4. Gugak

The term Gugak describes the whole field of Korean traditional music, and the term means ”National Music”, as opposed to Western music. It is generally divided into court- and folk music, and each of these categories include several genres.

Korean Court music is usually classified into music of Chinese origin, aak, the Koreanized dang-ak, (also of Chinese origin) and native, indigenous music, hyang-ak. The music in these genres had various functions within the court or aristocracy, for rituals, banquets, chamber music etc.

The folk music genres in Gugak can be roughly divided into p’ansori (vocal folk ”opera”), sanjo (instrumental music), jeong-ak (instrumental and vocal music), nongak (“farmers’ music”,  drumming, dancing, and singing), and sinawi (shamanistic music).

There is some level of improvisation in Gugak at all times, usually quite a bit more than in other East-Asian folk musics. It is referent-based, and there will be a drum pattern giving structure.

Pitch wise, we find one or more modes (jo) and melodies with strong, relatively free microtonal ornamentation within the modes. In some genres, Like Sinawi, these melodies can create an improvised multi-part harmonic texture. (Finchum-Sung 2013)

I first heard a recording of Gugak about fifteen years ago, and the music was probably a variety of Hyang-ak court music. Its sound made a big impression on me, and this image of a slow music with a gristly, expressive, yet delicate sound has stayed with me.
Since then, the genres which have been most important to me have been various court music, and the folk music genres Sinawi and Sanjo. Below are some examples. I will go on to discuss how Gugak has inspired me, and discuss how I have approached using this inspiration in my own music.

Some examples of Gugak:

Court music:

ex 1 Hyang-ak

ex 2 Dang-ak (Boheoja)

ex 3 Aak (Yeomillak)

Folk- and shamanistic music:

ex 4 Sinawi (shamanistic Ssitkimgut ritual music)

ex 5 Daegeum (transverse flute) Sanjo

Further Reading


Using inspiration from East Asian music in European and American music is by now almost a tradition, and the most famous example is Claude Debussy hearing gamelan music for the first time at the World fair in Paris in 1889.

From the fifties and sixties on, a second wave of composers began taking an interest in Asian music, but this time from a more philosophical angle. John Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism and the I Ching is well known, but the music of East Asia has also influenced composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, Luigi Nono, Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, Giacinto Scelsi, Steve Reich and others. (Everett/Lau 2004)

Other free improvisers, such as John Stevens ( ”Karyobin” is a Gagaku dance) and AMM (Duch 2010), have also expressed inspiration from Asian music in their improvisations.

I was aware of the most famous examples of this when I started the project, and realized that my interest in Asian music wasn’t exactly original in a historic sense. It was, however, personal and real to me, and an inspiration for my music, allowing me to move to a new place artistically for a period of time.

I have always let myself be inspired by a wide variety of music outside the genre I’m currently working within, believing that this ultimately makes my work more interesting. A wide frame of reference and different inspiration feels essential to be able to create something personal. This is an idea of hybridization or synthesis, filtering other musics through myself, and developing my web of artistic practice, and it is something I have been doing for as long as I can remember. Usually, the sounding result will be something different from what informs it, yet somehow connected, mixed with my own musical experiences and tastes.

Gugak Qualities

In June 2013 I went for two weeks for an intensive workshop at the National Gugak Center in Seoul, learning to play various instruments, as well as music theory and history. In addition to my own studies of Gugak recordings and theory in Norway, this stay gave me a slightly more thorough knowledge of the Korean musical traditions.

It also made me question my interest in the music: Would it be possible for me as a Westerner to do this ancient music justice in any way, without resorting to orientalism? The more correct and respectful way to approach a project like that would maybe be to first learn to play the traditional music over a period of many years? Or work with Korean traditional musicians and meet them and their musical tradition on their terms?

In stead of following one of these ”correct” routes, which time wise would have been beyond the scope of this project anyway, I decided to focus my attention inwards, looking at what properties of this music had interested me in the beginning, when I was blissfully ignorant of the structures and theory of the music.

I realized that the reason for wanting to absorb Gugak and let it come out in my own music is linked to my impression of the music, especially my impression of it before I knew anything about it. To be able to make my music I needed to let Korean music influence me in a more abstract way, translating the abstract qualities i perceived in it, in stead of trying to translate its sounding features directly.

Time in Gugak

My greatest interest in Gugak, and other, similar Asian traditional music, such as Japanese Gagaku and various Chinese musics, is related to how time is expressed. Sometimes when listening to these musics, it can feel as if time slows down, and one enters a different, slow sound world, where your focus shifts completely: From forward movement to near stasis, and a complete concentration on changes in the timbre of the sound.

Francois Rose and Jaroslaw Kapucinski (2013) describe the traditional Western concept of time as linear, and the past and future is often emphasized over the present. This is for example visible in Western classical music, where one moves logically towards a goal, from one section to another, always related to what happens before and after in the composition. The Japanese concept of time, on the other hand, is described as circular, where the present is the focus. The past and the future are vague, and through the present, the listener experiences eternity. The structure is static and slow, but each musical moment is multi-dimensional and dynamic. This is also clearly the case in Gugak, which is closely related to Japanese musical traditions.

