South Korean Theatre in Heidelberg #StueMa18

What is the Heidelberger Stückemarkt? Literally, the term means “drama market”, but actually it is a ten-day theatre festival with performances, readings, concerts, and contests, held in Heidelberg since 1984. Then again, it is sort of a marketplace for the latest theatre works from Germany and from a different guest country every year. As you might have guessed: In 2018, the guests come from South Korea.

This is so exciting! Apart from guest performances of Korean music (mostly traditional, e.g. last year’s pansori performance in Berlin), it is rare to see contemporary theatre from Korea in Germany or in Europe, for that matter. While there have been some occasions in recent years, particularly at festivals like those in Avignon or Edinburgh etc.), the productions that tend to be invited are mostly by well-established directors (some of whom have a history of abusing their power), and more often than not they are based on Shakespeare. Nothing against another Hamlet, a Tempest from the East, or an exotic Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, moreover, the few Korean plays in translation are often written by the same powerhouses who tend to stage Shakespeare abroad (or others who are dead). So it is very refreshing to see a surge of young contemporary playwrights being introduced abroad.

The Korean part of the Stückemarkt 2018 (#StueMa18) takes place from Friday (April 27) to Sunday (April 30) and consists of two sections:

First, invited guest performances. This year, these are Hyuntak Kim’s treadmill run Death of a Mans Sale (2011) after Arthur Miller (세일즈맨의 죽음, 연출: 김현탁), the self-reflective Before After (2015) by Ensemble Creative VaQi and director Kyungsung Lee, who were at Theaterformen Braunschweig in 2016 with The Conversations (“비포 애프터”, 크리에이티브 바키, 연출: 이경성), and – yes! – a Shakespeare-adaptation, but not the typical “intercultural” type, rather a colorful re-interpretation of Romeo and Juliet (2014) by Jungung Yang and his Yohangza Theatre Company (로미오와 줄리엣, 극단 여행자, 연출: 양정웅). Both Lee and Yang participated in a collaboration with Deutsches Theater (Walls – Iphigenia in Exile, 2016).

Second, the international author competition (internationaler Autorenwettbewerb), which features (partial) readings of relatively recent works by three authors, who then answer questions in a post-performance audience talk. In addition, an artwork by Hwang Kim (“Pizzas for the People”), a concert by hot neo-traditional crossover band SsingSsing (씽씽, Facebook), and a panel discussion (“Theaterlunch”) take place. The award ceremony on Sunday night, where a jury presents the winner of the international author’s prize (whom they select from the readings) concludes this weekend of theatre from Korea.


I got involved with the Stückemarkt last fall, when a scouting team visited Seoul. First, I translated excerpts of some short-listed pieces. Then, earlier this year (actually during the full winter break), I translated the three pieces selected for the international author competition.

They are as follows:

  • Der gelbe Umschlag (The Yellow Envelope, 노란봉투, 2014) by Yanggu Yi (이양구)
  • Chronik der Alibis (Chronicle of Alibis, 알리바이 연대기. 2014) by Jae-Yeop Kim (김재엽)
  • Das Gespür einer Ehefrau (The Sensibility of a Wife, 처의 감각, 2015) by Yeon-ok Koh (고연옥)

When I began my translations in January, I hadn’t seen any of these plays live, although I had heard about some of them.

The Yellow Envelope, poster: Theatre Lab Hyehwa-dong No. 1 (2014) 노란봉투, 포스터: 연극실험실 혜화동 1번지 2014

The Yellow Envelope, poster: Theatre Lab Hyehwa-dong No. 1 (2014)

In the meantime, I had the chance to see Yanggu Yi’s Yellow Envelope in a special performance at the National Assembly. The play is about a group of factory workers engaged in a fight that appears impossible to win, while news about the sinking of the “Sewol”-ferry slowly come in. The factory that the play is set in – or rather the office of the workers’ union –, is in Ansan, an industrial area in the outskirts of Seoul, home of most of the high school students who died in the (possibly preventable) ferry disaster. While the play is about workers’ rights and the various forms of their suppression, the “Sewol”-context turns it into a discussion on the state of South Korea’s risk society, divided by money and stable income.

