Hybridity and the Healing Power of the Korean Haegum (奚琴: 해금)
Dr. Jea Sophia Oh 오지아 - 吳智娥
Haegeum (奚琴) is a traditional string instrument in Korea that resembles a fiddle. It has a rodlike neck, a hollow wooden sound-box, and two silk strings, and is held vertically on the knee of the performer and played with a horsetail bow. I have seen the haegeum since I have watched a Korean drama, Dong Yi. When I listen to the sound of the haegeum, I was totally attracted by the silky sad sound. I replayed the same scene over and over. Dong-Yi was born from a poor family in a lowest cast in Choseon Dynasty. Her father died because he rebelled against Choseon aristocracy. She was an orphan. As one from the lowest class she became the Queen of Sookjong (1661-1720). Her son (Youngjo, 1694-1776) became one of the most powerful kings in Choseon Dynasty (1392-1910). When she experienced suffering she comforted herself by playing haegeum. The King was attracted by her play and fell in love with her. The sound of haegeum connected Dong-Yi and the King.
I decided to learn haegeum after I finished my Ph.D. The process was very difficult for me. I felt that my Ph.D. years were like a long dark tunnel from which I could never escape. It took a decade for me to finish my Ph.D.
Last winter, I visited a Korean restaurant in Manhattan. Luckily I had a chance to listen to the haegeum being played in the restaurant. Again, I was so attracted by the silky sad sound of haegeum. I asked the haegeum player, Lee-Kyung Kang, to teach me after her performance. Thankfully we have come to exchange lessons; she teaches me haegeum and I teach her English. We fulfill each other’s need and help each other. Through the time we feel like we both feed and nourish each other. Every time I play haegeum, I am more and more attracted by the beautiful sound. Haegeum is a very hybrid instrument in many ways.
First, the haegeum is a collection of universe because haegeum is made of eight materials: metal, stone, bamboo, ground, earth, leather and wood. In the language of Whitehead, we can call it a concrescence of the universe: a material event in which the many become one. Each haegum is one instrument, but there is a manyness in its oneness.
There is this sense of manyness even in the way we speak of it. The haegeum is sometimes called a “bisabijuk” (非絲非竹) instrument, meaning that it is neither a stringed instrument nor a wind instrument, or reversely a “sisasijuk” (是絲是竹) instrument, meaning that it is both a stringed instrument and a wind instrument. Therefore, through playing haegeum, a person experiences a micro and macrocosmic union with all these universal elements. In playing the haegum, we, too, become one with the materials, which have themselves become one from other materials. The universe is present in the haegum and in us.
Additionally, the haegeum is hybrid in that it makes sounds by rubbing the silk strings with the horse hair bow that is attached to the body of the instrument unlike violin. The bow is placed between the inner string (joonghyeon, 中絃) and the outer string (youhyeon, 遊絃), and sound is made by rubbing the string over the resonance body. I realized that it is like human existence in this world. Human existence is placed in the world and not separated, in between the suffering and happiness, playing sad songs and happy songs by rubbing and feeling the presence of edges and boundaries of the world. Haegeum practice is therapeutic for me to get over my suffering from my loss of my father recently. In between the two silk strings, I make all different sounds through which I have experienced that my suffering has hydridized with beautiful sounds and changed its color to salim (restoration and enlivening).
Finally, the haegum is hybrid in the feelings it evokes. It sounds sad at the same time hilarious and funny like black comedy and jazz. Unlike the violin, the haegeum does not have fixed points for tones, and if the left hand holds high it makes a lower tone, and if the hand holds low it makes a higher tone. Thus, the crucial point to tune the tone is actually “listening” (聽音, recognition of sound) the sound. In playing the haegum you must listen to the sound and be sensitive to it. It is impossible to make sound without listening simultaneously or almost precedently.
I used be bad at recognizing sounds. I couldn’t even tune my voice without accompanying instruments when I sing. Since I have started playing the haegeum, I have become more and more sensitive to sounds and tones. I have heard that without the sense of absolute pitch, one cannot play haegeum. Now, I can tune and play haegeum without a tuner through my complex five senses (touching and pressing the strings, listening to the sounds). My ears have been enlightened!!! When I play haegeum, I become one with the instrument and all the earthly elements of haegeum including the person who produced it. My teacher’s instructions get hybridized and sound through my play as well. Such an amazing experience of becoming the Other!
Indeed, “listening” is a very hybrid process of becoming the Other. Through the process of listening, one transcends him/herself to become the molecule’s level to empty (allow) a space for embracing the other immanently within her. Jay McDaniel considers God an act of hybridity, influenced by all that happens in the world, forever composed of those happenings in the creation of an ongoing as the Deep Listening. For McDaniel, “Deep listening is not an act of knowing about. Rather, it is an act of knowing with.” In the process of listening is the process of hybridization as McDaniel notes, “In genuine listening, the dichotomy between subject and object is eliminated, because at a certain level of the listener’s psyche, we become the other, the person listened to.”
Listen to the cry (suffering) of the world! Listen carefully to your inner voice of your heart, then, You can cure and take care of it like I practice haegeum: The healing strategy of my suffering.
Hear! That is also a sound of si-cheon-ju [侍天主, embracing hanul]. Marvelous, How wonderful the Way of hanul (天, the Divine) Penetrating everything' everything is the glory of the way of hanul, From the sun and the moon in the sky To the dust in the earth When human beings pray to mountains and rivers, They answer our prayers because There is no place where the Way of hanul is not indwelling.