Reckless Abandon: An Internal System of Order and Respect  — PARK, Gyeong-so’s “neighborly” gayageum


Reckless Abandon: An Internal System of Order and Respect
_PARK, Gyeong-so’s “neighborly” gayageum


It was the last day of 2015. PARK, Gyeong-so picked up her gayageum. She was about to perform in a concert titled “The Most Beautiful Relationship 2.” The gayageum was the only instrument present. No accompaniments. Hypnotized, I had a thought: “PARK, Gyeong-so’s gayageum is the only thing that matters here!” Her piece was that good.

When Park plays the gayageum, not even the slightest background noise exists. The audience wasn’t intentionally quiet or on edge. They were mesmerized. Put simply and honestly, the music absorbed everyone present. 

Everything was new. Yet there was something strange. Nothing felt unfamiliar. Had I ever been so smoothly introduced to a new brand of music? The pressure that usually accompanies listening to a new piece had vanished. Park’s gayageum was warm-hearted, friendly, and unique—yet plaintive. It was rich with affection and feeling. Accepting both tradition and modernity, it embraced everybody in the audience. 

Her music was as variegated as the arrangement of chairs scattered around the venue. The seats were not arranged in horizontal or vertical formations, yet there was a certain order to the chaos—both in the seats and in Park’s music. Everybody connected to her gayageum and in turn became neighbors. Similar to the effect produced by her 2016 PAMS Choice work, The Most Beautiful Relationship, an indescribable connection formed between all members of the audience.  

▲ The author and <i>gayageum</i> performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

▲ The author and gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

1. Relationships

Your piece The Most Beautiful Relationship was selected for this year’s PAMS Choice. What is the relationship to which you’re referring? Musically speaking, what does it mean?

The most beautiful relationship is one of communication. I use music to practice two-way communication. That’s the reason why I play music and the gayageum. For true communication to exist, for it to be reciprocal, you need to go beyond simply understanding the other party. You need to take responsibility for yourself.
When I perform, I adopt a sense of musical responsibility. To truly communicate with my listeners, I need to always be prepared to take responsibility for my music. This requires constant effort. 

2. Space

But feeling a sense of responsibility and working hard aren’t enough to create music that communicates. Music changes according to where it’s played—particularly for my instrument, the gayageum. The surrounding space is very important. Everything is a variable, from the size of the stage to the layout of the venue. All of these factors influence the relationship that forms between my music and the listeners. These spatial restrictions occasionally impede my efforts to communicate with the audience. That’s my biggest trial as a musician and performer. 

When I perform, I can feel when my music is communicating and when it is not. When I can feel that my music has occupied the entire space, even if it’s a large venue, I become elated. But there are times when that does not happen. 

A long time ago, I performed in a huge concert hall, and I could tell that my music was not being communicated to those on the second and third floors. It was a tough moment. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about space and about the layout of venues in relation to my music. I always think about the space I’m going to be performing in. How my music will transfer to the acoustics, how it’ll reach the listeners—that kind of stuff. 

Fortunately, I had another chance to perform at that same concert hall—at the place that had jinxed me before—but this time I felt that refreshing sense of satisfaction I get whenever my music occupies the entire venue. I truly believe that a musician has to think about how his or her music will communicate in a certain space.

▲  gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

▲  gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

3. Mathematics

Performers who start out as composers have something in common. They always try to remain faithful to an instrument’s technical nature. It’s easy for them to develop inflexible ideas about the structure of a piece. I expected your music to be the same. But it wasn’t. Why are you different? (Laughs.)

In the Korean education system, students are divided into the sciences stream and the humanities stream. I was always more interested in the sciences, although fine arts majors are usually more interested in the humanities. 

I especially like math. I immensely enjoy solving math problems. I enjoy seeking a blank sheet of white paper gradually fill up with numbers as I solve each problem. There are no words to express the joy I feel when I correctly apply an equation to solve a problem. 

I approach music in the same way. Maybe it’s the musical equivalent of solving a math problem. To me, solving a math problem and completing a piece of music are not that different. Math has equations that you apply to solve problems, and this process is similar to my musical creativity. My music has certain equations and formulas, and I have to apply them to fit certain structures. A strategic blueprint is always the first step in my music. After that’s established, I gradually fill in the emotional details.

A strategic blueprint? Now that you mention it, your music often resembles architectural creations.

I think that traditional Korean music is very structural. Perhaps this is the influence of Confucian ideology? That’s how we arrived at our own pentatonic scale. Each of the five pitches—gung, sang, gak, chi, and woo—has its own role and function. In essence, Asian music was founded upon mathematical principles and logic. My music definitely reflects this.

In short, whenever I perform or compose a piece, I think of its overall structure. It’s when I become confident in this structure that good music starts coming out. This is a rather scientific approach to music, right? But I feel the need to make something clear.

What is that?

I’d describe myself as a “scientific mind that’s slightly bipolar and experiences mood swings.” (Laughs.) People with scientific minds tend to become completely absorbed in their work, but I’m not like that. I’m also interested in the lives of others. I guess you can say I’m kind of nosy. (Laughs.)

4. KIM, Juk-pa

When discussing your music, it’s impossible not to talk about the master performer KIM, Juk-pa (1911–1989).

That’s right. I play the twenty-five-stringed gayageum, but the KIM Juk-pa school of gayageum sanjo constitutes an important facet of my music. The only things I listened to as a student were SEO, Tae-ji and KIM, Juk-pa. I’d listen to SEO, Tae-ji and switch to KIM, Juk-pa, and then back again. Those two contrasting genres of music absorbed my youth. I’d fall asleep while listening to KIM, Juk-pa’s gayageum sanjo music and I’d listen to it again upon waking up. 