The Sensibility of a Wife, poster: Namsan Arts Center (2018) 처의 감각, 포스터: 남산예술센터 2018

The Sensibility of a Wife, poster: Namsan Arts Center (2018)

I also saw Yeon-ok Koh’s Sensibility of a Wife last week at Namsan Art Center. An adaptation of this piece, originally written in 2015, had been shown already in 2016 as Wife of Bear (곰의 아내), directed by Koh Sun-woong (고선웅). However, just a few weeks before its presentation in Heidelberg, the original play (which has been published as a book, too) premiered at Namsan Art Center, directed by Kim Jeong (김정, who also staged Diebe last year at Sungshin University). Sensibility of a Wife is a modernised approach to a Korean legend, but plays in a decidedly contemporary setting. A woman, nurtured by a bear, returns to society and faces modern life. The play consists of several short scenes, which pair the woman (now a wife) and her husband with different characters (her mother, his boss, his lover etc.) and has a fable-like quality, but the dialogues are spot-on and as contemporary as can be – showing various facets of the modern and traditional expectations women in Korea face today.

Chronicle of Alibis, poster: National Theater Company of Korea (2013) 알리바이 연대기, 포스터: 국립극단 2013

Chronicle of Alibis, poster: National Theater Company of Korea (2013)

Finally, Chronicle of Alibis by Jae-Yeop Kim, a hit from 2013 that has been revived several times, is an autobiographical play about the live of the author’s father, who, born in the 1930s in Imperial Japan, experienced two wars, dictators, and the slow process of democratization. In the play, a stand-in for the author takes a kind of time-travel to question his father (in various incarnations, from child to young dad and old man) about the decisions he took – or did not take. I like the main actor Nam Myeong-ryeol (남명렬), whom I met at the rehearsals for I Am My Own Wife in 2013, very much. But although posters seemed to be all around town when Chronicle of Alibis premiered later that year, I didn’t have a chance to see it then… For my translation, I checked some scenes on video, but hope to be able to catch a revival some time in the future.

Or maybe a German-language production? Who knows what opportunities the Stückemarkt will bring? In any case, I’m excited to hear – for what is possibly the first time – three Korean plays in German!

All readings are on Saturday, April 28, at Alter Saal of Theater Heidelberg. They are followed by an artist talk with the author, whose answers I will translate into German. Meet me afterwards!

— 28 April 2018 (土)

  • 13:30: Der gelbe Umschlag (The Yellow Envelope, 노란봉투) by Yanggu Yi (이양구), read by: Lisa Förster, Steffen Gangloff, Dominik Lindhorst-Apfelthaler, Sophie Melbinger, Katharina Quast, Hendrik Richter, Andreas Uhse.
  • 14:30: Chronik der Alibis (Chronicle of Alibis, 알리바이 연대기) by Jae-Yeop Kim (김재엽), read by: Nicole Averkamp, Benedict Fellmer, Hans Fleischmann, Raphael Gehrmann, Marcel Schubbe, Olaf Weißenberg, Martin Wißner, Stefan Wunder.
  • 16:00: Das Gespür einer Ehefrau (The Sensibility of a Wife, 처의감각) by Yeon-ok Koh (고연옥), read by: Marco Albrecht, Steffen Gangloff, Sophie Melbinger, Katharina Quast, Hendrik Richter, Christina Rubruck, Andreas Uhse, Olaf Weißenberg.
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The Come Back of Isang Yun

The word “colloid” (콜로이드), according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, refers to

any substance consisting of particles substantially larger than atoms or ordinary molecules but too small to be visible to the unaided eye […] Colloidal systems may exist as dispersions of one substance in another—for example, smoke particles in air—or as single materials, such as rubber […]

I usually put on glasses in the theatre, but here – sitting in the first of two or three rows – this wasn’t necessary. The various fragments from, on, and by Isang Yun that were presented and discussed were visible, even to the unaided eye. Still, hard to grasp, like smoke that gets in the eyes, oil that sticks to the fingers.

(c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper / 테아터라움 철학하는 몸, photo by Yoonjeong Choi / 최윤정

(c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, photo by Yoonjeong Choi

The “1917 Project – Colloid” (프로젝트 1917 – 콜로이드) by germanophile Ensemble Theaterraum: Der philosophierende Körper (테아터라움: 철학하는 몸), presented as a one-hour showcase as part of the “Creation and Experiment”-festival (창작실험: 과정과 공유, Feb. 23–25) at Oil Tank Culture Park (문화 비축 기지), approaches German-Korean (or Korean-German?) composer Isang Yun (1917–95), his life and thoughts, in colloidal way: as something murky, cloudy, turbid.

