Portrait of Hwang Byungki: New and Traditional Music for Korean Instruments

Hwang Byungki is Korea’s acclaimed master of the classical kayagum, an ancient ancestor of the Japanese koto. His six-member ensemble performs traditional music and original works by Hwang on kayagum, taegum (flute), komungo (zither), and changgu (hour-glass drum). Hwang Byungki has toured internationally for more than forty years. In 1990, he led an ensemble to North Korea to perform in a landmark concert advocating the reunification of Korea.
This concert was made possible, in part, by the Korea Society and the Korea Foundation. Recorded live on June 5, 2007, Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art.

Sounds of the Night (0:00-11:30)
Soyop Sanbang (11:53-22:10)
Moon of My Hometown (22:36-27:02)
Kayagum sanjo (27:25-46:02)
Harimsong (46:40-54:20)
Ch’imhyangmu (Dance of Aloe Perfume) (54:43-1:08:50)


Sounds of the Night (0:00–11:30)
Soyop Sanbang (11:53–22:10)
Moon of My Hometown (22:36–27:02)
Kayagum sanjo (27:25–46:02)
Harimsong (46:40–54:20)
Ch’imhyangmu (Dance of Aloe Perfume) (54:43–1:08:50)

This concert was made possible, in part, by the Korea Society and the Korea Foundation. Recorded live on June 5, 2007, Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art.

(adapted from notes provided by the performers)

1. Sounds of the Night
Ji Aeri, kayagum
Kim Woongsik, changgu

"Sounds of the Night" is a composition by Hwang Byungki for kayagum (a twelve-string zither) and changgu (an hourglass-shaped drum). First performed in Tokyo in 1985, it was inspired by a painting by the late-nineteenth-century Korean painter, An Chung-sik, "Sounds of the Forest." In the painting, a man stands in a moonlit yard and looks toward a brushwood gate. He thinks he hears someone coming, but it is only the breeze, blowing through his hair and rustling the leaves of the trees.

The first movement begins very quietly and progresses in a subdued murmur until it unfolds with a fast tempo and then calms down toward the end. The second movement is lively with a moderato rhythm. The third movement features special playing techniques that create sounds mimicking a strong wind. The fourth movement, a plaintive melody flowing in a slow tempo, conveys a sense of space and emptiness well developed in East Asian aesthetics.

2. Soyop Sanbang
Heo Yoonjeong, komungo
Kim Woongsik, changgu

Composed by Hwang Byungki in 1989, this solo for komungo (a six-string zither) evokes an atmosphere of mystery and wonder. "Soyop" means sweeping the fallen leaves of autumn, which become piled high in a garden in the mountains. "Sanbang" refers to the room of a man who sweeps these leaves. The music exploits the full capacities of the komungo, an instrument well-suited to expressing the elegance of a mountain retreat. The melody is based on traditional Korean principles, combining the styles of komungo-sanjo with those of court music, but the composer has introduced some innovative playing techniques in addition.

3. Moon of My Hometown
Kim Nari, vocals
Ji Aeri, kayagum

In "Moon of My Hometown" Hwang Byungki evokes the style of folk songs from Kangwon Province in South Korea. Each of its two verses begins with a section in an asymmetrical meter (2/4 plus 3/4), sung as if reciting poetry, and continues with a sad melody in slow 3/4 time.

That bright shining moon is the moon of my hometown, the moon of my hometown.
Even if I go a thousand miles, it follows me, it follows me.
Longing for the hills and streams of my hometown,
This heart will not change, will not change.
Every time I see that moon, my lover's face
Comes into my mind.

That bright shining moon draws me to my hometown, draws me to my hometown.
Following the moon home, to plough a field, to plough a field.
To set up a humble new home.
Shall I go? Shall I go?
Every time I see that moon, my lover's face
Comes into my mind.

