An unlikely love affair with Korean music

An unlikely love affair with Korean music
Professor Hilary Finchum-Sung poses with a haegeum, a two-string Korean fiddle, in her office at Seoul National University.

When time allows, Hilary Finchum-Sung travels to rural villages on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, interviewing old people and recording songs that they used to sing in kitchens, on farms or during special occasions like funerals.

She is on a self-imposed mission to study and preserve a disappearing musical tradition in Korea which its people don't seem to care much about.

"It (the music) is real. It's not something performed on stage for an audience," she said, as she sat down for an interview at her Seoul National University office last month. "Pity that it's dying."

Like in the Jindo countryside, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired native of Nashville, Tennessee, cuts a pretty conspicuous figure here at SNU, too. Not just because of her looks. She is the first and only foreigner on the faculty of the Department of Korean Music ― "gugak" in Korean.

In 2009, she became a professor of gugak at Korea's most prestigious university. It was about 13 years after her first encounter with gugak back in the US

"It was in my M.A. years at Indiana University, probably in 1996," the professor said, recalling the day she first listened to sinawi, a genre of gugak that is performed impromptu by an ensemble and traditionally accompanies shamanic rites.

As an ethnomusicology major, she used to listen to music from different parts of the world, but what she heard that day caught her totally off guard.

"I had no experience with Korean music. I thought it might sound like Chinese or Japanese music. But the music I heard was so different," she said.

Earthy, raw, unpredictable and "as if breathing" are some of the words that she used to describe her first impression of the sounds from a country that she had no particular interest in.

"I grew up in the South of the US, listening to a lot of different music. Southern (US) music is also raw and improvisatory. We just sit down with people and make stuff up. That kind of thing really appealed to me, and I kind of sensed that when I first heard gugak," she explained.

To her, if the sound of Western musical instruments are "from heaven," Korean ones have a very different "earthy" tone or timbre. "It's not really a clean sound. It sounds more like it's breathing. Just very much alive."

So in the middle of Indiana, her love affair with gugak began.

Back in the '90s, there was no Google or YouTube. It was difficult to find information on Korean music, and she gobbled up whatever resources were available at libraries and record shops. She also started taking Korean classes. In 1999, she first came to Korea for a year and returned several times while studying for her doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. She also started learning the haegeum, a two-string Korean fiddle.

"I don't even know how I did it then. Now I can read articles in Korean and understand them. I look back on my old notes, and every single word is translated," she said.

During her first year in Korea, she met her Korean husband. The "Sung" in her name is his family name. The couple has a daughter and twin sons who now go to Korean schools.

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