(c) ARKO / 한국문화예술위원회 ARKO, photo by Dohee Lee / 이도희

(c) ARKO / 한국문화예술위원회, photo by Dohee Lee

Besides intensive research by the ensemble, the play is based on two books on the life of Isang Yun. First, Der verwundete Drache (1977) by Luise Rinser, subtitled “Dialogue on life and work of composer Isang Yun”. Luise Rinser (1911–2002) was a (quite controversial) German author and friend of Yun. The book was translated into Korean (as 상처입은 용, 홍종도 옮김, 한울 1988) and there is also an annotated English version, likewise published in Korea (The Wounded Dragon, transl. Jiyeon Byeon 변지연, 민속원 2010). Second, a Korean memoir by Yun’s wife Sooja Lee (*1927), published in two volumes (창작과 비평 1998). The title (내 남편 윤이상) means “My Husband Isang Yun”.

03 테아터라움 철학하는 몸 Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, 최윤정 Yoonjeong Choi

(c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, photo by Yoonjeong Choi

In the performance, two actresses – Da-Ae Oh (오대애) as Rinser and Ja Myeong Ra (나자명) as Sooja Lee – play these two characters who reminiscent about Yun’s life and their encounters with him. They switch roles, however, variously embodying themselves on their research trip to Tongyeong, the composer’s hometown, or other side characters from the fragments that play out. Opera singer Seongil Kim (김성일) occasionally gets up, walks across stages, and sings on being “frei wie ein Schmetterling” (“free like a butterfly”), a line (I suppose) from Yun’s opera Die Witwe des Schmetterlings (Butterfly Widow), written during his imprisonment 1967/68 after the Berlin-spy-incident. In the back, a choir provides some vocals, for instance when the two actresses move around or inspect the various relicts – soil, water, stones etc. – that the production team has gathered in Tongyeong. Director Hyoungjin Im (also a scholar on Yun and his work) conducts the actors and singers on stage.

(c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper / 테아터라움 철학하는 몸, photo by Yoonjeong Choi / 최윤정

Actress Da-Ae Oh, choir in the background (c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, photo by Yoonjeong Choi

(c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper / 테아터라움 철학하는 몸, photo by Yoonjeong Choi / 최윤정

Opera singer Seongil Kim (c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, photo by Yoonjeong Choi

08 테아터라움 철학하는 몸 Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, 최윤정 Yoonjeong Choi

Director Hyoungjin Im (c) Theaterraum – Der Philosophierende Körper, photo by Yoonjeong Choi

No one on stage, whether singing, dancing, or playing, wears shoes. Why? This was my last question in the post-performance audience talk that I hosted. The answer: Because we are all born barefooted.

audience talk

Post-performance audience talk, photo by Yong Hae Sook

The audience also posed some other, more interesting questions. As one spectator mentioned, there wasn’t much information on Isang Yun in the play, not much to learn about him. That’s true. And in a way, that might have been the point of this “colloidal” approach to the composer and his “murky” life between suspicion of espionage and engagement with music. (Some spotlights on this life can be found in Hyoungjin Im’s article on the “border-crossing nomad” at Goethe-Institut Korea, in Korean and in my German translation.)

Other performances that took place on the occasion of Yun’s 100th birthday in late 2017 and early 2018 might fill this gap.

Photo: Gyeonggi Provincial Theatre Company, ARKO / 경기도립극단, 한국문화예술위원회

Photo: Gyeonggi Provincial Theatre Company, ARKO / 경기도립극단, 한국문화예술위원회

First, there was a theatre production named after Luise Rinser’s book, Yun Isang, Sangcheo Ibeun Yong (윤이상, 상처입은 용, “Isang Yun, the Wounded Dragon”) by the Gyeonggi Provincial Theatre Company (경기도립극단), shown in Daehangno last fall (Oct. 21–29, 2017). The play was written by Lee O-jin (이오진) and directed by Lee Dae-ung (이대웅). While the poster for the Seoul performance is kept rather dark, the poster for an earlier performance in Gyeonggi-do, with several older men arranged around Yun, indicates a more traditional approach to the biography of this historical character that spans Germany, (North and South) Korea, as well as Japan. A performance trailer and a news report show some more impressions.

