A Field of Music

A Composer's Travel Journal (1)

- A Field of Music -

A rainy autumn afternoon in 1983. John Cage had come to lecture at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City where I was a graduate student. He had just returned to New York from a visit to Korea and two things he said made a strong impression on me. The first was that Koreans, without even asking him, assumed he was a businessman! The other was his surprise at hearing Korean traditional musicians play new music written with Western harmonies. After the lecture, I followed Cage and Merce Cunningham (who shared one umbrella) to the subway station on Broadway and watched them disappear into a train. I stood for a long time thinking about what he had said.

Two years later, Boulder, Colorado. It wasn't the friendly people or the picturesque town that caused my first real cultural shock, but rather, an essay by Pierre Boulez I was reading as part of my doctoral work at the University. His comment that the culture of the Orient is a "dead" culture re-focused my musical thinking. I had grown up playing the piano, composing and studying European music in the European way. Until then, I'd had no regret at being transplanted to the soil of America from the land where I had lived for the first 23 years of my life. Was this because I had left a "dead civilization"?

I had studied something of the history and notation of traditional music as an undergraduate in Seoul in 1981, but this had been more like getting a driver's license to use as identification, not intending to actually drive. So, while living in Boulder I began to listen to Korean folk music, then court music. I was like a student trying to remember a few phrases in a forgotten language, but still translating each word into something I recognized. After moving to San Francisco, I started to learn to play a traditional instrument, to experience directly, without the barriers of analysis and knowledge. I began my de-education.

You could say that, after a while, Korean music seduced me. I had wanted to learn Korean music and erase European music, and I became trapped - in Korean music. The voice of my own music, which had been inadvertently so foreign, was dissolving, and in its place was a music that my friends had only kind words for. It was Korean. Then I stumbled upon music from other places in Asia. I discovered, too, that European music had not been erased. It was like a field crowded with people, animals, plants, insects, everything co-existing in a sort of unequal, fluctuating balance.A lecture by an open-minded American composer and my youthful reaction to one European composer's statement had taken me here.

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