Tracing South Korea’s earliest recorded music
Collector of vintage sound recordings says the history starts in the early 1890s
By Cheryl Magnant
When was the first recording of Korean music made? Suk Ji-hoon, who recently earned his master’s degree in Korean Modern History from Yonsei University, has the answer.
He traces the early history of recording music here to Western scholars in the early 1890s, when Edison’s phonograph came to Korea. Its patrons included King Gojong, Horace Allen and William Noble, to name a few.
Yet Suk defines 1906 as pivotal. With the North American and European music industries expanding around the world, the London-based Gramophone and Typewriter (G&T) company began a “recording expedition” to Korea. “Intermediaries” who acted both as “talent scouts” and sales agents actively recruited for G&T. Their mission: record music and other types of performing arts for potential customers in the non-Western world. Their outcome: 101 sides of Korean recordings, eventually produced by U.S. affiliate Victor Talking Machine Co. and more widely consumed in the West.
This time when West meets East provides rich resources for studying the earliest attainable forms of Korean pre-modern music. Socioeconomic revelations of the era come out in these recordings, as well as depict the perception differences between the Western company and Korean public.
Suk is an avid collector of vintage sound recordings. With his own phonograph and gramophone, he can demonstrate how early recordings were made. His gramophone, a gift from a friend in Virginia, once belonged to a mathematician who worked for Einstein in the 1940s. His phonograph, he sleuthed off of eBay. Both these machines are different, and these differences affected the history of recordings in both the West and Korea.
As well as the players, Suk also has recordings, both on original media as well as digital sound clips. His collection includes a few 1896 anthropological recordings, the earliest surviving recordings of Korean language in existence. He also has some of the 1906 Victor Korean gramophone recordings, including the first-ever recordings of pansori as well as other Korean pre-modern instrumental ensembles. Much of this pre-modern music has either disappeared or changed drastically with sociocultural development. Many anomalies on these clips have altered his understanding of the Joseon era music.
Next Tuesday, Suk will give a lecture for the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch on the history of early Korean music recordings, bringing along his equipment so he can demonstrate early recording and playback technology.