“Isang Yun, Meeting the Roots!” (문화체육관광부, 국립국악원 / Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Tourism, National Gugak Center)

Photo:  Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Tourism, National Gugak Center / 문화체육관광부, 국립국악원

Then, at the same weekend that Project 1917 premiered, the Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Tourism (문화체육관광부) presented a performance titled “Isang Yun, Meeting the Roots!” (윤이상, 그 뿌리를 만나다!, Feb. 23, 2018) at the National Gugak Center (국립국악원). Traditionally trained musicians of the Gugak Center and the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra (경기필하모닉 오케스트라) took turns in playing a selection from Yun’s works, alongside with the traditional genres he used as inspiration. This included Yun’s Réak (예악, 1966) and Muak (무악, 1978), both rooted in different forms of traditional court music. The one-time event was an effort to foster interesting into traditional Korean music also among fans of Western classic, by means of Isang Yun, as producer Kim Seong-min (김성민, 전통공연예술진흥재단 공연기획팀장) explains in a news report by Gugak Broadcasting System (국악방송).

Music Theatre: Returning Home / 뮤직 시어터: 귀향 (Photo: TIMF / 통영국제음악제, Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop)

Photo: TIMF / 통영국제음악제, Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop

A bit more metaphorically, the Tongyeong International Music Festival (TIMF, 통영국제음악제), an event held to honor and continue the spirit of Isang Yun in his hometown, opened this year with the music theatre production Returning Home (뮤직 시어터: 귀향). In this piece, director Ludger Engels combines scenes from Monteverdi’s early opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria with the suspended vocals of the Korean literati singing tradition gagok (가곡), performed by Korean musicians (gagok: Minhee Park 박민희) and members of Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop. The title is quite fitting, as Isang Yun’s ashes were just transferred from Berlin-Gatow to Tongyeong, now enjoying a nice sea-view.

— 23/24 March 2018 (金/土)

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German-Language College Drama: Ewha Students Play “Corpus Delicti” by Juli Zeh

This week, students of Ewha Womans University – most (but not all) of them German majors – are going to premiere the play Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh in Korea. It is the 13th production of ensemble “Auf die Bretter”, who put a new German play “on stage” (thus the meaning of the ensemble’s name) every year.

First, the most important information.

Performances are on the following dates:

  • Thursday (April 5), 3.30 pm
  • Thursday (April 5), 7.30 pm
  • Friday (April 6), 7 pm
  • Saturday (April 7), 4 pm

There will be Korean subtitles.

Performances take place at the “Little Theatre” located in the ground floor of Ewha’s Human Ecology Building (생활환경관 소극장).

Tickets are 4,000 Won at the box office and reservations for 3,000 Won (via wire transfer) can be made online until April 3.

Bretter, Corpus Delicti poster small

Now some more details:

Juli Zeh’s Corpus Delicti (subtitle: A Process, in reference to Kafka?) premiered at RuhrTriennale (Sept. 15, 2007, in Essen) and was later adapted as a novel (Schöffling 2009). An English translation has been published as The Method (Vintage 2014, transl. Sally-Ann Spencer) and the Korean translation is titled “어떤 소송”, roughly meaning “some lawsuit” (민음사 2013, 옮김 장수미). See also Juli Zeh’s German homepage.

The play (like the novel) is a science-fiction-crime-prodedural-courtroom-drama, set in a near future where health is everything. For smoking a cigarette or getting behind on your training schedule you may have to pay a fine. On the upside, the METHOD, the ideological rule of the era, provides healthcare for everyone and diseases like cancer can be cured. Brave new world? Yes, but with some legal twists.

So far, the students of “Auf die Bretter” (or short the Bretter) have done tremendous work! When I became involved as their faculty advisor in early March, shortly after starting to work at Ewha, they had already done the Korean translation of the play (for the subtitles) and were casting the last actors from the new 1st year students (the college year begins in spring in Korea). All I really could do to help, besides editing some additional German dialogues, was doing some pronounciation training. Now, as I saw the rehearsals on the actual theatre stage, I’m certain that the premiere will be a great success!

Springtime is theatre season at Korean universities (last year Sungshin’s German students were also playing!). There were already productions of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (인형의 집) in Korean by “Humanities Drama Society” (인문극회) and Will Eno’s Middletown in English by Ensemble “Beings” (빙스) earlier this semester (see my tweets on these shows). Now – last but not least – the German-language addition to this year’s college drama season!

