Blurred lines of holy minimalism

Holy minimalism might be the word that describes Tavener’s music most precisely, but his musical insights certainly is not “reducible to one-dimensional labels such as ‘holy minimalism’”. One might consider the lack of complexities in the minimalism by Tavener “felt like a letdown, a yawn after a coughing fit. It didn’t flatter the intellect.” Indeed, I see the point that minimalist music is not favourable to some: there is even a scientific evidence that woman at their most fertile is more attracted to men who compose complex music.

Minimalism is characterised with the belligerently loud line (rather than tuneful melody) and industrial machinery sound like regular beat over and over. With its tendency on largely decorative pattern-making, minimalism appeal to the eye rather than ear particularly in its early days. Unlike conventional minimalism, melodies; simple heirmologic, complex sticheraric, and a number of set model, with improvisational possibilities play a central role in Tavener’s holy minimalism together with somewhat Jazzy rhythms.

Tavener’s music, however, reached to people who usually do not listen to classical music. There must be something special about holy minimalism. What brings out this cultural issue? Has holy minimalism acted upon bridging a gap between avant-garde and popular culture, or what? This is the topic for another day’s blog posting.

Tavener’s works written throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s illustrate his responses to the sounds of musical modernism including Stravinskian serialism. Besides his stylistic insights into the Orthodox began from following the Stravinskian footage. This is an interesting point because Stravinsky never discussed issues of faith openly, yet his music inspired Tavener into holy minimalism in the 1970s. Tavener’s music, however, neither purely represent Orthodox, like most religious music nor merely concern noting but structure and technique, as musical modernism. Furthermore, it is notable how Tavener talks about his compositions; having already been converted to the Orthodoxy, he admitted that “serialism and system were still knocking about” (Keeble 1999) within his musical language.

Tavener’s music is claimed to be rooted in his psychology. Although his faith towards the Orthodox was sincere, his free spirit; a so-called artistic type of personality, made his music speak out.

Blurred lines of holy minimalism derive from avant-garde technique combined with his artistic personality with the flavour of Orthodox. Perhaps, the most suitable way to enjoy Tavener’s holy minimalism is to perceive it with an open mind, bearing in mind “art is an expression not of the individual, but of the transcendental” (Dudgeon 2003), as he claimed.

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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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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’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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more news about Isang Yun Centenary

Isang Yun Centenary might not be as bad, after all. The Isang Yun International Music Competition of which is known to have suffered a disadvantage due to the ‘cultural arts blacklist’, was selected for South Korean government sponsorship this year. It has been rumoured that Isang Yun memorial project was blacklisted, because of the composer’s anti-(South Korean)governmental activities in Europe and frequent visits to North Korea.

It is indeed true that the composer expressed his political insights through music. Having returned to Berlin from wrongful imprisonment of the East Berlin Spy incident in the late 1960s, his music showed politically active expressions throughout, but his intention was more of exercising soft power between the two Koreas, with the hope to cross borders.

Although there is no scholarly gathering or publication has been planned to celebrate the composer’s centenary, I guess setting him free of the so-called ‘cultural arts blacklists’ will make him less lonely for his 100th for the time being. Watch this space for more about his musical insights in relation to musical democracy and Cold War musicology, later on!

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