1. issues of identity
From the start of my studies during my undergraduate years at Seoul National University, my main purpose was to find my true identity through music, and one that would also reflect my roots as a Korean composer. Looking from an other perspective, expressing this nationalism in music need not be done directly or even with conscious manipulation of musical factors but rather, if at all, in a subtle way: revealing my individuality through the compositional process. Still, during my undergraduate years, the pursuit of finding a new path for contemporary Korean music was a very serious and personal matter for me. It was not an easy path to pursue due to the nature of my musical surroundings at the time. There were some fundamental obstacles for organically integrating Korean music in my composition, due to the characteristics of the music schools in Korea. These could be divided into the four following categories:
1. The first great influence of European music in South Korea leads to lack of understanding the value of Korean traditional music.
In the late 19th century Western music, along with other cultural phenomena such as religion, was introduced to Korea and started to influence the general population. Amongst the very first musicians who studied outside of Korea were composers who wrote songs in the Western style. Some of the composers integrated the pentatonic scale into Korean traditional music into their compositions, which remains a common practice amongst many Korean “ka-gok”(Lied)1 composers. The term ka-gok originates from a genre of Korean aristocratic vocal chamber music in which a singer would sing a shi-jo(시조), a Korean traditional poem in an extremely melismatic manner. The accompanying instruments (in most cases around four different instruments) would not only accompany but also perform an introduction, interludes and a postlude. The same term is used for a completely different genre in the 1920s: contemporary Lieder for singers trained in the Italian bel-canto singing technique with Korean lyrics and piano accompaniments in the style of Schubert. There are a group of Korean composers mainly trained in European styles who write such music with the belief and conviction that this is one of the ways to continue and cherish their national identity. However, they only use the pitch system and rhythmical material (jang-dan) taken from Korean traditional music and employ it in a superficial manner.
2. Specialist schools for music.
Korean higher education in music is categorized in such a way that there are separate curricula for Korean music and Western music composition: it is not possible to study both. This results in having contemporary music schools that are not successfully integrated. Many composers who are trained in Western music have little experience of Korean traditional music of any kind, and many end up concluding that the bigger horizon lies only outside the country, in the form of contemporary classical music derived from the European tradition, either in Europe or the United States. As a result, young composers highly trained in European traditions only begin to question their national identity once they start living abroad to study, and are expected by others to offer something unique as a Korean composer.
3. Lack of training in European music amongst composers of ‘Korean music’
On the other hand, young composers whose studies began with Korean traditional music and who compose in a genre classified as ‘Korean contemporary music’ have little training in Western music theory. In a society where pop music is abundant, the influence of tonality and its function is not something that can be totally ignored, in which case composers need a comprehensive understanding of it in order to either accept, develop and integrate it or be totally deprogrammed from it. In order to deprogram oneself, it is essential to understand the program. Many young ‘Korean-music’ composers have not gone through this process and as a result are not aware of the banality of their usage of aspects of the European music tradition.2
4. The fundamental philosophical function of music (the difference in the understanding of music in Korean aesthetics)
The Aesthetics of music is fundamentally different in Korean culture. The function (or the absence of function) of music is defined in Korea through the history of aesthetics in Europe in the 19th century, when there was hardly any contact between the Chosun Dynasty of the Korean peninsula and central Europe.
East Asian musical culture is strongly integrated with literature and philosophy, so strongly and comprehensively that music is indistinguishable from other forms of culture. The major difference from Western aesthetics, historically, is that this has not changed in recent centuries. In South Korea, the term ‘music’ in the sense of the Western aesthetic view of the 19th century is something that was hastily imported in the 20th century, possibly without a thorough understanding.
continued on this post: 2. Issues of identity: More on Korean music