Auf die Bretter - Corpus Delicti, empty stage rehearsal

Rehearsals are in turbo-mode now. While the stage above is still empty (light tests), you can see some impressions from the rehearsals  on the Bretter’s Facebook page.

Come around on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday if your in for some great college drama in German!

— 5–7 April 2018 (木–土)

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Two Exhibitions on South Korean Everyday (inc. Food) in Hamburg

Two exhibitions on everyday life in South Korea are currently on display at Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg (Museum of Ethnology Hamburg).


First, the large-scale presentation “Uri Korea: Ruhe in Beschleunigung” (Uri Korea: Serenity in the Fast Lane, since Dec. 15, 2017), a cooperation with the National Folk Museum of Korea (국립민속박물관), that will be open for the next two years. The exhibition combines a selection of 19th century works – including many folding screens! – from the Hamburg collection with various objects and installations from contemporary South Korea, together forming a rich environment that allows to experience how Koreans live today. This also includes an in-house noraebang (노래방), one of the typical room-style karaoke venues that can be found everywhere in Seoul! As the term “uri” (우리, Kor. “us” / “our”) indicates, the exhibition also considers the relation between Korea and Germany, for instance through a critical review of acquisitions and by including the experiences of migrants. (See a review in the German weekly Die Zeit, and a Korean announcement by Yonhap News)

I had the pleasure to contribute a short essay on contemporary pansori to the (German) catalogue (original title: “Im Konzertsaal, auf der Theaterbühne oder auf der Straße: Pansori in Korea heute”, i.e. “In the Concert Hall, the Theatre Stage, and on the Street: Pansori in Korea Today”). The beautiful book also features writings by various other scholars and friends:

In a pocket in the back, the catalogue also includes miniature paper versions of the folding screens presented in the exhibition. You can stick them to the wall or put them on your desk – a wonderful gimmick!

Second, the much smaller exhibition “S(e)oul food” (Food and Memory: The Art of Korean Cuisine Series, Feb. 21 – Sept. 23, 2018), built around some dozens of food painting by Korean artist Cookie Fischer-Han from Switzerland (the exhibition was on show at the Völkerkunde Museum of University Zürich last year), puts the spotlight on the cultural functions of food: An invitation to “a dialogue on the (culinary) history of the Korean diaspora”!

Here are a few recent examples of what has become some kind of seoul-food for me:

The food-exhibition also includes some of the audio slideshows – interviews with former miners and nurses from Korea who migrated to Germany in the 60s and 70s accompanied by images of their memorabilia – that I created some years ago for Goethe-Institut Korea (the clips, in German or Korean with subtitles of the respective other language, are still available on Youtube).

I’m very much looking forward to see both exhibitions – and the rest of the Völkerkundemuseum (which is currently undergoing conceptual transformations and might by then already have a new name) – this summer!

On another note, in London you can now see everyday graphics from North Korea (“Made in North Korea”, House of Illustration, until Feb. 23 – May 13, 2018). The exhibition shows objects from the collection of Nicholas Bonner (founder of Koryo Tours), who also authored an eponymous book (Phaidon 2017). There are various reviews of both exhibition and book (e.g. at Hyperallergic, where I first read about this exhibition), as well as an interview with Bonner by the British Journal of Photography.

—10 Feb. 2018 (土)

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#Metoo in the Korean Theatre World: The Case of Director Lee Yun-taek

Heartbreaking, angry-making news in the Korean theatre world… Too early to give a meaningful comment, yet hopefully not to late to show my solidarity and spread the word.

This is my brief summary of what I read in the news during the last days and hours.

Theatre director Lee Yun-taek (이윤택, well known outside of Korea, too) has been accused of sexual harassment (성추행) and sexual violence (성폭행). Since February 14, numerous testimonies by victims have been circulated with the #metoo hashtag on social media, suggesting a systematic abuse of young members of Ensemble “Georipae” (연희단거리패, formerly known internationally as “Street Theatre Troup”) for almost two decades, including rape. One common method appears to have been calling actors to his room and demanding massages at night-time hours.

Ensemble “Georipae” quoted Lee, saying that he would “reflect on his past mistakes and put everything down” (Feb. 14) and announced his resignation as director of Ensemble “Georipae” as well as of his theatres Studio 30 and the Miryang Theatre Village. Furthermore, an official apology on behalf of the ensemble was issued via Facebook (Feb. 15). Many criticised these reactions as “indirect”, demanding a concrete public apology by himself. Today (Feb. 19th), Lee gave a press conference at Studio 30, where he apologised, admitting the accusation of sexual harassment, while denying allegations of rape. He said he will face the legal consequences of his crimes. (video of the press conference, some quotes and an official statement at Pressian) Directly after the press conference, the disbanding of Ensemble “Georipae” was announced by its current head, Kim So-hui.

