when East meets West: Isang Yun & Toru Takemitsu

Since 1950s, adopting oriental musical elements has become as new landscape of the Western art music tradition. Isang Yun (1917-1995) and Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) can be suggested as pioneers of this new tradition of connecting oriental philosophy and the Western avant-garde techniques.

Stylistic wise, whilst attracted by the sound of resembling noise from Japanese traditional music “Sawari” and also by a meditative silence “Ma”, Takemitsu experimented with the way to contrast Japanese sound and Western orchestration. The constant moving tone of “Nonghyon” in Korean traditional music attracted Yun, which has become the basis of creating his own musical language Haupttöne. Yun’s hesitation towards Korean traditional music concept, however, was remained in the territory of Western avant-garde. Content wise, writing for his own requiem in hospital bound, Takemitsu could be considered as a Narcissistic kind, whereas Yun’s writing for Engel in Flammen in memory of the young people who committed flame suicides as an expression of protest against political oppression could be suggested as cultural participation of political insights.

As much as common grounds of the two composers, variances between the two are as stimulating to notice. Albeit orientalism is portrayed in the image of West (as Charles Wilson puts in 2004), Takemitsu received more scholarly attentions than Yun from the English spoken words. With his centenary coming up in September, isn’t this about the time for Yun to receive some scholarly attentions he deserves?  



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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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what a way to celebrating the centenary: Isang Yun

The reception of exiled composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995) has been varied geographically: The West evaluates his music for the adoption of oriental philosophy on avant-garde inventions, whilst paying attention to his political messages. His homeland South Korea was largely reluctant to host his music until his passing partly due to his friendship to the Kim dynasty in the North on one hand and because of mixed messages in politics on another.

When South Korea was run by regimes practising the sunshine policy to the North from 1998 to 2008, the local government of his birth town has begun establishing the memorial project of Isang Yun, which no interruption was made in running until recently. However, on the year celebrating his centenary, the cultural policy towards the Yun project is facing to vanish into thin air.

Whilst Royal Philharmonic Society promotes the centenary of Isang Yun by hosting a free concert with the two UK premières in March, his homeland gives him the cold shoulder again partly because of his musical activities in the North could be interpreted as political involvement. As a result, it is confirmed that due to the governmental funding cut, the future of annually held Isang Yun competition is unclear.

With the impeachment of the current President on her way shortly due to corruption allegation, the country is about to elect the new president, who will then form the government. It can be assumed that if the country elects someone, who is expected to resume the sunshine policy to the North, the funding to the Yun memorial project could blooms again. However, with current climate to cultural policy on classical music in general and musical tastes of possible presidential candidates in particular, it leaves us another doubtful situation.

Mind you, the structure of the competition itself is questionable about its aim in establishing. The main aim of Isang Yun competition is “to remember the music of Isang Yun (1917-1995), one of 20th century’s prominent composers, promotes cultural exchanges among nations through music, and supports talented young musicians from all over the world”. The competition has been held annually since 2003 in three categories; piano, violin and cello and each instrument gets its turn of competition in every three years.

Cello being his main instrument, Yun regarded the instrument close to his heart often expressing his emotions through progressive melody and dark timbre. Therefore, the inclusion of cello appears appropriate, but I couldn’t stop wondering the two other instruments were chosen for the competition partly down to their statuses as notably most popular instruments in classical music in the country. If the aim of competitions were to celebrate and remember Isang Yun, why on earth categories directly relate to Yun’s musical insights such as composition and/or musicology were excluded in the first place.

I am sure Isang Yun memorial project will resume in his birth town sooner or later. But it is hoped that when it does, the running committee ought to give some serious thoughts into what could be best way to celebrate his music as the long-lasting project.


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lack of classical music in the recent Choi-gate

So it seems South Korea’s first ever female President is about to go; hopefully by her accordance, if not by the law, impeachment. The corruption scandal was caused by her so-called ‘friend’, Choi. Infuriated millions of people gathered on the streets of Seoul to demand Madam President Park to resign every Saturday in the past few weeks in run. The news of corrupted politics in my home country is rather embarrassing to go in details but the role of classical music in this cultural issue would be worth mentioning, which is what this blog posting is about.

It is intriguing to notice that classical music was not hit badly by this incident, whilst the scale of corruption in the Choi-gate is enormous particularly in the most of major government run projects in sports, arts and culture. In other words, classical music has not received much governmental favors under the Park regime to begin with. Seeing as the most of government-related matters in sports, arts and culture was gone through on Choi’s approval, perhaps it is as simple as classical music wasn’t her cup of tea.

But It can also be speculated that the business side of classical music did not attract Choi, because she did not see a potential of money making or money laundering through classical music business. Or it might be that Choi’s associates weren’t allowed to be a member in the circle of old boys’ club in classical music business, which might have ruined chances (however corrupted ones it might be) to classical music to be blossom again in a long-run. Either ways, it shows how the business side of classical music is perceived in contemporary culture.

