Hwaeom Spiritual Music Ritual 2017 – Residency

As part of this month’s Sampler exploring the theme of ‘music and musicians in a time of crisis’, composer Eloise Gynn reports from her recent residency at the Hwaeom Buddhist Temple in South Korea. As a composer interested in meditative practises in music, her account provides an interesting foil to our other blogposts, which address from more politically-tumultuous experiences. Her music, which she composes in response to beautiful landscapes, natural sounds or poetry, offers a moment of peace and calm for the listener. But given the geographical location of her residency at this moment in political history, and given her defiance in the face of fear, her words and music remind us of something more important: that peace is always possible.


Hwaeom means Happiness… in a much deeper sense than our language can express. It was at the Hwaeom Buddhist Temple – one of the biggest in South Korea, nestled in the Jirisan Mountains, that I recently experienced the most magical of international musical gatherings. Musicians from Cape Verde to Bulgaria, Lebanon, Morocco, Netherlands, UK, Japan, USA, and South Korea – encompassing styles from western classical, Korean traditional, jazz, to ambient electronic, came together for a residency that was a melting pot of different traditions, sounds and personalities. The energy of the place had a pervading tranquillity and contemplative air that allowed us the space to discover and hone our own sounds and to really listen to each other.

Different ways of working began to emerge: Boundaries were broken, classical musicians learnt to improvise, musicians who only played solo began to find their place in the ensemble, and to follow a conductor.

Our days (or at least for those who woke up early) began at 3.30am, with the monks beating the big drum, wooden fish and gong, followed by 33 peals of the gigantic bell (‘beomjong’), echoing down the valley. As a composer I immensely enjoyed hearing the chanting in the morning ritual accompanied by the accelerandi of the moktak (like a woodblock). I would stay and meditate for some time in the big temple after most of the monks left, to the sound of a single monk deep in prayer, and others across the way in quiet counterpoint as they sang their devotion in the other two temples. These morning moments were so rich for me, I received many insights and the mind cleared so that later in the day, my improvisations and musical creations were fresh and without self-judgement.

The rest of the days we spent together, sharing our music, our cultures, meditating, eating together, jamming, exploring the forest, discovering little hidden temples, taking tea with the monks. We participated in discussions on Buddhism and music led by Jennifer Dautermann, moved together in workshops guided by the fabulous Yanghee Lee, created music inspired by this movement, and by our experiences there. I spent time alone by the river acquainting myself with the cello that I’d hired out there (so difficult to travel with a cello!), and getting eaten by mosquitoes! One very special moment was our meeting with the head monk of the temple, a brilliant man – so humble, such smiling eyes, patiently imparting his wisdom while we were served tea and delicate sweets.

With the impeccable guidance of festival director Won Il, and conductors Ned McGowan and Erik Bosgraaf, we composed a piece ‘Self-Evidence’ for the main concert of the festival; an expressive vehicle for our own (very varied) musicalities, yet coming together as a beautiful whole. The piece included many solo moments showcasing the ensemble’s individual voices resulting in a fresh and unique blend of sounds.

I was honoured also to be invited to collaborate with New York based choreographer Yanghee Lee and Agaeng player Yoona Kim for the opening concert. Our piece ‘Pakyuk’ (Revolution) featured spoken word (Yanghee translated my text – a poem inspired by being at the temple – into Korean), instrumental and vocal improvisation inspired by the 33 peals of the beomjong, and the morning chanting of the monks. Half-way through we were joined by Mirian Kolev and Tengger, and to create even more challenge, both to listeners and players, Yoona and I switched instruments for an experimental accompaniment to Yanghee’s traditional Korean Dance.

The festival also included a string orchestra playing Pärt’s ‘Fratres’ and Barber’s ‘Adagio’, Korean traditional music and Jogye Buddhist ritual music with cymbals, drums and dance. Indeed, ritual was a theme running through the programme, set not only by the Festival’s title but also by the underlying atmosphere of the place and the daily practice of the monks (the chanting of the Heart Sutra) – all helping to bring musicians and audience alike into the presence of the now.

Should I have been worried by the political climate? Just before, and again during the residency, I heard that North Korea fired missiles over Japan. In spite of the misgivings of people I’d spoken to, and knowing one of the mentors had dropped out, I actually didn’t think twice about going. It turned out that none of the other international participants had expressed any doubts about going to South Korea at this time either. The Koreans didn’t seem to bat an eyelid about the political situation, I suppose they have to deal with this conflict all the time, though one uncomfortable conversation indicated a certain denial of the dangers. The turmoil however made it even more poignant to have been on this residency at this particular time.

I believe the down-to-earth joy and compassion of the monks living in this place, and the music that we created all together in harmony has the potential to build bridges. We even had the idea that we’d like to take this new inter-continental ‘orchestra’ to places of conflict, to promote peace and friendship, to show the world that so many different nationalities can co-create and exist peacefully together, rather like the East West Divan Orchestra or Silk Road Ensemble. I sincerely hope that this will manifest.


Eloise Gynn www.eloisegynn.com