Have you seen a Korean folk painting featuring two lovers standing under the moonlight? The painting by well-known folk artist Shin Yun-bok신윤복 depicts a man and a woman having a secret rendez-vous in an alleyway under the light of a crescent moon. The painting even has a short phrase, “In the depth of the night, only the two know what lies in their hearts.” What could have the two of them held in their hearts as they met for a tryst in the middle of the night? The phrase “Only the two know what lies in their hearts” appears often in ancient poems. One such example is a sijo song titled “Changoisamgyeong창외삼경” you’ll hear today. The poem sings of the deep affection between the two lovers who met in the middle of a misty night. They promised to stay together for a hundred years but ended up leaving each other. It'd be hard for us third parties to fathom the heartbreak and distress they must have felt. Here’s Lee Jun-ah singing sijo song “Changoisamgyeong.”
Changoisamgyeong/ Performed by Lee Jun-ah
Another famous folk painter was Kim Hong-do김홍도. Shin Yun-bok and Kim Hong-do brought ordinary people and their lives to life, so there were many paintings about music among their works. Kim Hong-do’s “A Dancing Boy” is a case in point. “A Dancing Boy” depicts musicians seated in a semicircle, a child dancing in the center. Six musicians called “samhyeonyukgak삼현육각” are featured in the painting – two piri players and one each of daegeum, haegeum, janggu, and drum. Such band composition is often used for dance performances even today. The dancing boy has one foot lifted high and his other foot is on tiptoe as if he is about to take off. His long sleeves seem to flutter in the air like butterfly wings and anyone who loves music and dance would applaud and cheer on the dancer.
Coming up next is a piece titled “Daepungryu대풍류,” which is usually played as an accompaniment for a Buddhist dance. This series of songs starts with a slow one named “A Long Buddhist Prayer.” But today we’ll listen to the latter part of the piece comprised of “Gutgeori굿거리,” “Jajin Gutgeori자진굿거리” and “Dangak당악.” Today’s performance is by Choi Kyung-man and a choir.
Gutgeori, Jajin Gutgeori and Dangak/ Performed by Choi Kyung-man & chorus
Kim Hong-do drew several paintings of Taoist hermits called ‘sinseon신선.’ A sinseon is usually depicted as an old man who is enlightened in Taoist teachings and thereby gained miraculous powers such as foresight and healing abilities. One of sinseon’s favorite musical instruments is the saenghwang생황, a wind instrument constructed of a large windchest made of a dried gourd mounted with multiple bamboo pipes of different lengths. The instrument supposedly resembles a sitting phoenix when seen from the side. A metal reed is placed inside each pipe and this metal flap is what makes a sound different from the ones made by bamboo instruments like the daegeum대금 and piri피리. Ancient Koreans used to say that the sound of saenghwang resembled the cries of a dragon.
Kim Hong-do’s painting of a drunken monk under a pine tree depicts a disheveled sinseon with a wine bottle slung over his shoulder blowing into a saenghwang. The painting includes a short poem that reads, “Are the long and short bamboo pipes the wings of a phoenix? The sound of saenghwang coming from the hall is more heartbreaking than the cries of a dragon.” Let’s listen to a saenghwang piece to see if it really sounds like a dragon’s cry. Here’s saenghwang musician Kim Hyo-young playing “Sin Suryongeum신수룡음,” which means the new sound of a water dragon. Surprisingly, this piece evokes an image of gentle waves lapping on the shores of a vast lake rather than heartbroken sobs.
Sin Suryongeum/ Saenghwang by Kim Hyo-young