SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Korean Kayagum Sanjo

Sanjo putatively evolved as an instrumental piece out of folk songs, shaman music (particularly the improvisatory ensemble form known as shinawai) and p'ansori. 'epic storytelling through song', genres of music characteristic of Korea's southwestern Cholla provinces. All sanjo masters and Korean musicological publications claim that the genre was invented by Kim Ch'angjo (1865 - 1919), although it may be deduced that he merely initiated the performance of a solo instrumental piece for the 12-stringed long zither, the kayagum.

Lee Chaesuk

Lee Chaesuk entered Seoul National University to study Korean music in 1959, taking the kayagum zither as her major. She was the first to gain an MA in Korean music, and gave a landmark recital on the zither in 1963 that included pieces from all three repertories - court music, folk, and new compositions. She was the first woman to be appointed professor of Korean music, and in 1994 established the Korean Zither Musicians Association. She has been the recipient of numerous awards during her lengthy career, and in 2004 she was elected a member of the National Academy of Arts.

The Music

A sanjo performance unfolds as a series of movements, beginning with an unmetered section, the tasurum, that seems to have begun as an extended tuning, testing the strings and setting the pitching. In Kim Chukp'a's sanjo, this introductory section divides into two halves, the first with five phrases and the second with nine, each ending with a cadence; the drum entering right at the end.

Each of the core movements is based around a constantly repeating cycle, changdan. Melodic phrases can extend across several cycles to create 'fingers', karak, and each phrase reflects the interplay between the two cosmic forces of yin and yang (um in Korean), creating a microcosm of sanjo in its entirety, as a balance between tension with relaxation. 

The Instruments

The kayagum is a 12-stringed long zither, related to the Chinese zheng, Japanese koto, Mongolian yatga, and Vietnamese dan tranh. It is the most popular of Korea's traditional instruments, and is distinct from other zithers in the region because of a separate piece of hardwood at the base shaped like ram's horns.

The kayagum has a soundboard of paulownia but sidepieces and back of a harder wood such as chestnut. The strings are made from flexible wound silk of between 200-ply and 400-ply thickness, which are stretched from pegs, across a fixed bridge at the top of the instrument, across a set of movable bridges usually made from jujube or cherry that define the sounding length, and end in coils of spare string, ready to be unwound if a break occurs, and these are held taut at the bottom of the instrument by rope loops; the ropes are wound around the ram's horns.

The instrument is played on the floor, and the strings are struck by the fingers of the right hand; the thumb can also be used to flick the strings. Ornamentation is added by the fingers of the left hand stretching or pulling the strings below the bridges. A set of specific ornaments exists, including a rapid press-release movement and various vibrato. 

The changgo is a double-headed hourglass-shaped drum ubiquitous to Korean music. Although pottery bodies were once used, virtually all instruments are now made from a single piece of paulownia wood, turned on a lathe. The drum has two skins laced together that can be tightened by leather hoops. One skin is pitched to match the instrument, and is played with a thick stick call the yol ch'ae, and the other, with a lower relative pitch, is in sanjo and other accompanying roles struck by the palm of the hand.

Known in China from at least 2000 years ago, and with thin-waisted hourglass drums similarly common in India from antiquity, the changgo arrived in Korea by the beginning of the twelfth century. It is a remarkably versatile instrument, today used in court, folk, and shaman traditions as well as being essential to drum dances and to the percussion bands until recently common throughout the Korean countryside.