Isang Yun Remembered Postlude I: Music and Politics

Isang Yun Remembered Postlude I: Music and Politics

(Music by Isang Yun and Roger Marsh)

Recently I organized and performed a concert entitled Isang Yun Remembered (June 6th NCEM), focusing on the relationship between Yun’s music and his political/cultural experience. The concert prompted me to reflect further, and this blog explores some of my thoughts on Yun’s music and his political experience, expanding to examine wider question concerning music and politics.

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet—or even, if he’s a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying in their image… No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” (Picasso, 1945)[1]

Personally, I don’t like politics: I always end up arguing with my dad whenever we discuss the politics of South Korea. Most of the time, we agree to disagree. Yet, I am really into politics. I have a love-hate relationship with it. I just can’t get away from it, can I? One of the many reasons might be that politics has a huge impact on one’s life, socially and culturally.

Aristotle argues, “man is by nature a political animal”, while Andrew Heywood “sees politics at work in all social activities and in every corner of human existence.”[2] Politics is a naturally social activity and is everywhere. It simply exists because people disagree. We express ourselves according to who we are, reflecting a diversity of opinions, preferences, and needs. Politics stems from any relationship of power in the private and public domains and can be found at any level of social interaction, from families and friends, to small and large societies. Politics is an interaction of social activity and power: society shapes politics; politics articulates society.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the world has faced enormous changes and political reforms through the development of post-industrial society, an increasingly mobile population, as well as expanding globalization. Many people around the world have begun to approach to politics from a more subjective individualistic perspective by the development of consciousness-raising. They became more aware of questions of identity, and difference: the ‘politic of difference’ or ‘identity politics’ (Heywood, 2013). The women’s movement is an example of an identity politics rooted in an understanding that ‘the personal is political.’

These conclusions—politics as a social activity, interacting with others through a process of conflict and compromise privately and publicly, formally and informally, as well as the power to express one’s identity or a collective identity (in essence, basic human rights)—provide an important lens for reading Korean-German composer Isang Yun’s work as potentially political, and as a carrier of political identity. This opens up questions for me as a performer.

As Adrian Leftwich puts it, politics “is an absolutely intrinsic, necessary and functional feature of our social existence as a species. We could not get along without it” (2004).[3] These conclusions strongly imply a connection between politics and music, to the extent we might consider all music as a political action. I might add that Isang Yun’s works are political to different degrees and in different ways. The main purpose of all musical activities—composing, presenting, and listening to music—is social, expressing oneself and interacting with others, making connections between one and another. Between now and then; between here and there.

If the nature of music is social, and therefore intrinsically political, how does music function as a political action? Music has political overtones overtly or covertly in varying degrees. Even if one has no intention of making a work political or apolitical, the circumstances surrounding a work’s creation find their way into the music.

Some composers deliberately write music with overtly political messages, while others perhaps have no intention to imbue their works with political ideas, instead emphasizing the intrinsic value of art itself. Art cannot exist for the sake of art alone. Even if that is the intention of the artist, it is a fallacy.

If we examine Arnold Schoenberg’s works from the 1920s when he was developing his twelve-tone technique, he was not strongly political. However, Schoenberg came into disfavour with the Nazis due to his avant-garde musical style and his Jewish heritage; consequently his works were banned (Sitsky, 2002).[4] The government believed this modernist music was not something that should be part of their society. Even if one pursues art for art’s sake, some governments, or perhaps just socio-political circumstances, determine that art for art’s sake is not acceptable. Many composers who were active during WWII had to respond to the political situation. Certainly with Isang Yun, there is no way to deny that the various socio-political experiences of his dramatic life influenced his music, whether he was aware of this or not.

In 1967, shortly after Isang Yun settled in Berlin and started to gain international recognition as a composer, he was kidnapped in Berlin by the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency and forcibly returned to Korea along with over 150 Korean intellectuals from many other countries.  After kidnapping Yun, the Korean CIA drugged and severely tortured him to extract a false confession of being a North Korean spy. Tarred as a North Korean sympathizer, Yun’s music was officially banned in South Korea until 1982.