Maybe that’s why your rendition of KIM Juk-pa school gayageum sanjo music is even more faithful to the KIM Juk-pa school than artists who’ve preceded you.

That’s why I don’t prefer other people’s versions of KIM Juk-pa’s style. Whenever I listen to their renditions, I always think, “KIM Juk-pa didn’t play this part like that,” or “KIM Juk-pa’s pitch isn’t structured like that.” I’ve listened to her music so much that I can picture how she plays each note, even the individual vibratos. 

▲  gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

▲  gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

5. Technique

I listened to all the songs on your album. It was comforting. It made me think that only you could make such music seem simple and relaxing, although the music itself is incredibly complex and intricate.

I appreciate the compliment. I’m very intense when I play or compose pieces for the gayageum. To use more extreme terms, you could call me a bit sadistic or masochistic. I probably neglect myself in order to perfect certain techniques. Even if I have to put off eating and sleeping, achieving a desired technique brings me elation. Those heightened moments give me confidence in my music. 

I think I inwardly enjoy this process. I’ve played pieces by other female composers such as NA, Hyo-shin and KIM, Hee-jeong, both in Korea and overseas. Even when I play someone else’s music, I strive to pinpoint the essence and merits of each piece. Ultimately, however, the goal is to produce my own music. Creativity is the hardest thing there is, but it’s also the most rewarding. The pain and the elation of insomnia continue throughout the process. Yeah, I definitely think that I have some sadomasochistic tendencies. (Laughs.) 

6. Method

You belong to the twenty-five-string gayageum generation. Your generation of musicians has drawn a lot of attention to your instrument. You’re undoubtedly a leader in your field who balances performing and composition.

The twenty-five-string gayageum took off when I entered university. There were lots of opportunities to play the instrument on school grounds. Unlike the sanjo rhythms, however, nobody offered systematic instruction on playing the twenty-five-string gayageum. In many ways, my generation is much better acquainted than preceding generations with the twenty-five-string gayageum. We have also become more fluent in the piano and grew up experimenting with a variety of Western instruments.
There was sheet music for the twenty-five-string gayageum, but it didn’t provide any particular instructions when it came to playing. Every musician had to develop his or her own fingering method. I found this process engaging, and adjusted rather quickly. Picturing the notes in my head, I ruminated over the best possible way to play each note.
As I continued experimenting, I developed my own methods and techniques for playing the twenty-five-string gayageum. And those methods also influence my compositions. I never practice as if I’m playing a specific piece of music. When approaching the gayageum, I always think about how I’m going to release the energy through my fingers, and how to create vivid music that communicates my thoughts and feelings. That all comes back to the idea of communicating with the audience. When playing the twenty-five-string gayageum, your method becomes the method. 

7. Communication

People these days talk a lot about communication. Yet when it comes to you and the gayageum, it seems like a different type of communication. Musicians don’t use concrete words, so the messages hidden in their music are a different form of communication. It’s almost as if your music is calling out to your listeners and saying, “Let’s all be neighbors.”

That certainly is a big part of my music. I lived in Daechi-dong as a kid. The Daechi-dong of today is very different. My mother would sometimes be away when I came home from school, so I’d go to my neighbor’s house. I’d open their refrigerator and have a snack, and nothing was strange about that. Of course, sometimes neighbors came to our place. The lives we live today are completely different from thirty years ago. It brings new perspective to the concept of “neighbor.” I always try to bring a neighborly aspect to my music. 

 There seem to be multiple ways of communicating with neighbors. Sometimes communication can be serious, and sometimes it can be joking. (Laughs.) Your first album was quite a shock, when viewed from the perspective of conventional gugak. But it was more a shock of strangeness rather than newness. (Laughs.)

(Laughs.) That’s just what PARK, Gyeong-so is. I remember that first album well. When Cosmo Breeze (2010) came out, people I knew were saying things like, “Is this really what PARK, Gyeong-so is releasing as her first album?” Usually, the first album is a serious sanjo approach or composition, and after that you can release something that’s considered more playful. 

Yet at that time, that was the music that had captured me. That was PARK, Gyeong-so. I got the idea from CHOI, Yeong-jun, who was working on Oriental Express with me, and building on that idea to develop my own music was fun and valuable. 

It was different from the PARK, Gyeong-so I knew back then—as if I’d discovered the unrefined, slightly boorish version of PARK, Gyeong-so.

If there’s something that differentiated me from my peers, it’s that I was more musically open-minded. I am lucky and happy to be this way. I come from a family of musicians, so we all have a keen ear. We are sensitive to sounds, but are open-minded when it comes to music. I naturally fell in love with gugak and the gayageum, but I’ve always been open to other genres. I’m also interested in new forms. I’m a curious and nosy person at heart. 

▲ gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok

gayageum performer PARK, Gyeong-so © LEE, Kang-hyeok


Park can talk for hours. More accurately, her thoughts can go on for hours. As one thought leads to another, one can sense a consistent process of affirming and questioning her music. Conversing with her was like listening to an entire album, with songs that were similar yet different, conflicting yet consistent. While speaking with her on Daebudo Island, the place she now calls home, I felt it was a shame that all of the ideas we exchanged couldn’t become a musical hit. Fortunately, all of these ideas are latent within her music. If we listen more closely, we can perceive her emotional polarity, the masochistic playfulness combined with self-restraint—a solid structuralism complemented by emotional depth that only a musical math buff could pull off. 

As a critic, I’d like to get one thing straight. PARK, Gyeong-so’s music has one great peculiarity. It seems free-flowing and reckless, but there is a definite order behind it. Faithful to her appetites, she is definitely a “liberated” artist, but her music always considers the perspective of the listener. I think you could summarize Park’s music in one phrase: reckless yet disciplined, free but considerate.


YOON, Jung-kang(music critic)
YOON, Jung-kang(music critic)