Seoul Searching Day Four

Yesterday’s visit to the DMZ was a red letter day – pun intended. There was obviously far more movement on the communist side of the border than is usual. In one of the many national English language papers I picked up (several of them have a circulation of 2 million) there’s a photo of the Chinese visitors with the North Korean guards and it is captioned “Eyeball to Eyeball.”

Today was a much less wild and wooly day. It was spent indoors listening to new electronic and then chamber music. It’s wonderful to hear so many world premieres in a day! Today’s activities at the International Festival of Women Composers was held at the women’s university. I’m not sure if students were pressured to come but there was a rush to get into the electronic music workshop. About 90% of composers in Korea are women, which is quite different from the situation in Japan I was told proudly. Unfortunately, some of the most exciting pieces at the electronic concert were by male composers although one used as its theme the female voice singing in Korean tones which were sampled and altered so that it went from sweet to harsh. Sweet is what many of the students are. They wear a kind of preppie self-imposed uniform. Little prim shoes with bows, Chanel-type jackets, hair tied back. I envy their group identity and yet want them to break out. There was a biographical lecture this morning about the Korean composer Younghi Pagh-Paan. She strongly believed that avant-garde art did not belong to the West and urged Asian women artists to be less self-humbling. I think that’s a really carefully chosen word. I wonder what the original Korean word is for self-humbling.

A concert of traditional instruments in new compositions yielded some surprises. One piece featured two marimbas with a Piri, a Korean flute. (Thomas Newman, look out, there could be competition in Hollywood!) The piece that the Korean students liked the best was by New Zealander Gillian Whitehead. She had two performers – one played flute and piccolo while the other, Richard Nunns, played many novelty instruments (including one that circled above his head making a threatening hum). He says it’s quite dangerous. It’s a rope with a valuable piece of jade which has to be mined from a rare mountain. In all he played about five maori instruments. Each has a complex tribal significance and there are several legends associated with each. The piece of jade story had something to do with passing through a vagina and winding up in a moth carcass. The western and the maori traditions come together in the piece through the act of singing but again there’s a tangle of ritualistic significance around that. There’s a lot of metaphysical subtext to a lot of these works. That seems to be less artsy and more commonsensical in this very spiritual country.

The concert ended with a Korean piece which featured a percussionist but unlike the New Zealand performer, there was less showmanship. There’s a sense of earnestness about the whole festival. Each day there are many formal introductions of academics and many bows. Today there was light relief. The dean of the university did some magic tricks in the dining room with students ineptly handling his props, which added to the fun. The faculty looked glum. This was obviously his party schtick and more than one professor took to texting on what a German composer, in German slang, calls the “handies.” Everyone has the tiniest phones with the loudest competing tunes but no one shouts into their phones. Somehow it’s a part of the musical landscape.

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