Cello as a metaphor

Composers take personal bonds with their instruments. There aren’t many cellist/composers around over the history. What roles did cellists play over the history? The Classical era’s cellist/composer Luigi Boccherini retained courtly and galante style, but the creative activities by cellist/composers in the Romantic era; Duport brothers, David Popper, Alfredo Piatti, were mostly remained at Etude and encore writings. The Modern era was indebted to Mstislav Rostropovich’s friendship with the twentieth-century composers such as Segei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten. Indeed, not to forget about British contribution of the modern era would be correspondences between Steven Isserlis and John Tavener.

Little known in the UK until this date, the Korean-born German composer Isang Yun also was a cellist, who had significant personal bonds with his instrument, the cello. He used the cello as a metaphor of expressing his struggled emotions.

The use of cello as a metaphor could be related to how the range of cello (also have a look at my earlier posting that explains the Korean traditional instruments and their equivalent Western counterparts) is similar to masculine voice. Besides, it would be also related to cello’s accesibility to the Haupttöne which uses ornamental figures such as glissando, vibrato and pizzicato. He appeared to make compositional notes of his frustrated emotions through the cello during the crucial creative timescale. It is interesting to notice how his political emotions are evolved.

Table 1. Isang Yun’s metaphor


The Table 1 indicates how metaphors evolve in his creative period. Metaphors change from celebrating the South Korean Presidential visit in 1964, expressing the fearful memory of 1967-9  in 1970, and in 1975/6, to indicating his frustrations over his homeland’s (South Korea) continuous cold shoulder towards his hopes for a visit in 1992, despite the change in regime.

Isn’t it extremely interesting how cello as a metaphor indicate his politically active expressions were formed through external aspects? I find it would be stimulating to find out how his structural expressions were evolved in his pieces written for cello through cultural analysis. Indeed, it would be possible to discover the impact of Haupttöne in the development of the European avant-garde from this selection. Next posting will be on what kinds of  analytical and critical methods would be appropriate for investigating Isang Yun’s musical insights.

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playability matters 

Surely unique compositions should be a joy to explore to performers, but why are so many compositions in the modern era at the risky fate of being neglected? In times like this, renditions by musicians who encountered and/or collaborated with the composer are not only considered mere valuable but also are reflected as performance historiography.

Isang Yun’s case makes no exception. Several members of the Scharoun Ensemble in Berlin and the Isang Yun Ensemble in Pyongyang worked alongside the composer; they would have learned the unique musical language of composer directly.

Founded in 1983 by members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Scharoun Ensemble’s principal artistic focus is bridging the gap between tradition and the modern. Owing to a lively artistic exchange between the composer and members of the ensemble until his passing in 1995, spiritual qualities of his music are conveyed to executions by the group.

A state funded ensemble, the Isang Yun Ensemble of Pyongyang was established in 1990, whose repertoires range from Bach to Yun. The Orchestra received training under the supervision of the composer. As with most musicians from the communist bloc, despite somewhat lack of philosophical quality, their display of technical skills is sensational.
One of the complications in promoting Yun’s music relates to the playability such as demanding performers with the tremendous skill to invest in many hours of extra working. Performers of avant-garde music often require information about the executions of ‘how to’. Yun’s music is particularly complicated in terms of handling of ornaments arising from the Haupttöne, and simultaneously sounding interactions between players creating several acoustic layers. It is important how performers balance between articulating extreme and subtle expressions. The understanding of hierarchy in music is vital, such as identifying main and sub melody and articulating details between delicate and intense tone. One of the crucial interpretative aspects of Isang Yun’s music is structuring the sound while observing the neutral acoustic layer whether acoustic layers are of active or passive in nature.

Studying the renditions by the two groups could make a useful guideline towards Yun’s
musical insights.

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bridging an ideological gap

If the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals’ social participatory was through an act of boycott, the Korean-born German composer Isang Yun’s democratic movement was through an act of composition. For instance, Yun’s many compositions were written as cultural participation in portraying how democracy had battled against dictatorships in South Korea during the 1960-80s.

In the worldwide ARD’s broadcasts, Hinzpeter reported on how anti-governmental protest resulted in the massacre by military intervention in Kwangju in 1980. (Note that Jürgen Hinzpeter filmed the military massacre of 1980 as the only journalist). Watching Hinzpeter’s reports in his German exile must have provided a creative inspiration to the composer. Yun’s Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju was completed in the following year in 1981. While his composition about Kwangju massacre has met his intention of reporting civilians’ battle against dictatorships in South Korea, his intention about another composition didn’t go well.

His lifelong political objective has been reconciliation and peace in the Korean peninsula. His personal goal was that his entry to his native part, the liberal South of the peninsula could be permitted with the governmental apology over his troubles with the previous regime. His artistic ambition was his newly written piece to be invited for the World première to his native part, and his music could bridge an ideological gap between the two Koreas in the Cold War.

His cantata My Land, My People (1987) was written in lyrics by South Korean poets and democratic activists. His intention in writing this oratorio was to exercise soft power between the two Koreas, with the hope to cross borders. If the World première were held in the liberal South of the  peninsula, he could have achieved his personal goal and artistic ambition. However, times might  have been passed since his wrongful imprisonment, the political situation in the South Korea had  remained more and less the same. He had to take an artistic decision on the newly written oratorio for the World première in Pyongyang. The artistically rightful decision of the time was taken as his disadvantage at personal and political levels though. Rather than bringing soft power between the two Koreas as he originally intended, the World première has brought further Cold War cultural strains to his music. As a result, his cantata My Land, My People (1987) had been banned in South Korea for a long time.

