Stories from Korea
By Thomas May
The rich fabric of Korea’s indigenous musical traditions is woven of many layers: from geographically diverse folk sources (both instrumental and sung), dance, and religious ritual to styles that evolved to entertain the court and ruling classes.
And with the cross-pollination from Western influences over the past century, a new chapter in the ongoing story of Korean music has been opened. Jong-In Kim, a tenor with the Master Chorale and an expert in Korean music, points out that “when Western missionaries started to arrive 130 or so years ago, Koreans became fascinated by the sound and texture of the church choir that they introduced.” In earlier Korean tradition, he observes, the emphasis on wide vibrato and a strong voice led to the saying that “in order to become a master in singing, one needs to see blood coming out from one’s throat.” Singers would even compete with the sound of live waterfalls as a path to mastery.
In contrast to centuries of Korean tradition, multipart choral singing must have initially sounded novel indeed. But it became assimilated to such an extent that Koreans today count among the most dynamic participants in the worldwide choral scene. Civic and church choirs exert a pervasive influence on Korean musical education and naturally play a role in the choices made by contemporary composers.
Seoul-based Hyowon Woo, for example, has drawn on her experience with Incheon City Chorale and other ensembles to develop an innovative blend of the traditional and experimental, as heard in Me-Na-Ri. Woo bases the piece on a variant of the beloved folk song “Arirang” (see sidebar) from Kangwon province, altering its shape and rhythm to reflect the differing guises in which this traditional melody can appear. At the same time, she adapts the modern technique of “spatial music” — which makes the placement of sound sources within a given acoustic space a key to the musical content — and alludes to the natural image of echoing mountains in her theatrical arrangement of three choirs. Accompanied by Korean percussion, the choirs are initially separated and seem to evoke ancient ritual as they sing in procession before eventually joining those onstage. Woo also calls for solo soprano and improvisatory passages from the choir.
The prolific Hyunchul Lee, who belongs to the same generation as Woo, may be the most frequently performed choral composer in Korea; currently he serves as composer in residence for World Vision Children’s Choir and Uijungbu City Choir. Dona Nobis Pacem sets the plea for peace that concludes the Agnus Dei from the Latin Mass by using authentic Korean elements. Along with characteristic performance practices such as wide vibrato and portamento, Lee draws on traditional melodic and rhythmic modes. Two of the latter come into play here: a slower mode in triple time and a faster one associated with uplifting music.
“Sometimes I have to come back to what I know well,” says Ben Jisoo Kim, a young composer and graduate student, of his arrangement of Hangangsu Taryeong. His graceful version of this famous ode to the Han River represents the still-unexhausted inspiration of Korean folk music. Heejo Kim, a native of Seoul, was a pioneer in arranging folk songs both for military band and for chorus and, explains Jong-In Kim, among the first choral composers in Korea to incorporate this traditional material and its associated singing styles into a Western sonority. Gyeongbokgung Taryeong, a story of creative affirmation in the face of oppression, tells of the reconstruction of the grandest of the Joseon Dynasty palaces, which had been built in 1394 but lay in ruins for almost three centuries after it was destroyed in 1592.
Nature itself is an inspiring force for such composers as Jungsun Park, who has said he finds his muse in “the mountain environment of my hometown of Kangwon-Do.” Most of Park’s work as a composer has focused on choral composition, as in the delightful play on a children’s song in Dal-A Dal-A Bal-Geun Dal-A. Jong-In Kim remarks that Park differs from contemporary Korean composers in his blend of nature-inspired sounds with sources from folksong and the tradition of court music.
The Korean landscape can also be sensed in Hojun Lee’s choral elaboration of his homeland’s most famous melody in Arirang Fantasie for eight-part chorus and piano. Lee, who studied in the United States and is based in the Los Angeles area, had great success with his debut opera in 2003 and writes for orchestras in addition to his choral works. His Fantasie unfolds in three sections, accompanied by widely spaced chords and hints of birdsong from the piano. The first, with its rich choral harmonies, quickens in pace and leads to a more animated contrasting section before combining motifs from both in the final part.
The “Arirang” Tradition
According to Jong-In Kim, the origin of this iconic song is obscure, and its oral transmission eventually resulted in some thirty or so variants that reflect unique geographical and regional colors. Alternate interpretations date the song to widely differing eras and equate the title itself with the beloved, with a place name in the mountains, with a workers’ song that inspired those who rebuilt the Gyeongbokgung Palace, and even with God. The Seoul-based version is the best known internationally.
