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[Interview] Professor Jocelyn Clark’s Love of Gayageum

People >[인터뷰] Professor Jocelyn Clark’s Love of Gayageum
[Interview]Professor Jocelyn Clark’s Love of Gayageum

Professor Jocelyn Clark has played the gayageum for 30 years.

Jo Se-rin, a professor of East Asian studies at Pai Chai University’s Ju Si-Gyeong Liberal College, was born Jocelyn Clark in Washington, D.C. Growing up in Juneau, Alaska, she played the violin, oboe, and clarinet, and later developed an interest in Asian culture and music. One after the other, she learned to play the traditional musical instruments of different Asian countries — first Japan’s koto and China’s guzheng before finally finding her life’s path in Korea’s gayageum (a traditional 12-stringed Korean zither). The KF met with Professor Clark, who has now been a gayageum player for 30 years.

I heard that you came to Korea because you were charmed by the gayageum. Is this true?

Many people think so, but it’s not true. The gayageum isn’t so easy that you can fall in love with it so quickly. It’s very difficult to play properly because it takes quite a long time to distinguish its sound. It would be better to say that I fell in love with the gayageum while studying it and working to listen to it and produce a proper sound.

How did you decide to study the gayageum, then?

I majored in Asian studies at my university and was always interested in ethnomusicology, particularly the comparison of the traditional instruments of Korea, China, and Japan. So I decided to learn the Korean gayageum after trying out the Japanese koto and Chinese guzheng. Looking for ways to learn the gayageum, I sent a letter to the director-general of the National Gugak Center of Korea asking if I could study the instrument there on a scholarship. I had low hopes because the center had almost no program for foreigners then, but I was soon accepted as a scholarship student. This was in 1992, when I was 22 years old. I left the US and came to Korea to begin studying. At first, it was extremely hard and difficult to understand the instrument because its tune and everything about it differs from Western instruments.

You successfully overcame that difficult process and are now quite active as a “gayageum evangelist.” I understand you’re busy preparing for a solo recital these days.

Being in the middle of the semester, I have to teach students, prepare for academic conferences and papers, and take care of things at the National Gugak Center, so I haven’t been able to practice for the recital as much as I would like to. I currently study under Ji Seong-ja, who is a master of gayageum sanjo (a type of freestyle gayageum performance, played solo), Jeollabuk-do Intangible Cultural Property No. 40. She’s the eldest daughter of the late Seong Geum-yeon, who originated her own gayageum sanjo. My teacher thinks I’m lacking in practice and am therefore unprepared for the recital. Usually, during school vacation periods, I go to her house and practice there, but unfortunately, I can’t do so these days. The recital will be a small event at a little hanok (a traditional Korean-style home) or my teacher’s residence — because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s impossible to have a big event with a large audience. The recital is titled “The Seong Geum-yeon School Preservation Society: Third Apprentice Recital.” I’ll play long sanjo, a kind of performance that feels like a test for me. Actually, the recital will be an occasion for my teacher and students to assess my level of mastery.

Please explain long sanjo for our readers.

Short sanjo usually lasts 10 to 20 minutes, but long sanjo takes about an hour. If I were to compare sanjo to studying, I would say that performing short sanjo is like writing a master’s thesis and performing long sanjo is like doing a PhD dissertation. In the case of long sanjo, the research needed is so extensive that a whole day is required to do just one round of practice. Therefore, one needs long hours and perseverance to do long sanjo. Practicing sanjo is like trying to reach the highest mountain peak, and I think I still have a long, rugged way ahead.

How do audiences react to your performances?

Many people describe them as “good” or “marvelous” simply because I’m a foreigner playing the gayageum, but I know when I do well. Of course, there have been more than a few times when I thought I did well only to change my mind later; as my ears become better or open wider, my standard of performance quality changes, too.

You said that you’ll be performing at the “Third Apprentice Recital.” Would you elaborate on the meaning of “apprentice?” Are you an apprentice?

