Isang Yun project

Some of you would have noticed by now, I have been banging on and on about Isang Yun for a while. That’s right. I will be pursuing a doctoral research on Isang Yun’s musical expression as cultural diplomacy (subject to the College funding and/or the UK government PhD loan) at the University of Glasgow under the supervision of Prof. Bjorn Heile from the forthcoming September.
There are the two distinct aspects of Isang Yun’s musical expression; his Korean root and life in Berlin. With my familiarity on his Korean root and receptions in the Korean Peninsula and my supervisor’s expertise in music since 1900 especially with his Berlin background, I have a good feeling about this combination! Watch this space for more…

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Day 3 of #WACArtists

I am back from the third day of the conference on “Writing about Contemporary Artists” held at the University of Surrey. My purpose of attending was to catch-up with my new supervisor, Bjorn Heile. Heile gave an excellent keynote speech on ‘Between “the disease of admiration” and “hermeneutics of suspicion”: working on living composers and musicians and the problem of advocacy’.
He discussed the ways in which different biographers approached through history – Boswell, Schinder, Craft, Volkov. He then moved on presenting five case studies on Ligeti, Birtwisle, Ferneyhough, Saariaho, and Lachenmann of which he selected works by his colleagues, that were expected in the presence at that moment! This provided ways of involvement of the public in the keynote speech, which I thought a nice touch. The keynote concluded with the hermeneutics of suspicion provides a good contribution to the musicology in general and new music in particular.
Any musicologists working on music since 1900 would have been struggled to coming up with an ideal answer on the very relations between composer-performer-writer and how to tackle it. Thus, not only it suited his expertise brilliantly, but also it was a well-chosen topic for the conference; and yes, it provided insightful debate to the floor.
Although my stay was brief, I can feel how the conference organisers; Chris Wiley and Ian Pace were helpful throughout the conference to all the delegates. My thanks are also due to a business school professor who helped me to find the PATS studio in the morning, also to a student-helper who took photos of myself with my supervisor, also to another helper who called for a cab on my behalf.

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musical diplomacy

Diplomacy plays a crucial role in politics. History reveals that shaky grounds in diplomacy often lead to the failure of running politics. Contemporary political leaders don’t seem to learn from history. Despite all adds, it is most likely that Theresa May will go ahead with her Brexit plan not giving a second thought on holding the second referendum about the details of the divorce. Likewise, regardless of the outlook of direct damage if war were to outbreak, South Korean President Jae-In Moon will remain his role of the observer in the US-North Korea relations.
What roles music played in political diplomacy? Since the Brexit, many European musicians no longer feel home in Britain. The last thing that touring musicians need is travel restrictions, which consequently brought over the Oxfordhshire-based Baroque orchestra’s move to Belgium. This case indicates how political diplomacy affects music.
On the contrary, music also played a soft power in politics between the West (US and Germany) and North Korea. For instance, New York Philharmonic play the folksong in North Korea was a moment of truly cultural exchange, which played a great role of symphonic diplomacy on the one hand. South Korean born German composer Isang Yun also made a great contribution in bringing musical modernism to North Korea eventually lead to North Korea-based Isang Yun Ensemble’s Berlin tour in 1999, which consisted of five chamber works of Isang Yun, and was recorded by the German recording company. However, German conductor Alexander Liebreich, who has visited North Korea several times reports that on his last trip, he was surprised how much the situation has changed.
Just like Brexit wasn’t the answer to the UK economy and immigration, Donald Trump’s intimidating nuances on war definitely isn’t the answer to the North Korean nuclear crisis. In the recent G20 summit, Angela Merkel sent a mixed message to the world (perhaps with the intention of using soft power towards Donald Trump and Theresa May) by selecting the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with its choral “Ode to Joy” being the Eu Anthem. The soft power of music may take time to change the political climate. But when more political leaders considered its option, the world certainly would become the much liveable place to remain!