Meanwhile, more testimonies are being posted and a presidential petition that demands a thorough investigation of the allegations has been signed by over 25,000 persons in less than two days. The Korean Playwrights Association (한국극작가협회) expelled Lee and other organisations followed. The critic collective Sisun (연극비평집단 시선) has posted a statement and the Korean Association of Women in Theatre (한국여성연극협회, my translation) published a list of demands, including the annulation of prizes and proper legal procedures.

Besides Lee Yun-taek, recently other internationally acknowledged artists are facing accusations of sexual abuse, most prominently filmmaker Kim Ki-duk (who just rejected allegations by an actress) and poet Ko Un (see an overview at Korea JoongAng Daily.

As a scholar of theatre who wrote about Lee’s work (also on this blog), enjoyed his performances, and met him personally on several occasions, I don’t know how to respond. I sincerely hope that the victims – whose courage is admirable – find justice and peace of mind, knowing that their call to action helps prevent further violence and humiliation. Sexual violence and the power structures that make abuse possible are a huge problem, not only in the theatre, not only in Korea, so much is clear.

A list of links to some of the developments in chronological order can be found (in Korean) at No-Cut-News.

After Lee’s press conference, several English language articles have been published:

These are a few links to the growing numbers of testimonies (in Korean), mostly on Facebook – please beware, the content is disturbing:

— 19 Feb. 2018 (月)

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Sound of (12 and more) Strings: In Memoriam Hwang Byungki

Hwang Byungki (황병기), eminent master of the Korean traditional zither gayageum, passed away on January 31, 2018 (via Yonhap). His influence on traditional Korean music in general, its promotion in the world, education and composition, North-South Korean relations is legion.

Just a few days ago, when I visited the ongoing exhibition “Jieum: Collection of Memories for Tomorrow” (지음 知音 시간의 흔적, 미래로 펼치다, through April 1st) that shows archival material on the history of the National Gugak Center, I saw a video of Hwang presenting modified traditional instruments (on display), which he had brought back from North-Korea in 1990 (at least that’s what I assume) when he travelled there to participate in the Pan-Korean Unification Concerts (범민족통일음악회), organized by Isang Yun.

I saw Hwang Byungki perform live only once, at a concert honouring his 50th stage anniversary back in 2010. This is a view from the third floor of the concert hall at Seoul Arts Center:

The tribute performances were mostly played by his disciples, friends, and colleagues, Hwang himself only appeared on stage for the last act, leaving me wordless. At the curtain call, he humbly bowed with the others, but the applause was obviously all his.

I didn’t dare to approach him in the lobby, where he received presents and signed books after the concert.

What follows are some unedited notes on this performance (details below) that I wrote in 2010 but never published on this blog.

For more on Hwang Byungki’s life and legacy, see Jocelyn Clark’s obituary for Asia Times and an interview by Graham Reid (Elsewhere Blog), for a more academic take, read Andrew Killick’s recent book Hwang Byungki: Traditional Music and the Contemporary Composer in the Republic of Korea (Routledge, 2013), published in Korean translation as <황병기 연구> (풀빛 2015, 옮김: 김희선).

May he rest in peace.


Hwang Byungki’s Voyage of Sounds: Melody and Story (via SAC)

The man is a legend: Master of the gayageum (Korean 12-stringed zither), inventor of new instruments, composer of fusion gugak. To celebrate the 50th stage anniversary of Hwang Byungki (황병기),  already in his mid seventies, friends and fans gathered in the huge concert hall of Seoul Arts Center to perform and enjoy some pieces from Hwang’s most diverse œuvre.

Entitled “Hwang Byungki’s Voyage of Sounds: Melody and Story” (황병기의 소리여행 ‘가락 그리로 이야기’), this afternoon program offered a lot, both to novices like me who got introduced to his most representative pieces and the more experienced friends of traditional Korean music who could re-experience these classics in a new way.

