Hwaseong and the Music of Spheres

Hwaseong in Suwon, south Seoul, was declared a World Heritage site in the 1990s. It is a fortified Joseon city that has evolved over the centuries.  Its high point came in the late 18th century, as the French were reigning with terror. The city wall, low enough to look over, stretches for kilometers, above and through the cityscape of Suwon. Seoul itself, the thought struck me, is actually a small country.

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Floodgate, Hwaseung, Suwon, south Seoul

One of the curled-roof buildings along the wall, is a floodgate post, presumably to make attacks difficult for the enemy.  And there are many variations of look-out posts.  Dozens of schoolchildren swarmed along the neat cement paths next to the walls.  There was a festive air.  But for various reasons I wasn’t up to energetic site-seeing – perhaps the intensive visits of the past six weeks were catching up on me.  At the floodgate I sat down to rest and then, as always with Seoul, the small miracle happened.

I heard music and sensed that it was live.  I moved through a  garden and came upon a small amphitheatre which would seat fifty people, if that, and on the low stage were three women in traditional Korean bell dresses each playing a kayageum.  This stringed instrument, often called the zither, produces the sounds of Eastern music as nothing else does.  It is a long panel of wood with 12 strings.  The note is played on the upper part above the bridge in the middle and the tone for that note is created on the strings below the bridge.

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Kayagheum
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A traditional ensemble of musicians

 It was probably a rehearsal, but it sounded perfect to me. The strange halting rhythms, the sudden jabbing notes, the elongations and wavering, and moments of silence took me to another time and other minds.  Of course, they were beautiful too, the players, their black hair bunned, their poise and delicate movement turning them into a memorable cameo.

A young man, dashing in his traditional garb and black hair on his shoulders was taking pictures of them.  He later turned out to be a drummer of real competence, sounding quite African in style.

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Drummer
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Solo performer

I sat for 10 minutes and then they packed up and left the stage, to be replaced by a single kayageum player, even more striking than they had been.  She played and she sang.  That I will never forget.  The music is mostly limited to a certain tonal range, breaking through it at times. There is no recurring motif as with Western music, but she could draw her listeners who had by now grown into a handful of people sitting there – the bass notes she achieved with her voice, the sad brave tone soaring, some words almost spoken with the delicacy of a bird and the strength of a warrior.  What she did was done with uncommon commitment, a pleasure and a pain weaving above deft movements of her fingers on those long strings.  You feel a deep speaking, an intimate word, a filling of the day, a song to mountains.

One of the women who had played previously asked me where I was from and then the three players returned.  Interestingly, they had a something of a Western repertoire then.  I smiled and knew it was time to leave.  They paused.  They looked at one another and then the first notes came. Of music that I feel the most, there is a handful of pieces.  There is Allegri’s Miserere, but next to it is Pachelbel’s Canon.

And it was the Canon they began to play, measured, sad and ritual.  It finished me.  Not since the solo dancer at the Insa-Dong festival have I been so moved. There is a soft marching in that music.  In the two minor chords that lie together in the heart of the sequence, there is a grieving that  rises into healing of the major chords that follow.  And it follows again.  And again, because it is a canon.  Like life and death, it keeps turning.

It came to me that eternity is not ‘a long time’.  It is three women playing the Canon on kayageum in a fortress city in Suwon.

I wandered around Hwaseong for some time and then trekked across to north Seoul by metro to Seoul University of Technology where I slipped into the fine arts department and photographed students’ work in the sculpture and ceramics section.

But the music still moves above that hot skyscraper day, the sudden and sweet notes, like shade and sun, and the voice that comes from ancient years, and it’s all held in the eight chords of the Canon that seek out the furthest hills of this beloved country.

Will van der Walt ©

15 June 2008

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Image Sources: Photographs by Will

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