Mike's month of Samulnori immersion

For the month of January I’m taking a break from creating and performing and instead focusing on a completely different musical discipline. I was offered the opportunity to join a four-day a week workshop on traditional Korean drumming (Samulnori or Poongmulnori) at my local Korean-American culture center. So I need the time to focus my attention-deficient left brain into the study and practice of this five thousand year-old tradition. I’ve been obsessed with traditional Korean folk music for the past two years, tracking down recordings, borrowing books from the library, even hitting up Grouper Liz to bring me back some tapes from her Korean tour. In an age when it seems everything is available at the click of a mouse, for some reason it doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to Korean folk music. So when I discovered that there was a top-notch local samulnori group based around the corner from my house I knew I had to weasel my way into the circle to learn from practitioners in addition to the books and recordings. Aside from the music experience, it also presents a great opportunity for me to continue to learn more about my son’s cultural heritage.

Pungmul (the traditional form of Samulnori) has a rich history that encompasses agrarian traditions, Shamanistic rituals, Buddhist prayers and political activism. The instrumentation is strictly percussion-based with four instruments: two gongs (Yang), Kkwaenggari (small gong representing the season of spring and producing the sound of thunder) and Jing (summer, wind); and two drums (Yin), Janggo (autumn, rain) and Buk (winter, clouds).  I will periodically post some of the wisdom that I’ve learned from my study here on this blog with the hope that some might find it useful.                                                   -Mike

This symbol is called Samt'aeguk. I first noticed it printed on the handle of the gungchae (the bamboo mallet used to strike the left side (kungp'yon) of the Janggo, an hourglass-shaped drum) and then I noticed it painted on the head of the Sogo drum (a hand held drum used during an acrobatic-type movement). I later learned that it represents the basic flow, movement and feel of the rhythms of Samulnori playing. Kim Duk Soo, the founder of the group SamulNori explains it as “there is constant movement in the sphere of infinity, there is also balance. A continuous, unbroken series of motions suggesting unity and becoming one.” For me it’s a constant reminder to relax and breathe. 

Balance between Heavens (Won), Man (Kak) and Earth (Pang).

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Woman of the Dunes, 1964 by Hiroshi Teshigahara, score by Toru Takemitsu.


Is an airport distinctive sonically as some wish to be structurally or visually? Can train stations be happy places thanks to sound? Do budget airlines all think that happy clappy dance music is best for take-off? Do we love or loathe the public announcements in a foreign language as we hope for the name of our destination and flight number to be called out?

What would you tell your 20 year old self?

I think I’d say, “Put out as much as you can. It doesn’t do anything sitting on a shelf.” My feeling is that a work has little value until you “release” it, until you liberate it from yourself and your excuses for it — “It’s not quite finished yet,” ”The mix will make all the difference,” etc. Until you see it out there in the world along with everything else, you don’t really know what it is or what to think of it, so it’s of no use to you.

-Brian Eno

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Another big influence. -Matt