Because contrary to my expectations (and to those of the friend who had invited me, a long time fan), this was not a concert by Hwang himself. While the master added some personal notes in between pieces (invisible to us), students and companions presented his music in new, sometimes very personal interpretations:

1. “Overture: Hwang Byungki’s Fifty Year Voyage of Sound” – 서곡 (序曲) 황병기의 50년 소리여행, a collage of “motives from the master’s works, selected and put on stage in order to associate his colorful world of compositions” (program notes). First, a daegeum player in a white dress – Chung Eun Han (한충은) – appeared in the ranks on the opposite side of the auditorium.

After the introductory melody, the stage lightens up—and there is a lot going on:  Spare rhythms on the piano (강상구, also responsible for the arrangement) and the hourglass-shaped janggu (윤호세) lay the ground for Yi Ji Young (이지영, who, according to Fincher-Sung, “represents the quintessential Korean musician of the twenty-first century […:] respectful of traditional parameters, and both daring and talented enough to stretch these parameters”) who, hidden under a long cloak, consecutively played four different gayageums.

Meanwhile, a group of male and female dancers in respective hanboks presented a lofty choreography of well synchronized turns and abrupt glides which, seen from the third floor, looked pretty ornamental. Of the action painting, performed by calligraphist Kim Gi-sang (김기상), I saw only the result: the title of the show (and this piece) painted in black letters on a paravent in the background.

(video of the opening hommage, uploaded by Chung Eun Han, via Youtube)

2. “The Haunted Tree” (1979) – 영목 (靈木), “…based on the uncertainly composed motive of a spirit dwelling in a tree, the surreal world constituted by mysterious melodies, constantly changing rhythm, dispersing discords etc. grabs [the audience’s] attention…” (program notes) This composition for gayageumajaeng (a bowed zither), jing-gong, piano, and percussion was performed by members of the Ensemble Sinawi (앙상블 시나위), named after the improvised music traditionally accompanying shaman rituals.

3. “Forest” (1962) – 숲, one of Hwang’s earliest—and most well-known—works that experimentally tries to harmonize the formalism of court music and the humor of folk music. In its original form, “Forest” is a piece for gayageum (here a recent performance by twelve musicians at the National Gugak Center, formerly known as the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts).

This time, Japanese virtuoso Kazuhito Yamashita (山下和仁), together with his daughter Kanahi, performed his re-interpretation for two guitars. Yamashita gained world-wide (and controversial) fame not only for his graceful and precise play (deemed as superficial by others), he has also “made a career of annexing orchestral classics to his kingdom of the guitar” (Jeff Magee in the Ann Arbor News, qtd. in Yamashita’s biographical entry at Guitar player or typewriter—the rather calm duet made a nice contrast to the other more voluminous performances.

4. “Moon of My Hometown” (1976) – 고양의 달, adds music to the local colors of the poetry by PARK Mok Wol (박목월 / 朴木月, 1916–78). In fact, sung by the GANG Gweon-sun (강권순), Important Intantible Cultural Asset in female gagok (중요무형문화재, 여창가곡), the lyrics seemed subordinate to the voice, stretching endlessly in a very sublime, calm, and constant way that sounded more instrumental than vocal. This ‘instrumental’ voice interacted interestingly both with the blown daegeum and the bowed ajaeng, played by members of the gugak ensemble Dasrum (다스름, featured on this blog).

5. “Mountain Echo” (1979) – 산운 (山韻), likewise based on poetry, in this case the gasa (가사, a form of classical Korean poetry) Seongsan Byeolgok (성산별곡 / 星山別曲, lit. “Song of the Star Mountain”) by famous Choseon statesman-cum-poet Jeong Cheol (정철, 1536–93), also known under his pen name Songgang (송강). If you want to walk along his trails—here is how it’s done.

The ensemble Bebeing (비빙 / 悲憑), all dressed in green, presented this piece as a collaborative work, all four musician (piri, daegeum, gayageum, percussion) providing the ongoing basic rhythm and—successively, from time to time, including a singer—stepping out to add a solo melody. Kind of like a jam session. This seems to reflect the groups experimental approach to music, integrating traditional music practice, avant-garde composition, electronic sound engineering, and visual art. Take a look at a video of their “Buddhist music project Li and Sa” (불교음악프로잭트 이(理)와 사(事), 2008, lit. “reason and affection”, two principles complementary related in Buddhism, more info here).

