Jocelyn Clark grew up in Juneau and now teaches Eastern studies at Pai Chai University in South Korea, where she has made a name for herself playing traditional Korean music on the gayageum. She returns to Juneau for the Con Brio Chamber Series’ “Arctic Dreams,” featuring contemporary works and the premiere of a new piece by composer Michael Timpson. Playing with her will be Lisa Ibias on violin, Morris Palter on vibraphone, and Sally Schlichting on flute.
The gayageum is a member of the zither instrument family, and traditionally has 12 strings, though today it is sometimes played with as many as 25 (Clark generally uses 12). A musician usually plays it while sitting on the floor, letting the head rest on the lap and the tail on the floor. It’s played with two hands, the right hand plucking and flicking the strings while the left hand manipulates the strings to add vibrato and other effects. Traditional gayageum is rarely played solo and is often accompanied by drums and singing.
“Gayageum is very grounded,” Clark said. “We don’t play any harmony. We play one note at a time. We stop all the other strings before we play the next note. That makes it very much like a human voice in a way.”
Clark has dedicated more than 25 years to the gayageum, but her interest in East Asia’s music and culture began when she was young. Her father went to grade school in Japan and later worked for a Japanese company, so her family went with him on several business trips; she also went on exchange there in high school. When she attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, to keep up on her Japanese, she took a class from a Japanese woman who didn’t speak English and taught the koto; it became her favorite class that semester. When she later went to Nanjing National University of Fine Arts to study calligraphy and Chinese studies, she found someone to teach her how to play the guzheng.
“(The koto and guzheng) have become so modern and they’re much closer to Western music, and Korean music, or traditional music … hasn’t been so modernized; (gayageum) has now, but the traditional music hasn’t, so it was a big challenge for me to understand it and try to figure out how to make it sound good … It was very difficult at first but I got better and better,” Clark said.
The koto, guzheng and gayageum are all from the zither family. There are variations of the gayageum across Asia. It originated in China and spread to Japan and Korea, which developed their own variations and playing styles.
“The thing about music is that is doesn’t really have that much to do with the instrument. Music is embodied in the player,” Clark said. “So all these instruments look almost exactly the same — the same construction, bridges of wood with strings so you can play them like the instrument from the other country. So it’s not the instrument itself so much as the music is different from the Communist music in China or the Japanese music I’d studied in Japan or at Wesleyan where I studied.”
When Clark returned to the U.S., she got a scholarship to go to South Korea to attend the National Classical Music Institute, now known as the National Gugak Center, to study the gayageum. The person playing the gayageum leads the music, similar to how in Western orchestras it’s the first violin. It’s one of the most famous traditional Korean instruments and is symbolic of national music, Clark said, and yet while people are proud of it, many do not know much about it.
“The kids I’m teaching in university haven’t seen a gayageum in person. They don’t know ‘sanjo,’ the most basic repertoire for Korean instruments,” she said. Sanjo means “scattered melodies” and is a style of traditional Korean music. “They have trouble telling the difference between gayageum and other Korean instruments.”
When Western missionaries came to Korea and set up schools, they banned traditional music, dancing, language, etc., similar historically to what happened to Alaska Natives when missionaries set up schools in Alaska. Not only did the ban result in cultural loss, but also Koreans began to view Western music as high class and traditional music as low class. Views on the instrument have changed, even from when Clark first began studying the instrument to now, and the gayageum has even been played in Korean pop music, commonly referred to as K-pop.
Clark would like to release a CD of traditional Korean music. Currently she is memorizing a 72-minute traditional piece called “Sanjo” that includes no rests, which will be on the album.
Timpson wrote the piece premiering at “Arctic Dreams” for gayageum, violin, vibraphone, and flute. It’s called “In front of him” and is based off a painting by the same name by Kim Suntae. Clark has commissioned a series of pieces for gayageum and various instruments based off of Suntae’s series of paintings “Painted Notes,” of which “In front of him” is a part. The painting shows a man from behind looking over his shoulder, and has two meanings, both Clark and Timpson explained. It’s a self-portrait of the artist from 1986 of when he was feeling lonely as a Korean artist living by himself in Paris. He is looking forward, with his back turned to the onlooker, symbolizing his future promise.
Timpson said he thinks the piece is fitting for January in Alaska.
“I think in many ways the painting reflects certain colors in the northern lights…There’s a winterish and colorful feel, and the instrumentation helps in that way. It’s a nice combination for my thinking because a lot of times the gayageum isn’t always the easiest instrument to blend with other instruments — but in this case I think it fits particularly well. They’re all very gentle instruments,” Timpson said. “The ensemble work is very intimate and delicate and put together compared to maybe other pieces where everyone has a separate part, where the parts intertwine. It certainly involves some very meticulous, almost like needlework, on how they have to put things together.”
“Arctic Dreams” will be at Holy Trinity Church on Friday, Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m. and then at APK State Library, Archives, & Museum on Saturday, Jan. 13 at 2 p.m. Both performances are pay-as-you-can.
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly’s staff writer.