This review was completed by chance on International Women’s Day. It is not intended to stand in for all that means but I am pleased to present this woman’s work today.
Lee Go Woon is a composer new to this reviewer. My friend Joshua Cheek has been sending me occasional shipments of some really hard to find releases from the western edge of the Pacific Rim. There are some amazing gems being released from Korea, China, Japan, etc. that rarely find distribution in the United States and this is one of those discs.
One thing these discs (classical or popular) seem to have in common is a serious attention to art work and album design. It is enough to start people like me whining about the loss of the 12 x 12 format of the LP which brought about the genre of album art, something I can never stop lamenting I’m afraid.
Well, it’s not just pretty pictures though. This is a curious disc by young Korean woman who is familiar with traditional Korean classical music and apparently with other genres as well. Korean classical is less well known to the general public in America than its analogous counterparts in Japan, China, Thailand, India, etc. but it is a fascinating and ancient system of music with its own set of artfully designed instruments.
Cultural appropriation has become a strongly pejorative term these days but what happens if an artist is appropriating their own culture? What I mean is, for example, the incorporation of traditional Hindustani instruments and idioms in the hybrid pop of Bollywood music or similar such mashups with Chinese or Japanese traditional musics. These are creative options and, while not necessarily a cherished part of so called “high culture”, are nonetheless acceptable and marketable options. It is a hybridization or perhaps something like “self appropriative” or simply promoting?
The incorporation of traditional music is akin to the work done by composers like Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Aaron Copland, and that whole late 19th and early 20th century fascination with folk and traditional music spurred on by late romantic nationalisms. The present disc fits roughly in that tradition, just being done in the 21st century and it does not appear to be about nationalism either.
Lee Go Woon’s first piece is basically a song cycle written for voices (one male, one female) and an orchestra comprised of traditional Korean instruments. It is not the synthesis of east and west that one finds in Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps (1967). It is not really at all about the west at all. And it is therein that the real interest lies.
The composer studied piano as a child and later she studied traditional percussion instruments. She graduated from the Korea National University of Arts in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree and attained a Master’s Degree from the same school in 2016. She received a Gold Medal in the 31st Korean Traditional Music Competition the same year.
Korea has, perhaps more than many countries, had their traditional culture undermined by military occupations, bombings, forced relocations, etc. The fact that there have been 31 years of competitions attempting to recover some of their precious musical culture is certainly reason for hope and these first compositions by one of their finest new composers is a reason to listen.
Unfortunately the liner notes in that beautiful booklet are mostly in Korean and I haven’t been able to find someone to impose upon for a translation. But I can tell you that the album has 5 tracks and that the music is quite listenable. It would be helpful to know the text of the sung portions but the music speaks pretty well for itself. The recording is lucid and there is quite a bit of definition to bring out the subtleties of the instruments and the performances are wonderful.
Happily this music can be heard via MP3 downloads on Amazon as well as via various streaming services. Hopefully there will be more to hear as Korea moves on and recovers more of its rich culture and shares it with the world.