4. Kayagum Sanjo
Hwang Byungki, kayagum
Kim Woongsik, changgu

The term "sanjo" literally means "scattered or random melodies," probably reflecting the disapproval with which this genre was received by the Korean aristocracy when it was first developed. Oral tradition attributes its origins to the kayagum virtuoso Kim Ch'anjo (1865–1919), who first performed it publicly in the 1880s. Since then, a dozen styles, or schools, of sanjo have been established by prominent composer-soloists. Sanjo is an extended form of solo instrumental music accompanied by the changgo, an hourglass-shaped drum. It usually consists of six movements, though some have as few as three. The sequence of movements, and the mood of each, varies among the schools of sanjo. Within each movement are sections of contrasting melodic types. After decades of learning and refining the sanjo, Hwang has added new melodies of his own composition, finally arriving at a version that, in its fullest form, takes some seventy minutes to perform. Hwang Byungki's kayagm sanjo aims at refined rapture rather than mere charm and interest. It places a high value on aesthetic principles and the contrast between motion and stillness in melody.

5. Harimsong
Park Jaeho, taegum

The twelfth-century Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk-sagi), which covers the period of 57 ce to 668 ce, reports on the first known kayagum player, named simply Uruk. According to the Chronicles, he performed at the Harim Palace in 551, during the period of the Silla kingdom (57 bce–935 ce). Within this ancient castle, the music played by former generations seemed to linger, bringing echoes from the distant past. Hwang Byung-ki uses the name of this piece of music, "Harimsong," to refer to that palace. The first part has a calm, meditative melody, beginning with low tones and gradually moving higher, while the second part presents a dynamic melody in a lively chungjungmori (12/8) rhythm. In this latter melody, the great contrast in tone color between the high and low registers of the taegum (large transverse flute) creates a dramatic atmosphere. The finale, however, returns to the calm melody at the beginning.

6. Ch'imhyangmu (Dance of the Aloe Perfume)
Hwang Byungki, kayagum
Kim Woongsik, changgu

First performed in 1974, Ch'imhyangmu is a musical exploration of Buddhist art from the period of the Silla kingdom. It combines indigenous and Western elements to sublimate sensual beauty on Buddhist principles. Ch'imhyang is a natural fragrance derived from an evergreen plant found in India, a type of aloe, which in Asia it has long been prized as source of the most exquisite perfumes.

For this piece, the strings of the kayagum are tuned in an entirely new way, based on a scale used in Buddhist chant. There are also many new playing techniques, such as arpeggios evoking the ancient Asian harp, gonghu. The changgu creates special effects through new techniques such as drumming with the fingers and playing the stick against the wooden body of the drum.


Hwang Byungki
Since presenting the first modern composition for kayagum solo, "The Forest," in 1962, Hwang Byungki has played a pivotal role in both the transmission and the development of traditional Korean music. He was the first Korean to issue a recording of his music overseas, and his first album was praised by Stereo Review as "an antidote to today's high-speed world."

Hwang began his studies of the kayagum at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in 1951 and won first prize at the National Competition for Korean Music in 1954 and 1956. In 1965 he was an invited composer for the "Festival of Music and Art of this Century" at the East-West Center in Hawaii. This began an international career that would include performances over the next forty years in the United States, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. He has released five albums of his own compositions and has collaborated with such artists as John Cage and Nam-June Paik. Recordings of his works have been released in both Korea and the United States.

After teaching for nearly thirty years at Ewha Womans University, Hwang retired in 2001 and was appointed professor emeritus. He also serves on the Cultural Properties Preservation Committee and the Korean Section of the International Society for Contemporary music.

Park Jaeho
Park Jaeho is currently a taegum player with the National Orchestra Company of Korea and has also been active as a soloist, playing with the Pusan Metropolitan Traditional Music Orchestra and the Seoul Royal Symphony Orchestra.

Ji Aeri
Ji Aeri learned to play kayagum from Hwang Byungki and was a member of the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. She has won many national performance awards and is currently teaching at Seoul National University.

Heo Yoonjeong
Heo Yoon-Jeong is an active komungo player who taught Korean traditional music at Seoul National University while working as deputy concert master at the Seoul Metropolitan Korean Music Orchestra. Heo currently teaches komungo at Jung Ang University.