Jonathan Kramer, in his book ”The Time of Music”, proposes the term ”vertical time” for this non-linear focus on time in music:

Phrases have, until recently, pervaded all Western music, even multiply-directed and moment forms: phrases are the final remnant of linearity. But some new works show that phrase structure is not necessarily a component of music. The result is a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potentially infinite “now” that nonetheless feels like an instant. In music without phrases, without temporal articulation, with tonal consistency, whatever structure is in the music exists between simultaneous layers of sound, not between successive gestures. Thus, I call the time sense invoked by such music “vertical.” (Kramer 1988: 55)
Now, vertical time does not necessarily mean complete stasis, but less focus on development. Linear, horizontal time moves from one place to another, whereas non-linear, vertical time focuses on the moment, and in music in vertical time, this means a less hierachical organization: No phrase is more important than the other.

“In non-directed linear time there is no clearly implied goal, despite the directed continuity of motion.” (Kramer 1988: 46)

To me, the similarities to how freely improvised music in an ensemble can work are obvious. Borgo’s description of an improvisation as a non-linear, dynamic system seems to confirm this, and I think the vertical time of Gugak was especially attractive when I first discovered it.

Gugak Connections

In the vertical time of Korean (Asian) traditional music and the vertical time of improvisation, the past and future are subordinate to the moment, the here and now is the most important. In Western music, linearity has been prevailing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this when I decided to look closer into gugak, but i think maybe there was an element of recognition to me in the music.

Ed Sarath discusses this very similar perception of time in in improvisation in his article ””:

”My central premise is that the improviser experiences time in an inner-directed, or “vertical” manner, where the present is heightened and the past and future are perceptually subordinated.’ I contrast inner- directed conception with the “expanding” temporality of the composer, where temporal projections may be conceived from any moment in a work to past and future time coordinates”. (Sarath 1996)

I’m not saying that this feeling of vertical time is the same in a Korean traditional musician as in a Scandinavian improviser. The cultural differences are vast, and I have no way of understanding this approach to music fully. However, I think I am looking for the feeling, my subjective experience of vertical time, which I think may be attainable for me when playing music.

Rhythm in Gugak

”The best of what we call repetition in music, heard closely, is really the opposite of repetition: Subtle differences, slowly shifting backgrounds, a change moving against a constant.” (Ratliff 2016)

Time in Gugak is not only vertical, it is also circular, meaning that it is based on cycles and patterns, which leads us to rhythm.

The repetitive rhythmic patterns in Gugak, called Jangdan, outline the structure of a piece, much in the same way as Indian Tala. The drummers give the pulse, which the rest of the ensemble relate to. Now, the patterns of Korean court music, are, at least in the beginning of compositions, extremely slow, and the feeling of vertical time is present.

You listen differently at different tempos: In an extremely slow music like Gugak court music, rhythm as pulse is less present, and a stronger focus on timbre feels natural.

Korean musicians seem to consider that in Western music, rhythm is based on the heartbeat (pulse), while in Korean music it is based on breathing (hoehup). Musicians in a Gugak ensemble will synchronise their breaths as a means of coordination. This is because the rhythms in Gugak are not metric in the Western sense, and they are usually quite plastic. The beat is flexible, based on breath, and can be stretched at the drummer’s discression.

Rhythm in Free Improvisation

In European free improvisation, rhythm has usually been of a non metric, non repetitive kind, and Derek Bailey describes how Tony Oxley early on would superimpose rhythms to give a feeling of a more abstract, less metrically identifiable rhythm:

”The regular metre was always under attack; systematically so when Tony Oxley evolved a method of super-imposing a different time feel over the original, creating not a poly-rhythmic effect but a non-rhythmic effect.” (Bailey 1993: 87)

I think this describes well how we tend to use rhythms in free improvisations in the PZE as well. The focus is more on gestures and energy, and if there is any metric rhythm present, it usually takes the form of shorter rhythms which have the function of a phrase or a tension building device rather than a ”beat”. The tempi are either fast or slow rubato, and rarely cyclical or repetitive.

I was curious as to what would happen if I introduced rhythms with the most prominent properties I identified in Gugak: Slow, repetitive and metric, yet rubato.

The rhythm becomes a structuring device, as it does in Gugak, adding form and boundaries. Now, do I want this? Maybe, but I will tend to either mask the rhythms (like a fast 5/8 rhythm within a more chaotic improvisation), or play them even slower than in Gugak court music (like in Patterns 1 on the CD), or in seemingly non metric versions.

Pitch and Melody in Gugak

Gugak is usually based on a pentatonic mode (Jo). The musicians will use certain ornaments on certain pitches in the mode, and the pitches are organized in a hierarchy of importance. The modes also contain information about performance practice, certain melodic phrases and microtonal ornamentation (Sigimsae). The Korean understanding of pitch (eum, meaning ”sound”) includes these pitch gestures and ornaments, which gives direction and shape. Sigimsae literally means ”fermentation” and refers to the musical maturity of a performer.

