Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Tuesday 27 March 2012. Just how popular is Yun Isang’s music? At best, it’s an acquired taste, and one which I have yet to acquire, though I do know people who say they like it.
In conversation with Alexander Liebreich, artistic director of the Tongyeong International Music Festival since 2011 and chief conductor of the Munich Chamber Orchestra since 2006, I discovered that Yun Isang’s music was performed more frequently in Germany than it is in Korea. In part this is not surprising – Germany has a huge publicly funded musical infrastructure, and indeed Maestro Liebreich told me that over 30% of all paid musician posts in the world are in Germany. So if an obscure work is going to be performed, the likelihood is that it is going to be performed in Germany. In addition, Yun made his home in Germany from 1957, a place well known for its experimentation with avant-garde music. Yun went to the Darmstadt International Summer School in 1958, the very occasion when Nam June Paik met John Cage, which set Paik on a new musical path before he settled down to the video work for which he later became known; and it was in Darmstadt a year later that Yun unveiled his Musik für Sieben Instrumente, his first major work along with Fünf Klavierstücke composed in Europe). And in South Korea, his works were banned until as recently as 1982, reflecting his supposed communist / pro-DPRK sympathies.
I like to speculate how Yun’s music would have turned out if he had been able to afford lessons with Olivier Messiaen, his preferred teacher. Messiaen’s work is moderately to highly listenable to, and is known for, among other things, incorporating exotic elements such as Hindu rhythms, Japanese music and tuned percussion from Bali and Java (for example, his Turangalila symphony from 1946-8 includes gamelan percussion). Yun himself later became known for combining Eastern and Western sounds in his music (for example in Reak, said to be based on court ceremonial music, or in garak for flute, which mimics the some of the pitch variations found in traditional daegeum music).
But instead of studying with Messiaen, Yun ended up studying composition and 12-tone technique with Boris Blacher and Josef Rufer in Berlin. He later moved on from 12-tone music, developing his own “hauptton” techniques, which suggests that he was his own man, but maybe if he had studied with Messiaen he would have found his own path earlier, and that path would have been slightly different. But Yun’s statements about his music suggest, ultimately, that the question of who might have been the more suitable teacher is irrelevant:
My music isn’t my own. My music is formed by an immense, but invisible, strength in the universe. The universe is flowing with music, and all I do is detect this with my sensitive ears and present it. Asian artists never reveal their names to claim their ownership of a work, and this is based on a philosophy that art is not a possession of humans.
At the Tongyeong International Music Festival this year the concerts I attended were determined by the programme: I went for the ones with some Yun Isang to see if I could get to like any of his compositions. Unfortunately none of the compositions were from the output which combined Korean styles with Western, but they nevertheless provided an interesting cross-section.
Kim Sunwook is to be commended for making the 12-tone Fünf Klavierstücke almost sound like music (in his solo recital on 26 March), but even his artistry was unable to make the collection enjoyable. But the pieces at least had the merit of being short. The Capella St Petersburg on the other hand (27 March) were visibly petrified of their bit of Yun, Ein Schmetterlingstraum, composed during his time in Seodaemun prison. The title of the work, meaning Butterfly’s Dream, was designed to suggest that “political cover-ups and fabrications are, in some sense, similar to [the] empty dreams of a butterfly, without any purpose”1, presumably a reference to the trumped-up charges brought against him and many others by the KCIA as part of the 1967 East Berlin Spy Incident. Given the context of the work’s composition, it is perhaps no surprise that it should sound, in turns, timid and tortured. But it may also be that the choir didn’t know the notes, and the conductor too looked wholly uncomfortable with the piece. Frequent false entries from the soprano line stood out, and it was by no means certain that the piece sounded the way it should have. But it was one of those works where no-one but the composer would be able to tell whether the notes were right or not.
The surprise of my time in Tongyeong was Yun’s highly enjoyable first string quartet, played by the Keller Quartet at a late-night concert on 27 March. This composition won Yun the Seoul Culture Award in 1955, and was composed before he went to Europe to study. It showed the influence of the western composers he had been studying in Seoul as a teenager: Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith. Full of interesting sounds, and with a more than usually prominent cello part, reflecting that fact that it was Yun’s own instrument. On reading the programme notes after the concert, I discovered that Yun later disowned this work as being not representative of his later style. Shame. If this early talent had been properly nurtured and directed by Messiaen, maybe his work would be more popular in Korea (and indeed elsewhere) today. But Yun thought differently. According to the programme notes: “Yun said that he had not cultivated sufficient understanding of harmonies before his years in Europe. He complained that this work clearly revealed that problem.”
Other works I could have caught earlier in the festival were a solo violin piece composed for his grand-daughter, Li-Na im Garten; and a 1992 orchestral work called Silla – Legende für Orchester. The former, a collection of five short pieces, sounds quite enjoyable judging by a recording of the fifth piece, Das Vögelchen, by Bae Wonhee, a Korean violinist based in London. But I suspect I might have struggled with Silla. Like my encounters with Korean traditional music, I find Yun’s music in general hard to engage with. But I shall continue to try.
Links and sources:
- CDs of Yun Isang’s music can be purchased from the International Isang Yun Society
- Sheet music can be bought from his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes
- Quote sourced from material in the Yun Isang Memorial Hall, Tongyeong, 27 March 2012. Interview with Alexander Liebreich was also 27 March 2012.
- Source: 2012 Tongyeong Festival programme notes.