Arirang’s poignant scenario of a lovesick girl hoping for her beloved to return, Kim observes, has come to epitomize the characteristic Korean spirit of Han — that untranslatable mixture of “sadness and sympathy” — forged through centuries of occupation and longing for justice.
Finding the Road Home
The story of Namsoo Kim’s exile and return as told in Mugunghwa: Rose of Sharon traces a pattern that is universally familiar. Yet Mark Grey’s remarkable new work not only gives voice to the Korean experience of displacement and reconnection but explores a boldly innovative formal design.
Within its far-ranging span of five scenes framed by a prologue and epilogue, Mugunghwa integrates aspects of a choral cantata, song cycle, violin concerto, and even theater piece. The hybrid that results, blending music and poetry, ritual and intimate confession, neatly mirrors the unifying symbolism that led the composer to choose Korea’s national flower as his title. The image of the mugunghwa, remarks Grey, “knows no political or social boundaries.” It also represents the renewing force of nature itself: despite all the suffering and loss the piece depicts, “this rose will still grow.”
Grey likewise made a point to construct a sound world for Mugunghwa that embraces multiple inspirations just as it touches on different genres. He immersed himself in scores and recordings of Korean music (and has also traveled to the peninsula) so as to get a better sense of its traditional framework and patterns. Yet Grey, who has addressed non-Western topics in several other compositions, typically avoids resorting to actual musical quotations from traditional sources.
Instead, he focuses on the sensibility expressed in the three sources from which he constructed the libretto (only the first source has been previously published): the shamanistic song rite that envelops Mugunghwa, Namsoo’s poetry and reflections over the years, and the letters sent by his sister from North Korea. While the first two are set in English translation, Grey opted to use the Korean original for the last since the sister has remained behind and represents “a kind of ancestral call from the homeland.” The variety of texts also juxtaposes Namsoo’s point of view during his exile against the loss felt by his family. Grey elaborates these emotions through Western art song and choral techniques, while his extraordinary instrumental palette ranges from chamber intimacy and quasi-orchestral fullness.
To the violin soloist he assigns an especially complex role which mediates between the different levels of the score. The instrument conjures the persona of the traditionally female shaman not only within the prologue and epilogue, explains Grey, but to “egg the narrative on” and link the real physical journey undertaken by Namsoo with a larger cosmology. The shaman, he adds, continually changes her demeanor, alternately teasing and bribing the gods.
Grey’s richly varied violin writing exploits the full spectrum of Jennifer Koh’s expressive artistry to reflect this changeable nature. Introspective lyricism mixes with a kind of acrobatic, frenzied joy that in turn takes on a terrifying aspect as the shaman performs her ritual dance. Grey also uses the violin’s ethereal song to blend with and comment on the choral textures. In this role, the instrument incarnates the spirit of Namsoo’s late father. Meanwhile, the unusual chamber ensemble grounds the occasional brightness of the double chorus and the solo violin’s crystalline brilliance with the darker sounds of the low woodwinds, which, with the piano, says Grey, provide “the harmonic and rhythmic pulse.” The four cellists “act like the four cardinal points in this cosmology” and add a hint of orchestral density.
The choral settings further amplify Mugunghwa’s widely ranging emotional spectrum with vibrant colors and dramatic immediacy. Grey refers to his method of “composite sounds,” whereby he superimposes one mode in the chorus over another in the ensemble. Together, their music takes on a scary, almost expressionist character in the prison setting (Scene 2), while the striking contrasts in the following scene, “A Pilgrim’s Path,” reflect the shadow cast by time over Namsoo’s contradictory experiences over fifty years.
The chromatic, stepwise tension of “Wild Rose” (Scene 4) forms the apex of the work, remarks the composer: “At times, each group of singers locks tightly together, and at other places their music flows like rivers running down a mountain that interconnect.” He evokes Namsoo’s dream (Scene 5) with an a cappella choral movement and rhythmic counterpoint. Mugunghwa’s longest section, the Epilogue, replicates the piece’s larger journey in miniature, much as Namsoo’s story itself reenacts the uprooting of millions. But here Grey bridges the void of regret and despair with a shimmering, ecstatic music to close the shaman’s ritual. Its undying vision of paradise, says Grey, reflects “Koreans’ strength and optimism, even in the hardest times.”
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.