6. “Hamadan” (2000) – 하마단, once again inspired by poetry, one the one hand by Buddhist writer Hyeon-dam’s (현담) eponimous poem that relates to the Persian city of the same name (همدان), on the other by the works of Kwak Jae-gu (곽재구, 1954–) which can be categorized as lyrical minjung poetry. Instead of the original solo ‘gayageum, accompanied by changgo’-arrangement, here three quarters of the gayageum ensemble Yeoul (여울) perform this as a trio, very in-sync with occasional melodies breaking out of the flowing sound of strings.

7. “Labyrinth” (1975) – 미궁 (迷宮), the highlight of this afternoon. One of Hwang’s most notorious works, “Labyrinth” is said to bring certain doom to the listener. The composer’s comment: “Of course you’ll die after listening to this piece, about 80 years later.” This re-interpretation by Baek Hyeon-jin 백현진 and Jang Yeong-gyu (장영규), members of the underground-avantgarde-band Uhuhboo Project (어어부 프로젝트), included the recitation from countless books that were dropped on the floor after a few phrases each, an electric guitar, and the slow-motion topless walk across the stage by dancer Ahn Eun Me (안은미).

8. “Darha Nopigom” (1996) – 달하 노피곰

— 4 Dec. 2010 (土) / 31 Jan. 2018 (水)

  • Hwang Byungki’s Voyage of Sounds: Melody and Story, Seoul Arts Center, Concert Hall, 2010-12-04 (Sat.), 14–15.30 h.
  • 황병기의 소리여행 ‘가락 그리고 이야기’, 예술의 전당, 콘서트홀, 2010년 12월 4일 (토), 14시~15.30시까지.
Posted in Instrumental Gugak, Museum Trips, Performance Report, Sound of Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Still Moving: Impressions from the Pink Factory Exhibition Opening 2017

This memory protocol (also available in Korean) is a preview from the 2017 catalogue of Pink Factory (분홍공장), which is currently in print and will be available in January 2018. Once again, resident artists from Korea and abroad created wonderful works of art in Hongcheon, Gangwon-do. The exhibition opened on Sept. 9 with several performances: Lee Seiseung’s choreography “To Be and Not to Be,” performed by Anima Singh (안무: 이세승, 출연: 어니마 싱), and Hur Yunkyung’s piece “Implicitly Anywhere” (허윤경, 은근어디든) , both in front and partly inside Hongcheon Art Museum, followed by dinner and Koh San Hong’s DJ Party “Geumsung Record” (고산홍, 금성 레코드) uphill at Pink Factory. Once again bi-lingual (Korean-English) and in full color, Pink Factory’s 2017 catalogue includes all artworks on show, impressions from the workshops and lectures given in the course of the residency program, as well as writings and images from the exhibition “Moving Shadows” and the community program “Floating Ferry, Buzzing Market” (둥실둥실 나룻배, 와글와글 중앙시장) that was conducted in parallel.

Still Moving

Impressions from the Pink Factory Exhibition Opening 2017

Leaving the museum, we slowly turn around. On top of the balustrade, Hur Yunkyung captures our attention, appropriates the whole place, but her time has not come yet.

Hur Yunkyung, on Hongcheon Art Museum

A woman in white, Anima Singh, steps up the stairs. She brings along a white pillar of her own size, hollow but certainly no light luggage. The empty pedestal follows her, supports her, wears her down, almost crushes her, and together they draw long shadows across the parking. ‘Who’s there,’ she whispers. To be and not to be? A question of perspective.

No time to ponder the relativity of time and space, as a green spot approaches, from the mountains, up a tree, through the gutter into the museum. Hur Yunkyung is back – and already gone again. But she returns, guides us through steel and water, past the camouflaged cabin, like a dog in search for answers written on the wall, between the steady beats of a drum, to dark, blue water dripping on paper, the crack growing wider as she navigates the crowd, within and without. We then go different ways.

Choreographed by Lee Seiseung, Anima Singh projected a life in motion onto the parking space. Hur Yunkyung mapped the museum and showed us its invisible core just by moving. Now the stage is set for the DJ! Koh San Hong plays songs from Seattle to Shibuya, mixed with sounds of steel and beats that grip our pulses together. We eat and dance and talk and drink, standing, sitting, still in motion. Do urbanites dream of star-spangled skies? The shadows have long moved, the night can come, even to Hongcheon.

Text: Jan Creutzenberg

— 9 Sept. 2017 (土)

Posted in Art Worlds, pink factory | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments