The Music of North Korea – Pathos and Passion

August 6th, 2012

The Korea Society hosted a musical event entitled “The Music of North Korea (Pathos and Passion).  The interpretations of these songs were provided by award winning zither player, Eun Sun Jung.  Her seven song set consisted of Korean folk songs from the entire peninsula and showcased her expertise on the zither, or kayagum.  Since most of the more traditional music of Korean was not supported in the North after the war, she deems this type of music “newly composed traditional music”.

Eun Sun Jung studied in Seoul National University and in 2011 was one of the artists selected for the New York Residency Program.  She has performed at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She also toured US colleges as part of lecture\concert production.   She is versatile on the 12, 18, and 25 string zither.  The host of the event, Dr. Ju Yong Ha, explained that North Korea also boasts having a 36 string kayagum, which he related to a harp that is played horizontally, with pedals to adjust the pitch.

The song summary from the program is as follows:

Kayagum Sanjo

Sanjo, from the sinawi tradition, is perhaps the most representative Korean instrumental genre which originated in the southwest region of the Korean peninsula.  The word sanjo (in Sino-Korean) or hotun kara (in Korean) means “scattered melody(cho)”

C’hun Sol (Spring Snow)

This music captures the childlike joy evoked by the beauty of snow falling in a village in early spring.

Hanopaeknyon (Live for Five Hundred Years)

As one of the best known folk songs of Korea, Hanopaeknyon originated and is sung in the eastern region of the Korean peninsula, including the provinces of Kyongsang, Kangwon, and Hamkyong, which are now in North Korean territory.  In general, the folk songs of all three provinces are together classified as tongbu minyo, eastern-style folk songs, and share the same scale and modal practices known as menaricho.

Tondollari (With the Dawn)

Known to us as one of a few existing folk songs from North Korea, Tondollari (With the Dawn) is said to have originated in Pukchon, Hamkyon Province.  Since after the Korean War in 1953, this light-hearted and upbeat song has been used to accompany a variety of folk dances in North Korea –a contrast to the slow, subtle, and moving dances in the South.

Paektoraji(White Bellflower)

Perhaps the most popular song from North Korea, toraji, originated and gained popularity in the northern regions Kyonki and Hwanghae provinces, now part of North Korea.

Yangchong Toturi

This is an improvisational composition based on the melodic and rhythmic formation from Yangchong Toturi, one of the movements from the Chamber Music Collection (ca. 1400), part of the music for the upper class or the aristocracy. 

Eun Sun Jung closed her performance with a unique version of “Amazing Grace”.  She and Dr. Ha explained that there are differences between South and North Korean techniques.  They claimed that after the war, North Korea abandoned traditional sounds and incorporated more of the Soviet northern style.  Since they are unable to communicate with musicians in the North, they must speculate on how the song should sound.  Despite some defectors being musicians, they have not gained much musical knowledge of what techniques are being used.   The only part of the music that is uniform on both sides of the DMZ is the use of the kayagum.

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Brian Martens