Any physical disability would make life very difficult, but Koreans in the old days must have believed that blindness was the harshest disability. In the pansori(판소리) “Simcheongga(심청가),” Simcheong(심청) sacrifices her life to restore the sight of her blind father. In the minds of ancient people, a person’s life was equal in value to one’s sight. Blind people in the Joseon(조선) period made a living by learning to read Buddhist scriptures or tell fortunes. There was also was a national system that employed people with visual impairments as court musicians. One such person was a former Confucian scholar named Kim Ullan(김운란). Kim lost his sight after he passed the national exam for government employment. Being a man from the noble class, he could not work as a fortune teller so he learned to play the ajaeng(아쟁). Kim excelled at playing the string instrument so much that Heo Gyun(허균), the author of “The Story of Hong Gil-dong(홍길동),” wrote that Kim’s ajaeng(아쟁) sounded like a person speaking and that the melodies made everyone cry. Now we’ll listen to ajaeng(아쟁) musician Kim Il-gu(김일구) playing a movement from Ajaeng(아쟁) Sanjo(산조).
Music 1: A movement from Ajaeng Sanjo/ Ajaeng by Kim Il-gu
People tend to get confuse the haegeum(해금) and ajaeng(아쟁), because both are Korean traditional string instruments. The haegeum(해금) has a sound box made with bamboo and two silk strings affixed to its rod-like neck. It is small and lightweight, making it easily portable, and looks more like a vertically standing fiddle. Meanwhile, the ajaeng(아쟁) has a longer and rectangular sound box crafted from a royal foxglove tree with several strings. It resembles a geomungo(거문고) or gayageum(가야금) in shape and playing method. The ajaeng(아쟁) is placed on the lap and the strings are scraped with a bow. In tone, the haegeum(해금) has a higher, sharper sound, while the ajaeng(아쟁) makes a deep and low sound. Since the ajaeng(아쟁) has the deepest sound among Korean string instruments, its tone seems to penetrate far into the hearts of listeners. So it must have provided much comfort to Kim Ullan(김운란), who had suddenly lost his sight. His blindness prevented him from taking the national public service exam and enjoying entertainment with his friends. If he had been born blind, Kim would have accepted his fate. But knowing what he had lost made him even more resentful and heartbroken. As a result he carried his ajaeng(아쟁) everywhere and played it whenever he could. One day, he was playing while resting under the walls of an old, abandoned shrine. Before long, he heard a wailing sound coming from inside the shrine. It was the ghost in the shrine crying to the sound of Kim’s music. The melancholy sound of his ajaeng(아쟁) reportedly made even ghosts shed tears. The next piece we’re going to listen to is “Cheol(철) Ajaeng(아쟁) Sanjo(산조)” performed by Yun Yun-sok(윤윤석).
Music 2: Cheol Ajaeng Sanjo/ Ajaeng by Yun Yun-sok
Even the renowned Confucian scholar Yulgok Yi I(율곡 이이) was so moved by Kim’s music that he wrote a poem praising his ajaeng(아쟁) skills.
A sound of an ajaeng(아쟁) coming from an empty pavilion
Surprised me into silence.
The sound came from each string and movement of the hand.
It sounded like the river weeping from the deep,
Like a cricket chirping on a dewy blade of grass in autumn,
Like the sound of a spring bubbling out from between the rocks.
Listening carefully with my ears pointed toward the sky,
The resonance lingers for a long, long time.
Having heard the sound coincidentally tonight
Fills up my heart with emotions and old memories.
I stop drinking and look yonder
To see a sparkling moon hung high up in the cloudless sky.
Kim Ullan’s(김운란) personal life may have been tragic, but his amazing musical talent comforted many people whose lives were much harsher than his own. The last piece for this week’s episode is “Dancing Moonlight” played by the Ensemble Sinawi(시나위).
Music 3: Dancing Moonlight/ Performed by Ensemble Sinawi