While nations around the world are enforcing social distancing measures to combat COVID-19, the National Gugak Center is busily running online programs. In joint efforts with Korean Cultural Centers abroad, the center is providing gugak, traditional Korean music, content online for the enjoyment of local and Korean residents overseas. National Gugak Center Director-General Lim Jae-won says that Korea’s traditions are the foundation of the country’s now globally popular culture and that greater efforts and new attempts should be made to introduce Korea’s traditional culture to the outside world.
Distribution of “Daily Gugak” content to Korean Cultural Centers overseas
Keen interest in Korea developing into gugak appreciation
Out of Korea’s 20 UNESCO-designated intangible cultural heritages, a dozen are related to gugak
Support for worldwide dissemination of gugak and gugak musicians’ advancement abroad
Greetings. The Korean Cultural Centers overseas have recently introduced online content provided by the National Gugak Center, and it is receiving a great response from the respective countries’ people. Please tell us more about this program.
The content we have distributed to the Korean Cultural Centers overseas is called “Daily Gugak.” It is an online production that connects performers with their audience as they cannot currently meet directly due to COVID-19. We have recorded 21 segments featuring performances of the National Gugak Center’s Court Music Orchestra, Folk Music Group, and Dance Theater, with added background information on the performances and brief interviews. We then added Korean and English subtitles and distributed the videos to Korean Cultural Centers, branches of the Korea Tourism Organization, King Sejong Institutes, and Korean embassies around the world. In the case of Honduras, our production will be introduced via the YouTube channel of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports. It was especially meaningful that the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles added its own commentary about the performance and used it for educational purposes.
How do the overseas audiences respond to the National Gugak Center’s content?
From the comments they left online, we can tell that most viewers were impressed by our content, finding it beautiful and of very high quality. Those who liked the productions seemed to have watched the live performances on our center’s YouTube channel, too. We are seeing enthusiastic responses from people in many countries, including China, France, India, New Zealand, and Russia. Korea’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing worldwide attention and as a result, there is an increasing interest in Korean popular culture. Korea’s traditional culture, particularly gugak, which embodies the Korean spirit, seems to earn particularly high acclaim.
As the world pays growing attention to Korea, do you see any changes in the status of gugak, thoughts of gugak performers, and the direction for their performance?
Yes, of course. As gugak gains greater attention, performers seem to be filled with more resolve than ever. Jambinai, Black String, and SsingSsing are gugak performing groups who already gained significant recognition in the field of world music. The movie The Singer and television programs like Phantom Singer 3 have awakened public interest in gugak, and the Leenalchi Band, Lee Hee-moon, and Song Ga-in have entered the realm of popular culture. In the past, people in the gugak community usually regarded colleagues choosing other ways than the traditional paths as “non-gugak” persons. However, as society respects greater diversity these days, a variety of attempts are made to bring gugak closer to the public. The National Gugak Center will concentrate on its role of maintaining the depth of gugak traditions, the foundation of these diverse attempts, while also making gugak more easily approachable to audiences at home and abroad.
What counts most in the process of producing videos of performances and sharing them online as well as the overall digital rendering of gugak performances?
I think it is most important that we deliver gugak with its artistic characteristics intact. As music forms the backbone of our productions, we need to make great endeavors to properly record and render the sound so that the viewers can clearly hear the steps of the dancers and even the flutter of the traditional Hanbok skirt. It is the same with what is shown in the videos. Gugak rendition differs from Western music performance in that it employs the nonghyun technique of pressing and shaking the strings as well as other unique playing methods. When filming the dancers, it is crucial to record the delicate beauty of traditional Korean dance such as the lines created by the performers’ movements of stretching arms and legs.
We understand that your center supports the “Gugak in (人)” project, an online concert for traditional artists who pursue contemporary reinterpretations of the classical music or try to collaborate with artists in other genres. What do you expect from the project?
“Gugak in (人)” is a project supporting organizations that are experiencing difficulties due to COVID-19. We selected 30 teams and don’t stop at offering them one-time performance opportunities. We will continue to support them so that they can keep on performing even after the project is over. We will supply music videos and portrait photographs of the artists free of charge and will support their publicity and marketing efforts by providing English subtitles for their performance videos and distributing them to Korean Cultural Centers and the media abroad. We hope we will find excellent gugak organizations and content through this project and gain momentum to introduce the rich flavor and appeal of gugak to people in and outside Korea.
What other international exchange projects is the National Gugak Center involved in?
We vigorously pursue international exchanges where exhibitions, research, and education are concerned. In 2017 and 2018, we had a seven-month-long special exhibition on Korean music at the Music Museum of Barcelona in Spain and promoted international exchange exhibitions of gugak instruments. Our international gugak program invites overseas musicologists, performance designers, and artists to the National Gugak Center. Every year, we have an international academic conference to provide a platform for discussions about various topics regarding ethnic music. In 2018, we hosted the “Study Group on Musics of East Asia” of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM), a non-governmental organization in formal consultative relations with the UNESCO. Kim Hee-sun, our center’s director of gugak research, was elected chair of the meeting, making her the first Korean to take on the position.
Would you tell us why you are so keen on sharing gugak worldwide?
Korea’s economic, industrial, and cultural development has generated significant global interest and greatly enhanced our country’s national image abroad. I think the global attention Korean culture is now drawing is rooted in its spiritual culture, and at the heart of this spiritual culture lie Korea’s traditions. Among the 20 Korean intangible cultural properties registered with the UNESCO, a dozen are related to gugak. A nation that has preserved its traditional music for over a thousand years is hard to find in this world. It is the very reason why we should make the value of gugak known more widely around the world. When Korea’s exciting popular culture is delivered to the global audience together with the elegant traditional art, the nation’s dignity and future value will grow much higher.
Please tell us about the role of the National Gugak Center for the globalization of gugak. Please also add anything you would like to say to KF Newsletter readers.
Next year, the National Gugak Center will observe the 70th anniversary of its founding. So far we have focused on solidifying our inner values by preserving and maintaining traditions, but now we should make greater efforts to broaden the horizon of gugak. If there are any opportunities to publicize our center’s performances and educational programs to the world alongside the varied public diplomacy projects of the KF, we would certainly like to seize them. The National Gugak Center will strive to enable our future audiences at home and abroad to encounter gugak in new ways befitting the new times. I hope more people will appreciate the quintessence of Korea’s elegant culture by keeping gugak close to their hearts.