A brief description of Ajaeng by Jocelyn Clark
In the year 1114, the Song Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗, r. 1100-1126) sent a gift of 167 musical instruments as a kind of bribe, or perhaps simply a carrot, to entice King Yejong (r. 1105-1122) of Goryeo to remain allied with the Northern Song and spurn the overtures of the “northern barbarians” who were at the time courting the Goryeo King. Among the instrumental gifts were the seven-stringed yazheng (雅箏, a bridged zither bowed with a rosined branch of forsythia) and the zhanggu (杖鼓, an hourglass-shaped drum with origins in India). Both are mentioned in the section of the History of Goryeo that describes dang-ak (唐樂), a traditional musical genre brought to the Korean peninsula from China during the period of the Northern Song Dynasty that today is performed in Korea in a “Korean” way.
The Northern Song eventually gave way to the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and the Buddhist Goryeo gave way to the neo-Confucian Joseon (1392-1897). While the yazheng, or “elegant zither,” would eventually become extinct in China, it thrived in Korea, where it became known as the ajaeng,. The drum zhanggu, or drum (gu) played with a bamboo stick, called a zhang, became the Korean janggu. King Sejong (r. 1418-1450), whose 600th birthday was recently celebrated in Seoul with a re-creation of the dialogue surrounding the creation of his new musical creations, used new music to buttress his power, marking Korean music as unique to Korea, disambiguated from its Chinese roots. Ajaeng thus became used for both hyang-ak (native Korean music) and the separate dang-ak (music of Tang China).
While originally the ajaeng had seven strings, over time it became increasingly necessary to “improve” the instrument. Today, the ajaeng is classified into two types. The first, the dae, or “great” (that is, large), ajaeng is used to play court music. These jeongak or “correct” (court) ajaeng, which come in 10-string and 12-string versions, can also be used to play creative (as opposed to traditional) compositions. The so (or small) ajaeng (about half the size of the larger ajaeng) include the 8-string sanjo ajaeng (with strings set closer together for virtuosic speed), which is used for playing sanjo, and the 10-string and 12-string so-ajaeng, which are used for playing newly composed pieces. With the small ajaeng, instead of a bow made of forsythia, a bow with the kind of horsehair strings used for the cello is used to accommodate the much softer and fast-tempo music. Given that the ajaeng is the only low-pitched string instrument among traditional Korean instruments, it represents an important component of Korean wind orchestras, as it emits a prolonged raspy sound. It is also thought to be one of the most emotive of the Korean instruments, next to the human voice.
To play the ajaeng, the player traditionally sat on the floor bowing the strings to the right of the bridges while the left hand varied pitch and vibrato by pressing the strings on the other side of the bridges. For contemporary music, a stand and chair is often used. Today we will hear a twelve string dae ajaeng and an eight string sanjo ajaeng.