Instrument and Tool, Performer and Body — Beyond the Experiment of Thought
Written by Patrick Sangbin Rhie
English translation by Byungkyu Lee
English version edited by Kyle Bates
Fixed strings become a foundation of sound
This article explores ideas that emerged from Jeonghyeon Joo's new performance project, The Art of Bowing. Imagine the figure of an instrument being played, generating sound through bow and string. Though we don't know the exact form of the very first string instrument we can intuit that its most primitive form would be plucked or strummed. The design of the bow would have taken place after early humans figured out that they could generate pitched sounds by striking the fixed strings. Initially there were only two ways of exciting a string: either plucking with a hand or a pick, or striking it with a stick. These processes could only occur after achieving an appropriate amount of tension on a string by securing it. Many types of sounds could be achieved by altering various variables within that process. These variables include the point on the string that is being picked or struck, the position of the finger that plucks the string, and the material of the stick that strikes the string.
As you can see, there are many details that a performer must consider within the limited situations of plucking and striking a string. Now let's consider bowing. If we use a high-speed camera to take a closer look at the vibrations of a bowed string, we discover that it is being dragged toward the direction of the bow's movement. Once the string reaches its limit it returns to its original position. This is repeated rapidly during the short period that a note is sounded―this is called a stick-slip. With this phenomenon in mind, bowing could be considered a series of several musical events (plucks) where most of the resonance is omitted, causing a continuous sound; think of how a series of dots in sequence form a line. This bowing technique incorporates the variables mentioned above that apply to plucking or strumming instruments. By adding the duration of a note to these variables, bowing becomes a very complicated physical phenomenon, emitting a continuous attack of sound.
Now let's examine the physical variables that should be controlled during the process of bowing. Which section of string the bow hair should excite and the frequent change in pitch that is often heard as a form of vibrato are concerns for both composers and performers. How much tension should be applied to the hand that is holding a bow and the amount of bow hair that touches the string (designing timbre and amplitude in real time) are also concerns. For instance, the distance between the point where the bow hair and string touch each other and the point where a player holds the bow with their hand repeatedly becomes closer and farther away. During this process, it is an important task for the bowed instrument player to maintain even timbre and amplitude. They must control their arm strength, which means consciously controlling the different amounts of unconscious strength in their arm between the down bow and up bow.
The haegeum, the bow, and the movement of the body
There are quite a lot of things to consider when we think about the bowing of bowed instruments. The haegeum, the uniquely structured bowed instrument featured in Jeonghyeon Joo's performance, brings another dimension to the process of bowing. Firstly, the bow hair is stuck in between two strings, which is very different from other bowed instruments. The bow of a haegeum has very low tension to the point that there is almost none at all. This is visible from a distance with our naked eye. Because of this, bowing a haegeum starts with securing sufficient tension. This is achieved by pulling the bow stick located outside the string with the right hand, making contact with the desired string, and then moving the bow horizontally. Even after this initial gesture, the player must adjust the tension of the bow hair along with the tension of the string each time they play. For the haegeum player, all of the issues related to the amount of strength to be given to the hand holding the bow are instead thought of in terms of securing the tension of the bow hair.
There is another issue caused by the unique physical position of the haegeum’s bow. The haegeum has two strings and the position of the bow must be changed drastically each time the performer switches to one or the other. The player applies tension by attaching the bow hair to the inside or outside depending on the string―this hallmark of the instrument requires unique physical gestures from the player. To summarize, the right hand of the haegeum player takes on four roles: securing and controlling the tension of the bow hair, which can also be thought of as the amount of strength given to the bow, changing the position of the bow depending on the string, controlling the amount of bow hair touching the string, and continuously changing the point of the string that the bow will excite.
With the haegeum, operation of a player’s left hand requires more complexity and agility than other bowed instruments. More finger strength is required for micro and macro changes in pitch, including vibrato (called nonghyeon in Korean; it is a very important element of traditional Korean music), since there is no fingerboard. The left hand technique gives a unique sonic identity to the haegeum, but its complex machinations are also one of the biggest challenges for players. The left hand also has an additional role in haegeum performance: it must secure the instrument to the performer’s body so that it doesn't shake as the performer bows. The roles of the left and right hands are organically intertwined in the complex interaction of muscles in the performer’s body.
