KBCE recently had the opportunity to interview Mason, a player of the traditional instrument, the Gayageum, and a Korean teacher at Richmond University, supported by London King Sejong Institute.
The gayageum is probably Korea's best-known traditional musical instrument developed in the sixth century during the Gaya confederacy. The gayageum is a plucked zither with 12 strings, but modern variants have 18, 21 or 25 strings. Here Mason explains how he came to play this instrument, why it means a lot to him and his journey to London.
Could you tell us more about your background and musical education in Korea?
I studied at the Post-Modern Music department of Kyunghee University as my second major. The programme was not only about traditional music but also dealt with other diverse genres, including pop, jazz, rock, etc. Then, I took part in several
ensembles with piano, and it became one of my musical weapons. Also, I received the highest scores in the music business, as well as in composition and improvisation, so I was awarded a scholarship. Based on my learned theory, I planned the entire graduation performance. I chose 'Speechless' from the original soundtrack of "Aladdin" a top-rated movie at the time. I attempted cultural fusion by adding the main melody of the Gayageum, a Korean traditional musical instrument,
to the popular music loved by the world. However, it was not easy to integrate new cultural elements while maintaining the artistic identity of existing music. I was constantly engrossed in musical arrangement, thus being able to complete unique
music and sheet music. The performance was very successful and received quite a favourable response - a harmonious performance fusing the East and the West.
What led you to play the gayageum?
The beginning of learning Gayageum was not that special because it started as one of my hobbies when I was younger. However, as time passed, I realised that I had been immersed in this and could not be separated from it. However, the most
inspired moment in my music life was when I read a biography of Hwang Byungki. As a composer, performer, and scholar, Hwang Byungki has had an extraordinary influence on the world of Korean traditional music for half a century. Even though I was such a child, I got a strong impression of his pioneered routes with incredible talents and apparent belief in cultivating Korean culture through his music. Therefore, I have always been passionate about being like him worldwide as a
representative Korean culture evangelist in following his values.
What brought you to London?
I wanted to follow Hwang Byungki's remarkable career since he is my role model. Although I performed on fabulous stages such as the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, The 1st North-South Korean Summit and the Republic of Korea
International Fleet, I often felt like a doll in a puppet show, being pulled by others. But, when I individually participated in a Korean promotional performance in Italy, apart from my schools and any belongs, I could acknowledge that I had to explore
overseas to foster the Korean Wave as well as develop my ability. Plus, Hwang Byungki published the first research paper in the UK regarding Asian composers for traditional instruments. The fact motivated me to consider going to the UK, where I
had never been. Thanks to a placement offer from the Richmond University - The American University in London with a job title named 'Arts Management Supporter and Teacher of Korean Language & Culture' I have been working so far.
What inspired you to teach? Do you teach mainly Koreans or non-Koreans?
My first major in my university was Korean, specifically Korean education for foreigners. I have always been fascinated by Secondary Language theories and practices. I received the highest scores in Korean teaching and learning modules
and was awarded a scholarship as an academic excellence student. Also, I have finished major practicums twice, one is international, and the other one is domestic. These experiences again stimulated my vocational spirit and proceeded with my career as a Korean teacher. After graduation, I got an official certificate as a Korean language teacher from the government.
Is it common for the new generation of Koreans to play traditional Korean instruments?
It is not a typical case in Korea to learn a traditional instrument even though it is ours. We usually learn Western instruments like piano, violin, flute, etc. For instance, the piano remains a dominant musical instrument in Korea; people think of it as a standard instrument. On the other hand, traditional instruments are typically played
by people who want to major in a school, which is considered unique in Korea. I reckon that we should admit there is an entry barrier to learning our instrument for citizens.
Do you think it is important for the new generation of Koreans to play traditional Korean instruments like the gayageum and why?
As I expressed some of my thoughts against today's circumstances, I have recognised that the trend of Western-style music is a prominent musical expression for Koreans. Yet, traditional music must play an essential role as a powerful emblem
of national identity. For example, I think it does not make sense that Koreans cannot distinguish their traditional instruments at least. If I show a picture of another traditional string instrument that looks similar and explain it as Gayageum, most people would not doubt that. It is shameful, but I have experienced numerous moments in my real life when Koreans do not know well about their instrument's appearance. I believe it should be resolved at the upper level to raise awareness.
What do you think is the gayageum's charm?
There are two main distinct kinds of Gayageum; one is for traditional with 12 strings, and the other is for modern music with 25 strings. After completing the major programme of 12 strings, I have been absorbed into the 25 strings of Gayageum in
earnest. The charm is open to integrating sounds and produces the mood up to my feeling without any limitation. I sometimes feel like in another space when I play.
What is your favourite song to play on the gayageum and why?
Countless songs slipped into my ears when I looked at this question. But, I would like to say '별후광음' was initially composed by my favourite artist, '2nd Moon'. This song was one of the soundtracks for the Korean television series, Moonlight Drawn By Clouds. The reason I picked this song is apparent; it was my first time interpreting a piece of music by only myself without any support or feedback from teachers or peers and rearranging with my 25 strings of Gayageum, a single instrument. First listening to this song, I noticed a spark that made me curious about the arrangement. Likewise, I would love to scrutinise introducing hidden masterpieces containing traditional Korean elements for everyone abroad.
KBCE would like to warmly thank Mason for agreeing to this interview and look forward to future collaborations.