Korean Classical Music

Korean music has similarities to that of China or Japan, but also its own unique styles that do not correspond to foreign types. The present page has always been one of the shortest here on the site, even though it does date to the early 1990s. It would be foolhardy for me to attempt to say anything more general about Korean music at this point, but I do want to highlight one particular style that has appealed.

The sanjo suite was first developed for the 12-string movable bridge zither — the kayagum or gayageum — circa 1890. As such, it is relatively modern music. The style derived from pansori music, which was basically theatrical music for voice that incorporated a wide range of traditional styles, aimed at highlighting the full range of human emotions. Sanjo takes this style to the instrumental realm, in a tightly constructed suite format. Although the music may seem austere & restrained, it is intended to evoke the full gamut of emotional response. In some ways, this history might be compared to Hindustani instrumental music emerging from khayal, and the sanjo also has a linear sequence through which the performance develops.

Two especially significant recordings, recorded twenty-five years apart:

Korean Kayagum Music: Sanjo
Chukp'a / Kim Tong Jun
King / World Music Library 5144
Korea: Gayageum Sanjo
École Choi Ok-Sam
Kim Hae-Sook / Yoon Ho-Se
Ocora (Radio France) C 560247

The first recording is of legendary (now deceased) performers connected to the origin of the sanjo form, and the second is of a somewhat different historical style but with a fully modern production and extensive documentation.

There are, of course, various other recordings of Korean music available, including undoubtedly some others devoted to sanjo, but I will not attempt to survey the field in any comprehensive sense. It's this style in particular which caught my ear.

To East Asian music menu.

T. M. McComb
Updated: 23 November 2012