Aside from the sound, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the haegeum is the movement of the performer's body. So during a performance the most basic area of focus is on the movements of certain parts of the performer's body. Fingers, wrists, palms, arms, and shoulders, as well as large and small muscles on the back of the performer are bent and pulled like the bow and string of the haegeum. These gestures made by the performer's body are dedicated to producing specific sonic colors.
Infinite musical imagination through flexibility and elasticity
The iconic images of the haegeum are the two drastically bent strings and the interstices between the strands of bow hair. While these characteristics increase the difficulty in performance, they result in colorful timbres. The pitch that moves microscopically at every moment as if it's alive, trembling, (nonghyeon) is derived from the movement of the left hand. The relatively slow and gentle pitch creation caused by the haegeum bow’s movement holds great influence over the acoustics and musical spectra of the instrument. The distinctive acoustics of the instrument are perhaps the most intense element that will be engraved in a listener's memory. Complex and subtle acoustic events run through Jeonghyeon Joo's haegeum performances: sometimes wild, sometimes soft and strangely squeaky.
Jeonghyeon Joo's eclectic usage of improvisation and graphic notation in The Art of Bowing maximizes her involvement in the music. These two methods mirror themes hinted at above such as the relationship between the body and musical performance, the relationship between the performer and the instrument, and the instrument as a tool to create multi-layered meaning. Jeonghyeon Joo's musical study also creates personal meaning for the performer herself.
The bow of the performer pulls its arrow beyond music
This performance also addresses the social and cultural meaning of bowing the haegeum. Jeonghyeon Joo grew up experiencing the refined institutional environment of education in Korean traditional music. Traditionally, the meaning of haegeum performance can be viewed primarily in terms of the succession and protection of traditional arts. Other meanings have piled up on top over time, which now begin to form certain alternate auras. The experience of these auras may differ from person to person. Everyone will inhabit a different point of view when it comes to the subject of haegeum and bowing. Some may think of the conservatism and elegance in traditional music while others may think of the uniqueness of Korean traditional music in contrast with Western music. There might be people who appreciate it from a neutral point of view―as sound and image―without any associations whatsoever.
The very first image that came to mind when I heard about the concept of this performance was a dynamic motion of Joo’s body led by her passionate bowing. Strong acoustics followed from the image of the performer, spurting out a kind of musical wildness, which had been suppressed under the conservative aspects of Korean traditional music. The bowing technique, the various meanings in relation to Korean tradition, and the auras one encounters in this performance are different from what is expected from previous performances with traditional instruments.
Recently, Jeonghyeon Joo has been working in the US with musicians with strong sonic aesthetics who are not traditional Korean instrument performers. They will provide substantial input in refracting the meaning of haegeum bowing in a much broader and multi-layered sense. We, listeners, may ask the following questions before experiencing The Art of Bowing: “what type of world is Jeonghyeon Joo trying to build by expanding the meaning of bowing to the realm of ceremonial gestures, beyond the dimension of a musical instrument?,” and “what is the destiny of bowing?”
Seeking expansion past borders
Lastly, another important aspect of this performance is that Jeonghyeon Joo is challenging the area of traditional composition. In pop music, it is common for many musicians to compose their own songs. In contrast, it is rare for the musicians who spent most of their careers as institutional music performers to later work as composers. However, Joo expands her boundaries as a musician through playing her instrument improvisationally; freely. The fact that the composer spends so much time with her instrument directly, unlike the traditional western composers who spend the majority of time writing their compositions out in notation, is important for both this performance and her compositions in general. Joo’s work is concerned with delivering new experiences to audiences, to create artwork that is different from what has come before.
Beyond intersections, over crossroads
There are many intersecting parts to this performance and many key terms that are central to this discussion: the haegeum, bow and bowing, east and west, Korean traditional music, nonghyeon, music improvisation, the physics of vibration, elasticity and mobility, performer and body, the meaning of musical performance and its expansion, composition and performance, etc... This form of performance cannot fit within a single area. Rather, it breaks through the boundaries of definition and invites listeners to expand their point of view on the artform as a whole.