Many enjoy the sound of haegeum music these days, but in generations past the haegeum was an instrument that beggars typically carried around to draw people’s attention and beg for money and food. Judging from these records, haegeum didn’t appear to be a highly regarded instrument back then.
But not all haegeum players were down on their luck. Yoo Woo-choon유우춘 was a court musician regarded as a haegeum virtuoso of his day. Music lovers from all over the country came to hear him play. One day, a young man who played the haegeum recreationally asked Yoo how he should respond to those who looked down on him for playing such an instrument. Yoo answered thusly:
I got married three years after I started learning the haegeum. By that time, I had callused my fingers. But, even as my skills improved, my pay did not go up and people still didn’t recognize me. But a beggar, who had fiddled with the instrument for only a few months, drew scores of people and made more than a bushel of rice a day. Clearly, many people like the sound of the haegeum.
Yoo’s answer was rather self-deprecating. He suggested that a high-class musician would be received no better than a beggar’s awkward performance to people who do not appreciate the haegeum. Indeed, it seems that music artists in those times did not resonate with the masses the way they do today.
The first piece we’re going to listen to is the first and second movements of “Sangryeongsan” with Yang Kyung-sook at the haegeum.
Music 1: 1st and 2nd movements of Sangryeongsan/ Haegeum by Yang Kyung-sook
Haegeum virtuoso Yoo Woo-choon had said that people come to see him play from all over, but they only come because of his fame, not because they really understand and appreciate haegeum music. It was his way of mocking Confucian scholars who just pretended to be music lovers. One can imagine many artists today share Yoo’s conviction.
The reason the haegeum was the instrument of choice for many beggars back in the day was because the instrument was light, easily portable, and allowed for a wide range of interpretation. The haegeum has only two strings, and it is played by pressing down on the strings with the left hand while drawing a bow across the strings with the right hand. Unlike the gayageum or geomungo, it doesn’t have moveable bridges, so a haegeum player just has to adjust the tuning and intonation with the location or pressure of the fingers on the strings.
Moreover, various expressions are possible by changing the force applied with the bow. The tone may sound coarse and whiny, but that’s what distinguishes the haegeum from other string instruments. The next piece we’re going to listen to is Jungjungmori from a Jee Young-hee Style Haegeum Sanjo with Lee Dong-hoon playing the haegeum and Kim Chung-man the janggu.
Music 2: Jungjungmori from Jee Young-hee Style Haegeum Sanjo/ Haegeum by Lee Dong-hoon, janggu by Kim Chung-man
The haegeum is played much the same way the violin or viola is, in that sound and melody is created by drawing a bow across the strings. Unlike other Korean traditional string instruments like the gayageum or geomungo, the sound of which is brief since the instrument is played by plucking or flicking the strings with the fingers, the haegeum’s sound is more resonant and lasting, rather like that of the daegeum or piri wind instruments. Thus, the haegeum is oftentimes included in wind and string ensembles to round out the sounds of different instruments.
But the biggest contribution to the haegeum’s increasing popularity in the past decade came from haegeum virtuoso Jeong Soo-nyun정수년.
The creative haegeum works she played had mellow and soft tones, instead of the instrument’s traditionally coarse and sharp timber, which appealed more to modern day music listeners. Let’s wrap up today’s “Sounds of Korea” with a haegeum piece titled “Gong공” or “Emptiness” written by Yang Jun-ho and played by Jeong Soo-nyun.
Music 3: Emptiness/ Written by Yang Jun-ho, haegeum by Jeong Soo-nyun