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PRESERVING KOREAN MUSIC: Perspectives on Korean Music
Vol. 1: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity
Vol. 2: Creating Korean Music: Tradition, Innovation and the Discourse of Identity
Keith Howard
2006
176 and 230 pp, 2 CDs.
ASHGATE
ISBN 10 0 7546 5729-9
ISBN 10 0 7546 3892 8




This is an encyclopaedic panorama of Korean music: there's no equivalent in the English language. On these terms, it will be an indispensable standard reference for anyone without access to Korean language sources. It covers the entire range of Korean music that has been documented, from the post-colonial period to very recent times. It covers what has been retained of ancient Court ritual, and folk music, popular crossover and modern contemporary music. There's even a reference to the famous and exceedingly cute Little Angels children's dance and song troupe!

Nowhere else will a reader find so much detail. Extensive biographies, discographies and lists of performance are given. The bibliography, as far as I can tell, not being literate in Korean, is enormous. There are numerous musical examples, some in non-western notation, which is important because ethnographic material needs to be expressed in its own terms. Anyone wanting to investigate Korean music needs this as a handbook. It's excellent as a source material and reference work. There are two CDs, one with each volume, to give examples of the music being described.

The author, Keith Howard, lived in Korea for many years, speaks the language fluently, and has had personal access to many of the musicians and performers referred to. Thus the book itself is a valuable first-hand document of a fast changing situation. Howard teaches at SOAS, and students of Korean music will find this a valuable text-book, to which they will refer again and again. Nonetheless, these are volumes which pre-suppose an extensive background knowledge of Korean history and society. A decent grounding in Asian studies helps, but Korea is a unique society, quite distinct from China and Japan. These volumes document thoroughly, even exhaustively, but they leave the more esoteric questions about cultural identity unanswered. Perhaps that's a good thing in a text book, because readers should, after all, analyse and synthesise for themselves. There are other perspectives from which a non-specialist audience can approach Korean music. Among the many appendices are lists of Korean kings and so on, but it would have been useful to include a summary of modern Korean society for the more general reader. Korea is special, but many of the wider issues in world cultural history apply. Korean musicians perform all over the world. Even if what many of them play is mainstream western classical music, it is also relevant to appreciate what their formative influences were.

The first volume describes the Korean Intangible Cultural Properties Preservation System, where numerous art forms are minutely classified into groups and sub-groups, with individuals given titles of authority in their particular line. Creating a Korean identity was politically imperative after decades of colonialism, and occupation by foreign allies during the civil war. It's not something Howard explores, but it's important because it shaped the nation's self-image at a time when it was beset by many pressures. A comparison with the Japanese Living Treasures scheme might also be useful. Nonetheless, you won't find such detail elsewhere easily. This system was set up by the national government so that remaining practitioners of dying arts could be subsidised so their speciality would not be lost, due to modernising commercial pressure. It's a noble idea, and probably saved many minor arts like ornamental knotting and regional folklore from disappearing. On the other hand, culture is essentially an amorphous concept. As we know from efforts to preserve western folk music, the "folk" themselves don't do things exactly as their forbears would have done. Howard wisely refers to studies in "imagined tradition" and also, valuably, gives concrete examples. There are limits to what can, or should be preserved in perpetuity, given that creative endeavour can't be fossilised and forced into formula.

Howard provides excellent and detailed descriptions of specific styles of music and practitioners. The chapter "Preserving the Spirits" intricately traces the relationship between shamanism and folk music as ritual, relating it to the life of farmers in the remote Chindo area. There are places in the books where the methodology is unusual, such as questionnaires handed to concert goers, but here, Howard is superb. This chapter alone is worth reading because it so sensitively evokes the local community's relationship to its past, and relates their music to the world they live in.

Society changes, though, and music adapts. Howard's second volume deals with the way Korean music adapts to modernisation, urbanisation and international influences. The first chapter in the second volume is titled "Rhythm N' Seoul" and articulates how the ensemble SamulNori developed its style, and how it was received. Then there's a chapter on how many pop songs derive from older material, a concept not common in the west. More significant is the chapter about traditional forms being recreated - new music within the original context. This is a particularly fascinating area to explore since East Asian music was handed down by personal contact, rather than standardised or subject to formal notation. In China and Japan there are very early recordings to extrapolate, loosely and vaguely from. Howard then contributes a chapter on modern composers working within the western tradition, with a Korean background, such as Isang Yun. Yun's is internationally significant for he was so closely associated with western new music. Indeed, his high profile probably saved his life when he was arrested by the repressive South Korean regime. Howard's description of Yun's Korean roots and his return to Korean values is well-informed. Not many who know Yun's work know the Korean aspects quite so well. Howard is also good on the Korean aspects of the work of other composers with an international profile, such as Younghi Pagh-Paan. It's interesting that Korean composers seem to have a closer relationship with German music rather than French or Russian styles. Yun learned Lieder in school and studied with Boris Blacher, himself raised in Manchuria.

There's so much detail in this work that it sometimes reads like a list of names and numbers. It's important that such information is kept because it isn't easy to come by, but a more general reader might want to start with an immersion in East Asian cultural history and stand back after reading to let a wider perspective fall into place.

Anne Ozorio

 


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