As we descended the dark stairwell, the hum of a thousand angry bees rose to greet us, setting my teeth on edge. We opened the door at the bottom of the stairs, squinting in the blinding light as an ear-splitting squeal blasted in our faces.
Upon our entrance, the small circle of adults squatting on the floor paused momentarily and nodded to the curious strangers before resuming the cacophonous din. The ringleader stood and motioned for us to pass through to a separate room lined floor-to-ceiling with hourglass-shaped drums.
After a cup of green tea was thrust into my hands, my companion acted as my translator, explaining the terms and agreements of my bondage.
It had been my idea, after all. Somehow, I had been possessed with the crazy intent to take traditional music lessons during my time in Korea. I knew next to nothing about the musical style or the instruments themselves, but I had a dreamy picture of learning to play sweet pastoral melodies from a foreign land.
Music has always been safe place for me. From singing in church to playing clarinet in band to tickling the ivories, music was a way to express and refresh myself; I even considered majoring in musical therapy so I could help others benefit from its restorative powers. I had an open mind to just about any musical genre, from pop to rock to new age.
But this, my brain insisted, was not music.
My companion had gone to great lengths to find this traditional music academy, however, and although I wracked my brain for a reason to renege on the agreement, I was in too far now. I plastered a smile on my face as I observed the rest of the music class, trying to cock my ears away from the sound so they would not be left ringing. I made a mental note to stock my bag with some Advil.
The next week, I again descended that darkened staircase, this time alone.
Upon my entrance, the music teacher rose and ushered me to the adjoining room. This time, he handed me a hard leather case with a set of three slender bamboo cylinders. This was one consolation: I realized that I had not signed on to play the taepyeongso, the black conical instrument that produced the siren-like, high-pitched tones that had assaulted my ears the week before. Instead, I was to learn piri, the traditional equivalent of the oboe, which produced a loud but comparatively mellow drone.
Playing clarinet had helped me develop the appropriate air support to blow this new wind instrument, but the commonalities stopped there. Everything else was opposite. My mouth should be flattened with lips turned out, rather than cupped inward and pursed like a drawstring bag as suited for playing clarinet. The teacher gave me an assignment of long tones and left me in the side room to practice. It was not long before the muscles in my cheeks burned and my back ached from sitting cross-legged on the floor.
I closed my eyes, focusing on pushing strong thrusts of air through the slender piece of wood until my feeble squawks became clear notes. Trance-like, the warm sound wrapped around me, and Fantasia-like visions danced behind my eyelids.
I was captivated. I wanted to master this strange creature of an instrument.
I threw the full force of my musical training into racing up the learning curve. After demonstrating my basic proficiency before the teacher the following week, I was presented with a slim book of sheet music for the fall performance at the local culture and arts center, an unspoken gesture of admission to the ensemble.
It marked my initiation into a new world. Each week, the door of the music studio was a portal to a variety of unexpected scenes: a small child skipping and rapping on a tambourine, an adult happily clashing a cymbal, a masked dancer shuffling to a drumbeat. It is a realm that few other foreigners are privileged enough to see.
The music teacher spoke only a few words of English, the most common being a firm NO when he was displeased with my sound or posture. Since much of his detailed instruction in Korean was lost upon my ears, I depended on watching his finger movements closely to achieve perfection. I took secret pride when my progress won his gruff praise.
As the spring concert approached, my classmates and I doubled our efforts, dedicating ourselves to practice twice a week for up to three or four hours. United by our common struggle to match the deft musical nuances demonstrated by our musical commander, we passed rolls of kimbap around the circle to sustain us in our mission. Once dismissed from duty, I stumbled homeward with my instrument tucked securely under my arm, guided only by the fuzzy glow of the street lamps. Despite my mental and physical exhaustion, I buzzed with a gratifying feeling that nothing other than the intensity of music can produce.
A foreign language sounds like a discordant racket to the untrained ear, until the words separate and take on meaning. So it is with traditional music to the unfamiliar. Now I not only know the arirang, the unofficial anthem of Korea, but I can also recognize different regional adaptations. My fingers are learning to form the sanjo, the major folk solo written for the piri, which spirals from a slow melody into faster and faster variations to the accompaniment of a lone drum. These songs, which once sounded like garbled noise, are now stories without words, recollections of history and culture pumping straight from the heart of Korea.
Do not let that simple piece of wood, no more than a foot in length, fool you. It can produce breath-taking vibratos and tremolos, mordants and pitch bends. Its nasal tone is the sound of a human voice, a voice wailing, musing through memories, crying out with the raw emotion of grief and triumph. It is speaking a language. It is music to my ears.