His musical messages remain within us. With the new government is about to be founded upon in the South Korea, could his 1987 cantata act as bridging soft power between the two Koreas in the age of  Trump?

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Casals’ political historiography

What impact has the social participatory of musicians given to the society?

One of the crucial democratic movements in the early twentieth-century performance history is the cellist Pablo Casals’ refusal to play concerts in any country which recognised the Franco regime. By the time this announcement in 1945, the cellist went into exile settled in the French Catalan village of near the Spanish Catalan border. Rather than stopping at mere protesting, his democratic participatory continued raising funds for the support of Catalan refugees. Indeed, his purpose of protesting movement, which was the Catalan independence, has not met in his time. His boycott of playing at least captured the Worldwide attentions and had brought little frustration to Franco.

He, however, made an exception of boycotting to play, as he accepted the invitation of President John F Kennedy to play in the White House in 1961. Casals’ gesture of forgiving the U.S. for its support of the Franco regime could be understood as an indication of him singing harmony with President Kennedy’s views that “we must regard artistic achievement and action as an integral part of our free society.” By bending his rule of boycotting, Casals might have become the awardee of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, his political message became rather shaded.

The talk of Catalan independence referendum is continued at this date. We will shortly see what impact has the social participatory by Casals gave to the Catalan community.

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words about the Haupttöne

Isang Yun’s Haupttöne has a unique quality in the context of Western avant-garde techniques with the added flavour of Orientalism.

This posting considers how the composer himself explained about the Haupttöne in his words in the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1993.

Yun considered that a pitch gains its value when connected to other pitches in the European avant-garde. Having identified how the single pitch remains as secluded in the Western Art music, Yun added an energetic sentiment to the individual pitches by borrowing techniques from his native music. Yun’s Haupttöne derives from his intention of retaining a melodic line consisting individual tones through ornamentation in the Korean traditional music. Haupttöne in a format of a long sustained note is altered by glissando, vibrato, grace notes. Another characteristic of Yun’s Haupttöne is that whenever a new Haupttöne is introduced, the previous one always fades away. Therefore, each Haupttöne should be interpreted differently every time in the execution stage.

The Haupttöne also was based on Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy, which stresses the way of living in harmony with the Tao, that could be suggested as a way with the certain oriental-based etiquette. To Yun, the process of flowing and moving in the beginning to the end of the sound was viewed as within the bounds of Taoism. Ornamentations prior to the main tone, such as glissandi, vibrato, and light and shade expressed through the dynamic changes of tones are embodied of the dichotomies of the Yin-Yang in Taoism.

Is the sound of Haupttöne in Yun’s Glissee II pleasing you?


Sparrer, Walter-Wolfgang and Yun, Isang. (1994). (trans.) Jeong, Kyocheol and Yang, Injung My Way, My Ideal, My Music (Seoul: HICE Publisher,).



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Yun and the Cold War

This posting considers how Isang Yun’s music became at the receiving ends of the cultural tensions of the Cold War in the Korean Peninsula.

Whenever musical modernism is discussed in relation to politics, the Western tradition tends to consider its relation to the Marxism. However, in the case of Yun’s musical insights, most frequently debated ideology about his musical viewpoint is the Juche.

The atmosphere around the Juche Ideology on the liberal side of Korean Peninsula is more than mere frosty because it is the founding philosophy of competent authority, the communist in the North. Seriously though, there is nothing that the liberal side should be threatened over this so-called philosophy because the main problem of Juche ideology lies with its principles. That is, although its historical origin might have been evolved from the Marxism, it does not concern the revolutionary idea of the working class at all.

So why the Juche matters in the reception of Isang Yun’s music? His music was not written based on the Juche ideology, and therefore one could argue that the two are unrelated in a literal sense. Problems, however, occurred in the two angles; under the name of the National Security Law in South Korea on the one hand, and Yun’s willingness to retaining the Korean roots in his German exile on the other. On his deportation to the Germany, not only his music but also him as an individual became a topic of taboo in the South Korea at least until the late 1980s. On the contrary, Yun was the only classical composer that the founding leader of North Korea, Il-sung Kim apparently admired and provided enormous supports on musical activities in many ways.

Kim was the political leader in international affairs, so he would not have acted as a patron to the South Korean born classical musician without ulterior motive! Having had another meeting with the composer in Pyongyang on 11 October 1979, Kim acknowledged how Yun told him about the Juche ideology “suits the present age” and how he perceived Yun’s musical insights attempt to “democratise” South Korea. Indeed, these remarks would not have been received favourably by the South Korean authority.  

Kim’s acknowledgement consequently put Yun’s music at the receiving ends of the Cold War cultural tensions in the South Korea and that’s how his memorial projects were blacklisted even in the 21st century.

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Yun’s Instrumentation

Isang Yun’s Orientalism in instrumentation is quite unusual. Unlike Toru Takemitsu, who enjoyed composing his native instruments; i.e. Takemitsu’s Eclipse for Biwa (Japanese lute) and Shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) blends gorgeously with the Western orchestra, Isang Yun never composed music for Korean instruments. Instead, he composed for the Western Counterpart instruments to replace the sound of Korean traditional instruments.


Here is the sound of Ajang, which Yun considered as the equivalent to the cello amongst the Korean traditional instruments.

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