Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Isang Yun.

Thanks to The News from Wabu-eup, the blog previously responsible for my discovery of Ksitigarbha, I just made my first acquaintance with the music of Isang Yun, a South Korean composer of the last century who led a very interesting life:
Yun Isang (尹伊桑), more often known as Isang Yun, is South Korea’s most internationally celebrated composer. Born in 1917 in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, Yun initially studied composition in Japan. While there, he got into trouble with the Japanese authorities over his pro-Korean Independence activities and was imprisoned. He resumed his musical career and later moved to Germany where he resumed his studies.

He quickly made a name for himself among the European avant-garde. His works were performed at some of the most prestigious festivals. In the early 1960s, Yun made a trip to North Korea. This was definitely illegal for South Korean citizens. Eventually, the KCIA (now known as the National Intelligence Service) caught up with him and kidnapped him in Berlin. He was taken back to Seoul, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death. His death sentence was eventually commuted. Thanks to a great deal of outrage on the part of Germany and many prominent musicians, including the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, he was returned to Germany but permanently barred from visiting South Korea. He would never see South Korea again. His works were banned here. Yun Isang was not the only composer to run into trouble with the South Korean government. One of Korea’s greatest masters of traditional music, Hwang Byungki, found one of his works banned by the authorities, as they deemed it “too shocking”. Hwang writes both traditional-style music and very avant-garde compositions.

Meanwhile in North Korea, Yun became celebrated and well known. He was granted German citizenship and travelled between Germany and North Korea several times. A research institute into his life and work was subsequently set up by the North Korean government. His works have been performed there, something which is puzzling, as Communist countries really don’t care for avant garde music. . . .
Yun died in 1995 in Berlin, where the Internationale Isang Yun Gesellschaft was subsequently established in his memory. Yun has enjoyed a posthumous rehabilitation in his home country, where an annual performance competition and a musical composition prize bear his name. Even so, as The News from Wabu-eup notes, Yun's ties to Pyongyang still make him a controversial figure in South Korea.

The above video presents one of Yun's late works, Tapis pour cordes (1987), performed here by a group of Korean musicians. For some words on Yun's compositional style, here is an earlier report from The News from Wabu-eup:
Yun’s music uses the avant-garde technique he learned in the 1950s and 1960s in addition to those of traditional Korean music. If you listen to any traditional Korean music, you will notice that vibrato features heavily in the work. A given note begins with a grace note and once it is established, it is given vibrato and intensified finally ending with an ornament. Yun would adopt this technique in his own work calling this technique Hauptton. In Yun’s work, there is a main note in a given phrase surrounded by other grace notes and ornamental notes. As with traditional Korean music, microtones feature in his work as well. The main note gains intensity, is affected by vibrato or differing rhythms, or is affected by changes in dynamics.
All of this makes me eager to learn more about Isang Yun's life, with its odd political twists and turns and Cold War resonances, as well as about the apparent blend of European and Korean elements in his music. Once again, I find myself grateful to The News from Wabu-eup for a wonderfully unexpected broadening of my horizons. AMDG.


At 12/04/2011 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind comments! My name is Robert Badger and I run the News From Wabu-eup Blog, though I no longer in Wabu-eup. I actually live not far from where Isang Yun used to live. I love his music. Because I have familiarity with traditional Korean music, Yun's music sounds very, very Korean.

At 12/04/2011 11:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind comments. My name is Robert Badger and I run the News From Wabu-eup blog. Yes, Yun's music is marvelous. I must say that I'm not always a fan of contemporary music. I love Schoenberg, but don't listen to it often. Anton Webern is actually my favorite of the Second Viennese School.

Yun Isang is controversial still. While Tongyeong takes a great deal of pride in its native son's accomplishments, Yun's music is probably more often performed in North Korea than here.

In the 1990s, back when things were improving between the two Koreas, some North Korean musicians recorded some of Yun's work on the German label Wergo. However, the Naxos recording, which I have and treasure, it possibly the best introduction to Yun at his mature best.

At 12/05/2011 8:18 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comments - I will definitely seek out the Naxos recording. Thanks also for your blog, which I very much hope you'll continue.


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