Hwang Byung Ki, a native of Seoul and master of the kayagum (a traditional Korean 12-string zither), was awarded the Grand Prize at this year’s Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes on Sept. 16. Hwang — who aims to to appeal to both Asian and international audiences by composing music with contemporary sounds — visited Fukuoka City to attend the award ceremony.
“As a composer, I believe I should create the sounds of today,” Hwang told The Japan Times before the ceremony. “If I compose only traditional tunes, they would be something like antiques.”
According to historical documents, the kayagum has been played by Korean people since the sixth century. But, adds Hwang, in some places on the Korean Peninsula clay dolls older than this have been discovered holding kayagumlike contrivances, indicating the instrument may have been played even earlier.
Hwang first encountered the kayagum in Pusan when he and his family evacuated to the city after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
“I studied at a school in the city where I happened to hear the sound of a kayagum being played by an elderly man who lived nearby,” Hwang said. “The sound was so beautiful, I fell in love with the music.”
Hwang convinced his concerned parents to let him study the kayagum at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul from 1951 to 1959, the same time he was studying law at Seoul National University.
After graduating from school in 1959, he began teaching the instrument at the newly established Faculty of Korean Traditional Music at the College of Music, Seoul National University.
While teaching, Hwang started to compose music for the kayagum. In 1974, he composed “Chimhyang-moo,” which led to the appeal of the traditional instrument not only in South Korea but also in other countries.
“Chimhyang is an aromatic Indian wood that was brought to Korea in ancient times,” the 74-year-old musician said. “I composed the tune with the image of dancing in a space filled with the beautiful aroma.”
The tune starts with a quiet melody that spreads like a beautiful fragrance. The music gradually becomes more rhythmical and passionate through the fast strumming of the strings.
Hwang first played the tune live in Amsterdam in 1974. Since then he has played it in South Korea and many other countries. Chimhyang-moo is also included on his album “Kayagum Masterpieces Vol.1”
Currently, Hwang is professor emeritus at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and the Artistic Director of the National Orchestra of Korea — the orchestra of traditional Korean instruments established by the government.
In South Korea in recent years, an increasing number of young people have become interested in traditional Korean music, Hwang said, adding that major universities in the country now have faculties of traditional music.
“I hope young people around the world will enjoy listening to the traditional music of their own countries, in the same way they love popular and Western classical music,” Hwang said.
Kayagum is similar to the koto (Japanese zither), so Japanese people should feel familiar with the sounds of kayagum, Hwang said.
However, while a koto is placed on the floor when it is played, a kayagum is placed on the player’s lap, Hwang said, explaining that kayagum players feel that they are one with their instruments when playing.
The Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize has been awarded annually by the City of Fukuoka and Yokatopia Foundation since 1990. The prize is given to individuals and groups who contribute to the preservation and creation of Asian culture. Past laureates include Akira Kurosawa, film director, and Donald Keene, scholar of Japanese literature.