Thursday, June 20, 2024

US gayageum musician Jocelyn Clark to perform at Ureuk World Music House

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Jocelyn Clark poses with her gayageum at a stream in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

By Bereket Alemayehu

Jocelyn Clark is an accomplished musician, ethnomusicologist and educator known for her expertise in Korean folk music and the gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Juneau, Alaska, she began her musical journey by studying various Asian instruments during her time as an exchange student in Japan, China and Korea. She has since accumulated over 30 years of experience playing the gayageum.

She currently serves as a professor at Pai Chai University in Daejeon, where she integrates her extensive research in ethnomusicology into her teaching. Her work focuses not only on the technical aspects of playing the gayageum but also on understanding its cultural and historical contexts. This holistic approach has helped her contribute significantly to the sustaining and global promotion of Korean folk music.

This Sunday, she will perform at the Ureuk World Music House in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, accompanied by drummer Shin Seung-kyun. Tickets cost 25,000 won in advance or 50,000 won at the door, and donating members get in for free. Visit for more information.

One weekend prior to this, she spoke to The Korea Times in a two-hour interview at her studio near Okcheon Hermitage in northwestern Seoul’s Seodaemun District. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Jocelyn Clark poses with her gayageum in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

Jocelyn Clark poses with her gayageum in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

What drew you specifically to the gayageum, and what were some of the challenges you faced while mastering this instrument?

At first, I was not drawn to the sound of the gayageum. I didn’t know it. I was interested because it had the same shape as the Japanese koto and Chinese guzheng. I was at first disappointed because I could not understand the aesthetics of the sound of the gayageum. It took me until now to start to understand. I can’t say my journey is yet complete.

What’s unique about gayageum in the context of East Asia is you never play by yourself. People think the gayageum is harp-like, but it’s not like a harp at all. It’s not harmonic. It’s a rhythmic instrument and you always play rhythmic counterpoint with a drum.

I’ve been working on sanjo, usually translated in English as “scattered melodies,” for the last 30 years. It’s abstract music. It’s like Indian raga in a way — playing with both melodic and rhythmic modes. At its heart, it’s improvisational music, though we start by memorizing. It takes a long time to learn how to improvise according to the rules.

Can you tell us about your role as a professor at Pai Chai University and how you integrate your ethnomusicological research into your teaching?

I introduce Korean students to Korean music because my students in general don’t know about it. They don’t know the instruments, they don’t know the sounds. I introduce them to the main instruments and the concepts of the music. I try to bring Korean practitioners like drummers, pansori singers, jeongga singers and instrumentalists into my classroom. I’m trying to get my students to hear live music for the first time. After growing up in the COVID era, they’ve never experienced that before. To them, music is an entirely digital experience.

Jocelyn Clark crosses a stream in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

Jocelyn Clark crosses a stream in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

Ethnomusicology involves a deep understanding of the cultural context of music, exploring the intersections of sound, culture and history. So how do you approach this in your studies and performances?

I think it’s really important to look at music in the context of literature, history, anthropology…everything. It’s all one thing. Music is embedded in a place. Music is not the output of an instrument. Music lives inside a person. It becomes music when the person and the instrument become one. All the facets of the person become part of the music. Music is, if anything, a lifestyle. Musicians have to practice every day. Practicing is a kind of daily meditation. For me, that meditation is sanjo. Singing is its encore.

With sanjo you have to be able to carry an audience with a single instrument without rests for one hour, and get them excited about what you’re playing. That takes a lot of energy. You have to practice not only playing, but staying super-focused for one hour. It’s always a struggle. Every day is different. One day you have sore fingers, the next your strings are loose because of humidity. Every day your mood is different. You’re depressed. You’re happy. You’re tired. You’re drunk. You’re whatever. You have to be strict with yourself or your progress will be very slow.

As a non-Korean mastering a traditional Korean instrument, how has the Korean musical community received you?

I’ve put in 30 years by now. I’m just a regular musician. I’m not special. I’m not a beginner, I’m not a star. I’m just considered a normal, regular member of the community instead of a foreigner who just came to learn a little bit. But I have to keep working hard to stay part of the community.

What do you hope to achieve through your work in preserving and promoting Korean folk music globally?

I have played in Germany, France, Belgium, America, China, Japan… but I think my presence as a player makes the most sense in Korea and not outside of Korea. Korean players should go outside of Korea and play for international audiences. My place is inside of Korea. I’m promoting Korean music to regular Koreans inside Korea. Just by doing what I’m doing makes many people think again about something that is so unique to Korea but not well-known.

This is not just a Korean thing. Music all over the world has the same problem, if it is even a problem. Most people don’t think that much about music. They consume it, but they don’t otherwise think much about it. They like it or they don’t and that’s the end of it. People don’t want to be challenged by music — they don’t want to hear things that they’re not familiar with. Music tends to be a comfort food. What is there to achieve in that context? Just work hard and sound good.

What can you tell us about your upcoming performance at Ureuk World Music House?

I’m going to play a one-hour-long sanjo in the style of Seong Geum-yeon, who was the mother of my current sanjo teacher, Ji Seong-ja.

This concert is kind of a prelude. I have to play it in front of my teacher and her other students in June, one month later, so my Ureuk House concert is a kind of warm-up concert. I also have to take the “yisuja” exam this year and I want to make a recording of sanjo, so this concert is the first in a series of steps to help keep myself focused and improving as a musician over the course of the year. I’m really grateful for the invitation.

As an accomplished musician, ethnomusicologist, and educator how do you see the future of traditional music in a rapidly globalizing world, and what role do you think you will play in that future?

I’m not sure the world is globalizing anymore. It’s decoupling and dividing. As much trepidation as I might have myself about that, it might be good for Korean music, I don’t know.

Right now young people have little connection with materiality. For them, music is all digital. Most of my students have never played an instrument. People my age,many of us grew up playing some kind of instrument, however badly — we played something physical that we touched or blew or did something physically to make a sound. The way that music sounds on an instrument without electronic interface is different, like seeing a painting in real life and seeing a painting printed in a book. It’s a completely different experience of color and texture. And it’s the same for music.

I’m worried about all these traditions in every part of the world fading away, because the ecosystem that sustains them is completely collapsing. There’s a kind of habitat collapse. It’s not just music, but all the traditional things that have a long tradition and grew up in a certain space that’s connected to this land and this language, and this people.

Jocelyn Clark plays the gayageum at a stream in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

Jocelyn Clark plays the gayageum at a stream in northwestern Seoul, May 18. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

What do you recommend the government do to support traditional music?

Not cutting the arts and culture budget by 80 percent is a start. Once you cut the budget, the ecosystem collapses. To build it again is difficult. In order to have the new, you need a well of tradition from which to drink, which is constructed of the older things. You can always come back and fill your cup and make something new with the well-water. But once the water dries up, what are you going to make? It doesn’t matter how many cups you have if there’s nothing to fill them with.

Bereket Alemayehu is an Ethiopian photo artist, social activist and writer based in Seoul. He’s also co-founder of Hanokers, a refugee-led social initiative, and freelance contributor for Pressenza Press Agency.


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