The term “apprentice” here refers to both finishers and apprentices. Finishers are those who have trained long under a master and sometimes have to take a test in front of first-year students. Apprentices need to take a state-administered test to earn their title. I’m a finisher of gayageum sanjo, as foreigners can’t become apprentices under pertinent Korean regulations on intangible cultural property transmission. I think I’m the first foreigner to have become a finisher. There are other foreigners who perform gugak (traditional Korean music), but as far as I know, none of them belong to the circle of cultural property transmission. There are also a few Koreans abroad who perform gugak, but they’re regarded as Korean and seldom thought of as foreign performers. But I’m seen as a foreigner. (Laughs.) Overseas Koreans have to put in considerable effort, just as I have, since they don’t usually experience gugak from early childhood. Perhaps they have a tougher time learning and performing gugak than I do since Koreans expect much more from them.

It seems that you, as a finisher, have reached a certain level of mastery. Would you agree?

As I said earlier, it takes a long time to distinguish the sound of the gayageum. Naturally, it’s then an even longer and more difficult process to produce the correct sound. I’ve been playing the gayageum for three decades, but I’m still not confident in my performance. While practicing, I occasionally feel that I’m doing well, but once I play for my teacher, she says that it’s all wrong. Then I go back and figure out where I’ve made errors. Often, I become excited and emotional while playing, but my sound isn’t the sound my teacher wants. Each time, it’s like reaching the peak of a mountain, but upon the way down, realizing that I wasn’t on the summit I had wanted to reach. This happens again and again. However, I’ve realized that I should quit going back down and just keep on climbing. (Laughs.) Only when you stand on the summit of a mountain can you command other peaks.

I understand that you recently took part in the production of a meaningful album.

Last November, I performed in a concert at Incheon Art Platform as part of the production of a collaborative album. The project combined visual art and music, using waves of water as a motif. Artist Song Chang Ae created a multisensory stage on which I; gayageum player Park Suna, a Korean musician living in Japan; and guitarist Park Seok-ju performed a piece called Water Odyssey without a score. What we played wasn’t sanjo or any traditional music, nor was it a piece of contemporary music. I can’t call it anything but “improvisational music.” It lasted for about an hour, which was truly amazing; I didn’t know I could improvise for over an hour. The concert took place upon the suggestion of music director and bassist Kim Sungbae. During the concert, I was able to confirm how quickly I could immerse myself in an impromptu performance. It was a very significant challenge for me, and proof that I could successfully collaborate with other performers.

Last but not least, what are your future plans?

I hope to play sanjo better, and byeongchang (singing while playing the gayageum), too. I’m currently concentrating on sanjo so as to produce an album within this year. In the meantime, I would like to take this interview as an opportunity to express gratitude to my teacher, Ji Seong-ja. I also want to give thanks to designer Jeong Seo-mi from Dan Korean Costume and Cho Jun-seok from Nangye Gugak Instruments, whose artistry is Chungcheongbuk-do Intangible Cultural Property No. 19. They have gone to enormous trouble for my performances. Thank you so much.

△ Jo Se-rin (Jocelyn Clark)

  • - Born in 1970 in Washington, D.C., USA
  • - Learned to play the Japanese koto (Tadao Sawai School), 1988
  • - Learned to play the Chinese guzheng at Nanjing University of Arts in China, 1990
  • - Graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in East Asian studies, 1992
  • - Learned to play the gayageum at the National Gugak Center of Korea, 1992–1995
  • - Earned a master’s degree in East Asian regional studies, Harvard University, 1994
  • - Earned a PhD in East Asian languages and civilizations, Harvard University, 2005
  • - Currently learning gugak from Ji Seong-ja (Seong Geum-yeon School sanjo); Kang Eun-kyeong (gayageum byeongchang, etc.); Hwang Byungki (contemporary music); Kang Jeong-suk (gayageum byeongchang, etc.); Ji Aeri (Seong Geum-yeon School sanjo, etc.); and Yi Ji-Young (court music, etc.).
  • - Current member of the Daejeon Metropolitan City Foreign Resident Support Advisory Committee
  • - Current director of the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium (ACAC) and leader of the band IIIZ (formed 2001)
  • - Currently a professor at Pai Chai University


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