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cultural perception

The crucial aspect of the cultural context in music making is created through reception. Listeners play vital roles in establishing music reception; often as professional critics, major patrons, and public audiences including the general consumers. Music reception affects the subsequent production of music; especially regarding the choreography of opera set and the style of performance. One of the problems in Tavener reception is caused by the ways in which several composers are grouped and labelled as holy minimalists for the sake of convenience of music critics.
Cross-cultural perception begins from identifying the differences of perspectives on culture between West and East. Cultural environment influence perception and the process of observation and decision. For instance, the Western cultures such as Europeans signify for privacy and autonomy, whereas the Eastern cultures such as Chinese concern for interdependence and inclusion. Yun’s music bridging the two cultures means the study of its reception, therefore, ought to be approached with an understanding of both cultural perspectives.
Aside from the fact developing musical modernism into the fields of their partialities; Orthodoxy for Tavener, and orientalism for Yun, what could be considered as common grounds between the two composers? Both were criticised being loyalists; while Tavener’s royal connections and commercial gains through the Song for Athene are common knowledge, Yun’s music treated as ‘controversial’ because of prejudice towards him being loyal to the communist part in the north is a relatively lesser known fact outside the Korean Peninsula. Returning to how cultural situation affects perception, the point of how individuals raised and/or lived in diverse cultures to identify the world differently (Segall, Campbell, & Herskovits, 1966) is comprehensible to me. Although the nature of study in humanity is purely subjective, it appears that collecting evidence-based history and remaining objective perspectives on rather bizarre narratives around the composers as well as the relevant account of reception are crucial.

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still on lifting the veil

Some additional remarks on performance analysis: Cook (1999) defines musical performance involving negotiations between the demands of physical gesture and sound (‘playing’) and those of notation and its associated verbal traditions (‘writing’). Heile’s (2006) claim on opera being an ideal genre for performance analysis because of illustration of music as an embodied art involving human action appears in the same line of Cook’s view.
Musical expression in cello playing is created through the occurrence of compromise between bow speed (and length) and left-hand handling including vibrato. Expressive devices that can be detected through acoustic analysis of recorded music are dynamics, tempo, vibrato, glissamdo. Limitations between actual performances and acoustic text indicate the ways in which acoustic analysis as abstract as notated text. Acoustic analysis becomes indeed a useful tool for performance analysis, if or when interpretative inputs by researcher support it.
With Tavener’s musical insights are lurking around serialism, another welcoming point is Grant’s (2008) perspective on performers and listeners as active participants in the creation of serialist works. Unsure whether it would be more straight forward to analyse renditions by Yo-Yo Ma, (whose own views of The Protecting Veil is unknown) or Isserlis (how he views The Protecting Veil as a combination of spiritualism and romanticism, but certainly not a minimalism as references). Nonetheless, I am sure both would provide an equally stimulating scholarly journey!

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analysing performance as lifting the veil

One of the Sir John Tavener’s biographers Piers Dudgeon used the title of biography as lifting the veil, which means uncovering certain stuff previously secretive. Could performance analysis lift the veil of The Protecting Veil?

When the cultural analysis of performance is considered, there are several things to consider: firstly, whether cultural aspects could be quantifiable, secondly, whether issues in performance could be related to culture, and thirdly, whether a freely interpretative approach could be as effective as using statistics. So what happens in the case of The Protecting Veil?

Although the promotion by BBC on its commission for the 1989 Proms indeed would have helped to gain the public awareness of the piece, the work’s enormous popularity with the public is indicated by the sales figures of recordings including downloading rates. In other words, cultural aspects in the question are quantifiable, which fits in for the purpose.

A superb display of technical and interpretative details of the piece has attracted the cellists of contemporary to Steven Isserlis, including Yo-Yo Ma. The two performances played significant roles in cello performance history: if premiere was made a point of gaining popularity, Ma’s recording secured its position of establishing the ‘standard’ cello repertoires of the contemporary concert culture.
One of the significant issues in the performance of The Protecting Veil is the question of how it expresses holy minimalism or goes beyond the holy minimalism. While it is meaningless to discuss whether my preference goes to either cellists’ rendition, several interpretative details between Isserlis and Ma appear interesting from the opening of the piece.