Kim Nari
Kim Nari is a trainee in Korean classical lyric song, kagok, designated by the government of South Korea as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset. She has performed widely in Korea and won prizes for the Korean traditional song category at the Korean Traditional Music Competitions.

Kim Woongsik
Kim Woongsik currently lectures at Dankook University and performs actively as a member of Puri, a Korean contemporary percussion group.


The kayagum is a zither with twelve silk strings supported by moveable bridges. The strings are plucked with the fingers to produce clear and delicate sounds.

The komungo, a six-stringed zither, is said to have been created by Prime Minister Wang San-ak of the Korguryo Kingdom, one of the Three Kingdoms period of the first to seventh century. Its prototype is found in the ancient murals of Korguryo. It has six twisted silk strings stretched over sixteen fixed frets. The instrument is plucked with a short bamboo rod that is held in the right hand and produces deep majestic sounds. The literati of the Choson kingdom particularly revered the komungo.

The changgu, an hourglass drum, is used in practically every form of Korean music. It is portrayed in the ancient murals of Korguryo and also in the Buddhist temple bells of the Silla kingdom. Different sizes are used for different types of music. It is used today in instrumental pieces and to accompany folk songs and shaman music.

Taegum, a large transverse flute, dates to seventh century Silla kingdom. It is one of three transverse flutes, which include the large taegum, the medium-sized chunggum, and the small sogum. Taegumhas one blowing hole, six finger-holes, and an extra hole covered with a thin membrane. It produces a distinctive buzzing sound that is both refined and benign.

This performance was made possible, in part, through support from the Korea Foundation and the Korea Society.

korea foundation logo korea society logo

Further Reading

Archival audio and video recordings of Korean classical music on the web site of ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias:

Further Reading

Hwang Byung-ki's official website: www.bkhwang.com

Hwang, Byung-ki [Hwang Pyŏnggi], "Aesthetic Characteristics of Korean Music in Theory and in Practice," Asian Music 9/2: 29-40 (1978).

Hwang, Byung-ki, "Philosophy and Aesthetics in Korea," pp. 813-16, and "Sanjo," pp. 913-17, in Robert Provine et al., East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, vol. 7 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Killik, Andrew P., "Snapshot: Hwang Byung-ki," pp. 975-77 in Provine et al., ibid.

Related Artwork


The first two pieces in this concert invoke nature: forests, hills, streams, moonlight, wind, and a mountain retreat. Two Korean paintings in our collections, from the sixteenth or early-seventeenth century, depict solitary figures in dramatic natural settings. In one, a scholar gazes into a mist-laden mountain landscape. In the other, a figure stands under a pine tree amidst mountains and water.

In the concert piece "Harimsong," the composer evokes the sixth-century palace of Harim, where the kayagum [gayagum] is first documented to have been played, in 551 ce. Our collections of Korean art are rich in ceramics and jewelry from this era, part of the Three Kingdoms period. Examples include unglazed stoneware jars used to hold food offerings in the burial of deceased aristocrats
(see Jar 1 , Jar 2 , Jar 3 , Funerary stand with round-bottomed jar, Vessel Stand). Elaborate gold jewelry worn as earrings or suspended from crowns also was produced during the same period. One pendant hangs from a loop of solid gold, with sheet-gold, gold wire, gold granulation, and glass beads forming elaborate designs (see Ear Pendant 1, Ear Pendant 2, Ear Pendant 3).

The concert finale, "Ch'imhyangmu," is an exploration of Buddhist art, using a scale typical of Korean Buddhist chant. Our collections include two fourteenth-century Korean Buddhist paintings. One depicts Amitabha, the Buddha who promises salvation to all believers, along with eight bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), one of whom can save even those who have been reborn in hell. The other shows the Buddhist deity Ji-jang, revered for his merciful deliverance of living beings from the world of suffering. The collection also includes ceramic ritual sprinklers used in Buddhist ceremonies, from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Buddhist ritual sprinkler (kundika) 1, Buddhist ritual sprinkler (kundika) 2 ), and a ceramic bowl for collecting alms, probably given to a monastery by a noble patron.

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