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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About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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