2. Issues of identity- more on Korean music

(post continued from Issues of Identity)

Identifying myself as a Korean composer inevitably implies partial responsibility for determining the direction of Korean music.  This can be examined in various directions:

  1.  Preservation of old material – historical vs. modified instruments.
  2.  Korean instruments used for Western arrangements and vice versa.
  3.  Integrating into pop-culture and cross-over genre.
  4.  Isang Yun and Unsuk Chin – the classical contemporary European music scene.







excerpt from the draft of “This is not a string quartet”- String Quartet No. 3 (for string quartet) by Jee Soo Shin.  Click if you dare!

Preservation of old material – historical vs. modified instruments.

Following the dark period in Korean history in the first half of the the twentieth century- including Japanese annexation (1910 – 1945) and the Korean War (1950 – 1953)- emphasis was placed on restoring tradition, after significant economic development had been made and an interest in cultural identity had been revived in the 1980s.  The first step was to restore and reproduce performances of early Korean music.  Speaking purely musically, this could be seen as the equivalent of Early Music movement in Europe using period instruments.  The inevitable next step was to develop the instruments in a modern fashion- the equivalent of Europe in the past two centuries.  In the case of North Korea, this has been done drastically and period instruments have become a rarity.  In the South, only the most popular instruments, (gayagum being by far the favourite) are being modified to accompany various musical needs, by extension of the number of strings used.

Korean instruments used for Western arrangements and vice versa.

The huge influence of Westernisation in every aspect of Korean culture has affected the way in which Koreans perceive music.  This is not the act of listening in the traditional sense but a Westernised type of music that listeners are expecting, which is possibly also the case, in part, even with performers of Korean traditional music.  A significant portion of performers of Korean instruments strongly believe in pioneering the future of Korean music by performing arrangements of well-known Western compositions: the hugely popular performance of Pachelbel’s Canon for four Gayagums for instance.  This, being linked with familiarity and patriotism amongst the population, has been both well received and a commercial success.   In the slightly less commercial sense, contemporary ka-gok is serving a similar purpose and can also be seen as a movement in a similar direction, but the difference is that Western instruments and forms are being used for the composition of new works that integrate characteristics of Korean music.

Integrating into pop-culture.

Korean traditional music is unique within the East-Asian context in a number of ways.  These include its basic rhythmic structure and the variability in it during performance and improvisation.   The term jangdan serves a huge proportion in Korean music and this has been aware, also by the mass culture.  This is possibly by the explosive popularity of Samul Nori, a neo-traditional percussion quartet, which is also the trade name of a percussion quartet started by Kim Duk-Soo  in 1978.  The neo-traditional rhythmic ensemble incorporates a variety of material from Korean folk music and shamanic ritual.  This type of music also serves as a basis for many new works that are categorized as contemporary Korean music.  It provides a sound rhythmical structure containing some very fast rhythmical patterns that can seem similar to those in techno music in pop culture, hence making it easily accessible to the public.

Isang Yun and Unsuk Chin – the classical contemporary European music scene.

Some would argue that the geographical aspect of determining the nationality of a music is not applicable for Korean music because it is a diverse musical culture of Korea and Korean people living in many countries throughout the world.  Nonetheless, composers of Korean nationality or Korean ethnic origin who actively integrate themselves in the Western contemporary music scene- including those who demonstrate strong political and cultural patriotism and willingly identify themselves as Korean composers such as the late Isang Yun- are identified as composers of Western music.  Composers of the later generation including Unsuk Chin have less strong nationalistic self-identification, therefore giving less of a case of themselves being the future of “Korean Music”.

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  1. Pingback: [my past odyssey of aesthetic blahs] 1. issues of identity | jehenisus

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