Again: The timbre and embellishment of one tone becomes more important than linear movement. There is no planned polyfony or harmony in Gugak, but random modal polyphony is created in Gugak by heterophonic melodies, which can, for example in the genre Sinawi, be improvised. (Juyong 2013)

The composer Isang Yun describes this idea of a ”hauptton”, or ”Main Tone” as a sounding point of gravity or anchor the music deviates from and returns to over and over again in Gugak.

Below are two examples of how I have tried to express these ideas in the PZE.

Ornamentation and heterophonic melodies/random (modal) polyphony related to Eno’s ”heuristic” category of organization:


One of my interpretations of the Main Tone idea:

Spectral Techniques

Together with the ideas of microtonal ornamentation (Sigimsae) and random polyphony this idea led me to associate to the field of Spectral techniques:

What if the Main Tone was a sound, and we could improvise together within the spectrum of this one sound?

When I say ”Spectral techniques”, I mean computer-based analysis of the frequency spectrum of a sound, to extract approximations of microtonal pitches to be used as musical material (I will not go into the other aspects of the music, or history of the movement here).

I also had a feeling that, since several of the members of the ensemble were already playing in a microtonal way, using these techniques might allow me to write music which was closer to what they were improvising.

I started analyzing various sounds using software, extracting the frequencies that made up the sounds, and creating pieces and harmonic fields based on these spectra.

Here are two examples of ”spectral” techniques mixed with free improvisation.
The first one is a piece based on the sound of an alto saxophone multiphonic.
The second one is based on the partials of a middle C.

Alto sax multiphonic

C partials

Improvising within a spectral framework is extremely difficult, since it requires a high level of accuracy intonation-wise. I rather quickly understood that it would be too complicated for the ensemble to successfully make music this way without a lot more time to rehearse. Today, I only occasionally use these techniques for predetermined material.

I do think, however, that the work we did, trying to make sense of this microtonal landscape was useful as an exercise to develop the ensemble, even if it was a detour, and I sometimes hear ”spectral sounding” chords showing up in our improvisations today. The ”spectral” playing was a way of adding to the repertoire or ”culture” of the ensemble, opening our ears to what could be possible to improvise later on.

Leaving Gugak Behind

One of the questions I initially posed in this project was how to be able to utilize my inspiration from other styles while composing for my ensemble. Composing music with inspiration from other musics, such as Gugak, is tricky when it’s mixed with free improvisation. Is it possible to let one style influence the complex interactions of the improvisers? Wouldn’t that interfere with the voices of the musicians?

Again, we return to the dialectic within this ensemble, and within myself, between the predetermined material and the improvisations influencing each other. A ”marriage” of two different ways of making music, where periodical balance is reached through giving and taking.

On the one hand, I do think that the inspiration from Gugak has been difficult to use in an effective way musically: I felt that my pieces with a clear Gugak inspiration influenced the improvisers too much, resulting in a music I wasn’t happy with. It sounded too close to Gugak in some ways, and too close to free jazz in others, for my taste. My reaction, and an attempt to solve the problem, was to abstract the properties of Gugak even more, associating freely around the properties I perceived in the music, ending up briefly in a ”Spectral” landscape.

These abstractions of, and associations around Gugak resulted in some successful music, which I probably would not have made in another way, and some of the material developed in this period is still used in my music. Yet, they are not the sound of Gugak, but abstractions, and some of them could maybe have been developed in other ways, sounding similar. An echo of Gugak is still there, but not necessarily audible.

I was getting more and more wary of the fact that I didn’t only want to make music in my ensemble that sounded similar to Gugak or very timbre-oriented music, punctuated by completely free improvisations. The Gugak-inspired compositions were intended to delineate the music, but I realized that the way we were using it was too constraining, preventing us from utilizing all the musical resources in the ensemble.

I felt like I needed to get closer to what the improvisers, including myself were actually interested in doing. In a situation where we were free to play whatever we wanted, what would we be playing? I was still looking for the right place for the music to inhabit on the continuum, where both the improvised and predetermined music could thrive simultaneously, in balance.

For this reason it didn’t make sense to me to pursue the Gugak track any further, and try to force it to work together with the free improvisation of the musicians:

If the voice of a musician for example is based on lots of fast playing, the inherent slowness of the Korean court music-inspired approaches would mean that this musician suppressed her natural inclination to improvise fast phrases. This could result in her feeling like she couldn’t develop her voice in this group, in (Butcher’s) incremental steps, leading to detachment, less feeling of ownership and eventually possibly leaving the ensemble.

I still think the Gugak approaches are valid to me, and result in interesting music, but I felt like I needed an even more all-encompassing approach, allowing for more interaction, improvisation and behavioral ideas or constraints. Especially since I had gradually started to look at the ensemble process as an important, maybe the most important, part of composition. Li was a solution to that problem.

Go to Chapter 5: Li: Natural Patterns