia artis.” Finally, the fact that the Samul Nori music culture provides its adepts with the so-called “model of life” begs the question of whether music is the refuge of an individual or a product of the society.
The story about the mysterious ninja also deserves taking a closer look at. It makes one return to the issue mentioned in the second chapter and asks oneself whether cooperation between cultures, especially in terms of bringing music traditions of a particular culture back to life, is possible.
Finally, the conclusion raises a few questions concerning the necessity and overall reasonability to retain traditions. More to the point, the conclusion makes one wonder if the modern artists actually interpret the principles of the ancient art the right way, as well as if there is the right way to interpret these traditions at all.
Although the book written by Hesselink shows in a very graphic way that Korean music in general and the SamulNori genre, in particular, are a unique blend of the ancient traditions of the Korean people and the modern concept of music and its purpose, there can be no denying that the patterns of the SamulNori modern music evolution can be traced in a number of genres of the Western music.
Nathan Hesselink’s work allows for a deeper understanding of not only the Korean culture and the specifics of the Korean music, but also of the evolution of music in general, as well as for noticing the patterns that are common in different genres and, more to the point, in different cultures.
An exciting introduction into the world of the SamulNori music, SamulNori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of the Itinerant Performance Culture is definitely worth taking a closer look at.
Hesselink, Nathan. SamulNori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of the Itinerant Performance Culture (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.