However participating demonstration protests voluntary and people-oriented might be, one of the lefty trade unions operates as the organising body of the recent protest. In order to instigate and to unite people strongly, organisers tend to invite talkers, entertainers and musicians to perform in the staging area during the protests. However, just like the Choi-gate, there haven’t been a place for classical musician in the performing area of the protests either. This case is rather disappointing, since it shows how classical music is perceived in contemporary culture for its role of instigating musical empathy.

Mind you, you never know contemporary classical composers somewhere might be in the process of writing a new piece inspired by the recent events. After all, Isang Yun’s Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju (1981) was written in the following year to the Kwangju Massacre (1980).  Indeed, Yun’s musical relationship with the two Koreas could be interpreted as somewhat beyond musical democracy, which would be for another day’s posting.

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perception and ecomusicology

Perhaps it is something to do with Britain being a multicultural society country. Around the time of the year when clocks go back and you feel that outside has never been this dark before, the UK’s skyline is busy getting lovely fireworks out and about. It usually begins with the Halloween, whilst the highlight of individual creativity in fireworks display would be the Guy Fowlkes, fireworks in the New Year’s Eve as well as the Hindu Diwali, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the Chinese New Year’s Eve sure hold special meanings for some. Charming it might be, fireworks display occur too often now and then between one multicultural festive nights and another.

Fireworks display symbolises celebrating special events and its visual image indeed is phenomenal and gorgeous, but how is its sound perceived? This brings us to the consideration of fireworks sound in terms of ecological perception and ecomusicology. Eric Clarke (2005) shows the ways in which listeners perceive musical meaning with reference to the “information processing” view of music perception as an extension of ecological theory into the cultural environment. Luke Windsor (2015) seems to write on a similar standpoint to Clarke in his new contribution, which I look forward to reading soon. As Aaron Allen (2014) puts it quite rightly as the critical study of music and environment, ecomusicology considers the interconnections between music, culture, and nature on one hand also investigates the intersection of nonhuman sound worlds and human sound worlds, or the overlap of the physical and cultural environments as mediated through sound.

Returning to the sound of fireworks, it is not easy to distinguish the sound of fireworks from the sound of a gunshot. It has been reported elsewhere that for victims suffering from trauma of gunshot incident, the sound of fireworks, a car backfiring or a balloon popping could be triggers. Report also suggests that people tend to complain about the disrespectfulness of fireworks in Remembrance Sunday, for instance.  But on the other hand, there are many examples of how the sound of fireworks inspired musical composition. Just name a few, Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, Haydn’s symphony No. 59 in A, the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Debussy’s Feux d’artifice, Holst’s masterpiece Mars from the Planets Suite and Knussen’s Flourish with fireworks and list goes on.

Albeit most empirical research in music is fascinating, what attracts me most would be research into music perception investigating the ways in which environmental sound such as fireworks (and/or winds) and music inspired by them evoke emotions and how the perception could be varied according to the musical background and preference of listening participants.

Ok, that’s my take on ecomusicology, so what fireworks music will you choose for your New Year’s Eve celebration?

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perception of music and arts

Both music and arts derive from the image of emotional voice of artist. The interaction between the two fields, music and arts perhaps would have been inevitable.

By the interaction between music and arts, this could be musician-painter collaboration kinds such as between Satie and Picasso’s Parade; of which Satie composed ballet music in 1916-7 and Picasso designed costumes and sets for the 1917 premiere, or Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910), which Chagall elaborated scenery and new costumes for the 1972 NY production. Another alternative could be a perception of one artwork, which inspired another artist to draw their expression into the same topic. For instance, painters implement an image of emotions that the music (and novel) express via painting on one hand, as shown in the well-known friendship between Kandinsky and Schoenberg; also in the case of Kreutzer Sonata: Beethoven composed the violin sonata in 1803, which Tolstoy used as the main basis of the novella (1889), that inspired the 1901 painting by Xavier Prinet. On the other hand, musicians reconfigure an image of the emotions that painting represents through music; by this, I am thinking of Klee’s Pastoral (Rhythm) in 1927, which inspired Birtwistle’s duets for storab in 2003. All in all, however starting points might be inspired by one another, each format indicates their independent voice of transcendental beauty.

Having said that wouldn’t it be fun to investigate the perception of emotions in arts and musical works in the above categories? It would certainly indicate the trends of music and art appreciations and the ways to improve arts and music education.

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offsite resources

so I have booked for Senate House Library for 3 months as a London Uni alumna. Unfortunately, available e-resources to alumna are rather limited in comparisons to students, but I guess that will do for now! Happy researching everybody!

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