Isserlis’ claim on how he perceives Tavener as a non-minimalist regardless to the spirituality, and The Protecting Veil as a deeply romantic work; is indicated in his fast tempo yet passionate phrasing. Judging from how his phrasings are static within expressive intensity, it can be presumed that Ma must have taken critics’ marketing points of naming Tavener as holy minimalists together with Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki much more seriously. The two contrasting yet spectacularly stimulating renditions suggest more interesting discoveries to come.

Statistics play a helpful role in guiding how different and similar performances are. However, not only a freely interpretative approach could be as effective as using statistics, especially referring to the score with analytical insights, but also sticking-up with statistics could be a dubious thing for a musicologist to act on, after all, particularly in the age of risky future(?) of p -value.

One might question the possibility of perceiving subjective terms of interpretations such as spiritual minimalism or intense romanticism through objective measurement. Indeed, digital measurement merely provides readings of tempo, timing fluctuation rate, peak dynamic within the selected excerpt, dynamic range and so on. It is down to researcher to decide how objective measurement could be interpreted subjectively. By providing interpretative meanings to digital readings, performance analysis plays a crucial role in revealing what is behind the interpretative insights of The Protecting Veil.

N.B. As you would have noticed by now, my views on statistics are pretty much open-minded, so let me know how scientific community decides on the p-value!

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Lifting the [protecting] veil

Cultural issues concerning musical modernism make the holy minimalism problematic yet motivating at the same time. This posting considers what are those challenging yet stimulating cultural issues in holy minimalism, and how cultural analysis could lift the [protecting] veil.

The two cultural concerns regarding holy minimalism somewhat intertwined to one another. Firstly, holy minimalism is criticised because of its tendency of neglecting the techniques and systems. Secondly, another nit-picking point is how spiritual minimalism retains commercial advantages though its connections to the ‘low’ popular music.
After all, a combination of tuneful melodies and jazzy rhythms over and over naturally appeals to ear. But was Tavener overlooking the sound of musical modernism? According to Isserlis, Tavener was not a minimalist; The Protecting Veil is a deeply romantic work, even if its proportions allow for many repetitions. The form is uncomplicated but satisfying; the whole work written in sections starting with each note of a descending F major scale.

Tavener not only experimented with modernist techniques serialism in his earlier work, The Whale, but also his dedication towards the Orthodox apparently instigated from the intellectual approach of following the Stravinskian footage. Even after converted to the Orthodoxy, his position towards the serialism and system remained unaffected (Keeble 1999). Having said that these points should be considered through analytical insights on the score rather than defending him using his own words!

Indeed, from the release of The Whale in 1970 on the Beatles’ Apple label, the nomination of The Protecting Veil for a Mercury in 1992, and the entrance of Song for Athene at that moment in 1997, Tavener obtained quite bits of commercial advantages. With how classical music struggle to obtaining a wider range of audiences for decades, reaching to the normally unattainable audiences in classical music world should be considered as a positive aspect.

One way of investigating cultural issue concerning the appeal of holy minimalism to the capitalism is through performance analysis. Hopefully, this idea could answer how performance analysis can be cultural. Performance analysis began from the very fact that no two renditions of a musical work can be identical. An empirical analysis of musical performance can indeed reveal stylistic characters of musical expressions, such as tempo, rubato, dynamics, vibrato, and more. Once the veil is lifted about the Isserlis’ 1989 rendition, other renditions could be considered in relation to di/similarity to the 1989 rendition. Correlation rates could be analysed on several elements of performance in relation to sales and download rates.

Could cultural analysis solve the intertwined two cultural concerns regarding holy minimalism? I hope so.




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