Preservation Through Improvisation: The Korean Haegeum
Soo Yeon Lyuh
Soo Yeon Lyuh is a master of the haegeum, a traditional Korean bowed string instrument. She is known for her flawless technique and full command of the haegeum’s traditional repertoire. At the same time, she is widely recognized for promoting the creation of new pieces for the instrument. For twelve years, Lyuh was a member of South Korea’s National Gugak Center, the foremost institution for the preservation of Korean traditional music. At that institution, she was known for her pioneering efforts to reinvent improvisational methods that, while integral to historic Korean traditions, had been lost to generations of performers.
Since then, Lyuh has endeavored to weave authentic styles into new musical domains. In the process, she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has drawn inspiration from its dynamic improvised music scene. Her contributions have sparked the creation of a new haegeum repertoire. She has premiered dozens of new works from numerous American composers, including Larry Polansky, Cindy Cox, Karlton Hester, Thomas Osborne, and Donald Womack. She recently made her own debut as a composer with the Kronos Quartet. Lyuh’s “Yessori” for string quartet and haegeum is available on Kronos’ website. Lyuh premiered the piece live with Kronos at WNYC’s Greene Space in New York in March of 2017.
There is no question that she [is] a phenomenal instrumentalist. The sounds she is able to create on the haegeum are wholly unique and open up a vast new realm of sonic possibilities to Western ears. Moreover, the breadth of her knowledge of Korean traditional music is an incredible resource for musicians and scholars alike.
–David Harrington, Kronos Quartet violinist
Lyuh earned her Ph.D. in Korean Traditional Music from Seoul National University. Currently a scholar-in-residence at Mills College, she has also served as a visiting scholar at the University of Hawai’i and at UC Berkeley.
Lyuh’s early musical studies were in Western classical music, in which she underwent rigorous training and achieved considerable success at a young age. After quitting music in her mid-teens, she took up the haegeum as a hobby. She had no idea that it would become the pursuit that would define her future.
“I think that it will be impossible to conquer the haegeum in my lifetime,” says Lyuh. “That is because it becomes harder the more I play it. The instrument continues to reveal itself. It is full of untapped possibilities.”
The haegeum is a traditional Korean instrument known for its pathos and vocality. It offers a colorful tonal palette and broad expressive range. Dating from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), the instrument is a small, two-stringed fiddle with a slender, rodlike neck and small sound box. The bow hair permanently passes between its two strings, which are tuned a perfect fifth apart.
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