I’ve spoken of Latin American, European, and North American composers in some of my posts. I would now like to look at Korea’s most distinguished composer of the 20th century, Yun Isang (尹伊桑). Born in 1917 in a small village in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province he began the study of western music at around age 12 when he took violin lessons from a neighbour. He started writing his own music around this time. His father was not in favour of this and Yun ran away to Seoul to pursue his studies. His father would later relent on the condition that Yun also study business as well. Yun went to Osaka where he studied composition, theory, and cello. It was while in Japan that he came to face to face with discrimination against Koreans by the Japanese. He subsequently joined in resistance activities which landed him in prison briefly.
Following liberation, he took part in various musical activities in Seoul later winning a prize which enabled him to study in Germany. He studied with a number of different people including a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s, Josef Rufer. He was also influenced by the work of György Ligeti and Krzysztof Pendericki in their exploration of sound masses and accoustical properties. He sought to create music which drew on Western practices in addition to those of traditional Korean music. His music attracted attention at Darmstadt and the Donaueschingen Festival, the latter being a very famous contemporary music festival. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, John Cage, and Olivier Messiaen are among those who had works performed there. In 1964, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, Yun decided to make Germany his home.
Around that same time, Yun made the first of many trips to North Korea. This was strictly illegal at the time. In fact, it is still illegal for South Korean citizens to visit North Korea without prior governmental consent. Those who visited North Korea illegally during the Park Chung Hee years were suspected of treason and espionage. Park’s suspicions of North Korean espionage activities were well founded, given that his own wife would be assassinated by North Korean agents. Attempts on President Park’s life would also subsequently be made. Given the paranoia of the times, it was not the best decision for Yun to visit the North. In 1967, he and a number of South Korean intellectuals and artists living and working in France and Germany suspected of spying for North Korea would be abducted by agents of the KCIA, brought back to Korea, tortured, and subsequently imprisoned. Yun was sentenced to death. Many musicians including Igor Stravinsky and Herbert von Karajan protested this action and in 1969, Yun was released and exiled to Germany. He would never again visit South Korea, being barred from reentry. His widow, Suja Lee who was also banned, would not return to South Korea until 2007 where she was able to visit her late husband’s home village and participate in a festival in Seoul in honour of his 90th birthday.
He would, however, return to North Korea many times. In China and in the Soviet Union, avant-garde music was held in the greatest suspicion. For a while, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian would find themselves in serious hot water with the Soviet commissars of the time. It is strange, then, that North Korea welcomed and embraced his music. In 1990, Kim Il-sung gave Yun a house on the outskirts of Pyongyang and a Yun Isang Institute was founded there in his honor. Had Yun been a Soviet composer, he might well have found himself imprisoned. In North Korea, he was celebrated at the same time his works were banned in South Korea.
He remained in West Germany where he taught at the Hochschule der Künste for many years. In 1985, President Richard von Weizäcker conferred on him the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1995, the Goethe-Institut in Munich awarded him the Goethe Prize. At his death in 1995, the senate of the city of Berlin arranged for his remains to interred in a grave of honor.
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.
Tapis pour cordes is a fairly typical work of Yun’s later period after he had refined his techniques of Hauptton (or Hauptklangtechnik). It was composed in 1987 and may either be played by a string sextet, as in this performance or by string orchestra.