Is Korean Traditional Music Like a Stay-at-Home Diaspora?

Dr. Jocelyn Clark, shown here in Seoul on Sept. 19, 2010, is trying to revive Korean traditional music in its homeland. (Asia Society Korea Center)
Dr. Jocelyn Clark, shown here in Seoul on Sept. 19, 2010, is trying to revive Korean traditional music in its homeland. (Asia Society Korea Center)

SEOUL, September 19, 2010 - The future of Korean traditional music was the topic of discussion here when Asia Society Korea Center hosted Dr. Jocelyn Clark for its latest monthly luncheon lecture.

Clark, an assistant professor at Pai Chai University’s Appenzeller School, first came to Korea 18 years ago to study the gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument. She fell in love with it, but she was surprised to discover the lack of knowledge and interest among Korean people in music made by traditional instruments.

According to Clark, Koreans' understanding of "Korean-ness" as being something expressed in the blood is undermining Korean traditional culture. For example, foreigners who study Korean music are told that they will never "get it" because they have the wrong kind of blood coursing through their veins. As a result, Korean music has become distant from the everyday lives of its people, and its instruments are now seen as exotic in their own land—a "stay-at-home diaspora" of sorts. Instead, it is Western classical music that is played at Korean events and in concert halls.

Because of this, Clark believes it may be the responsibility of both cultures to save each other's musical traditions—Western classical music is, after all, more popular in Korea than in the West. Clark, a native of Alaska, is doing her own part to save Korean traditional music, notably through IIIZ+, a musical ensemble that she helped to create in 2001. IIIZ+ (pronounced "three zee plus") is made up of four musicians, each playing an Asian traditional instrument: three stringed instruments—the Korean gayageum, the Japanese koto, and the Chinese zheng—and a Korean janggu drum.

IIIZ+ was formed in Darmstadt, Germany, and has toured Western Europe, Asia, and the United States, bringing its unique sound to new audiences. For Clark, the difficulty comes when trying to describe what genre of music they fit into. World Music? New Music? Folk Music? None of these seem to fit. When the Belgian ambassador asked how Clark reacted to the word "fusion," she said that she didn’t particularly like it because it historically applies to a specific type of American jazz music and in Korea it means anything thrown together.

Although IIIZ+ has played in Taiwan and Japan, Clark has been reluctant to bring them to Korea, where, she says, audiences are closed to outsiders participating in their music. As opposed to Europe, where audiences look beyond the background of musicians or instruments and hear music as music, Americans come for a cultural show and Koreans are loathe to share "their" music with others. Hence, Korea and the United States risk being left behind by being unable to transcend race and background in terms of music. Clark said it is time for Koreans to hear their own music as music, and not as anything else.