However, Yun’s imprisonment resulted in international uproar with the West German government threatening to cut back its economic aid to South Korea as well as many internationally prominent musicians performing fundraising concerts to support Yun’s release. 181 distinguished musicians including Stravinsky, Carter, Krenek, Karajan, Ligeti, and Stockhausen, signed a petition demanding Yun’s release. After two years, this pressure brought about Yun’s release and he returned to Berlin—this time as an exile.

Yun completed Fünf Stücke für Klavier (1958) before the experience of the exile. In this early work, his encounter with Avant-garde composers at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music inspired the use of 12-tone technique. The environment in which Yun was working at this point was diverse, with composers from all over Europe and beyond America exploring very different ideas about where music should go. On the one hand, Fünf stücke für klavier sounds like a typical post-serial piano piece, but we can also find other influences including the political background of the time.

Christopher Fox notes that “the Darmstadt courses were born into a world of social upheaval and political complexity” (Fox 1999)[5], and put composers’ feet on the political ground. By the end of the Second World War, the city of Darmstadt was badly destroyed. It was Anglo-American industry that took the main role in reconstructing the city, “as a cultural policy of de-Nazification and re-education, which would have a decisive effect on postwar music” (Ross, 2012)[6]. Local music critic, Wolfgang Steinecke, founded a summertime institution in an American occupational zone of Darmstadt in 1946, with  financial support from the U. S. Military Government. Moreover, the CIA regularly funded the institute from the beginning of the Cold War (Ross, 2012). In essence, the whole concept of the Darmstadt course was the cultural power and musical counter-action of the U.S. against the so-called art music of the Nazis and the Soviet Union.

Recently, one of the CMRC composers, Roger Marsh, completed his new work But Still…. for soprano, viola and piano (2017) for the Isang Yun Remembered concert celebrating the centenary of Yun’s birth (2017) at the National Centre for Early Music on June 6th. In the pre-concert talk, Marsh stated, “when you asked me to write a piece for this concert, what really captured my imagination more than [Yun’s] music was the political stuff… the idea of a composer in prison for the wrong reason, but still wanting to reunite the country that is divided.”

Marsh’s response to Yun’s experience of imprisonment and exile can be found in several places in the music. The piece starts with harsh, demanding tremolos for viola and piano in the low register, expressing anger and frustration at the injustice. Then the voice appears, citing three lines taken from interviews Yun gave about his experiences of imprisonment in 1977. A series of abrupt silences follow in the slow section drawing more attention to the performers, and the composer suggests the singer to be motionless as well as silent. To me, this silence can be considered a negative space that seems to invite the listeners to somewhere between nowhere and everywhere, or between Yun’s despair and hope.

1  Ja, ich war im Gefängnis und war doch nicht gefangen, das ist wahr.

2  Ich bin nur Musiker, sonst nichts

3  Es ist wahr, Verzweiflung war größer als Hoffnung.

Aber trotzdem: Ohne mich an die Hoffnung anzuklammern,

an sie zu glauben, hätte ich mein Leben nicht halten können.


1  Yes, I was in prison and was not imprisoned. That is true.

2  I am only a musician, nothing else

3  It is true, despair was greater than hope.

But still: Without clinging to hope,

believing in them, I could not have kept my life.

Luise Rinser and Isang Yun, Der verwundete Drache: Dialog

über Leben und Werk des Komponisten. 1977.

A few days ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook asked MIT’s Class of 2017, “how will you serve humanity?”, suggesting that they might “work toward something greater than yourself.” In the pre-concert talk, Roger Marsh noted that “Though [Yun] claimed not to be a political person, his aim was to help the enrichment of Korean music through modern Western musical ideas. He always hoped to aid reunification in Korea”.

Politics seems to operate in a force-field between the two extremes of noise and silence, as does music. Edward Said outlines music as the language that brings people together. Hans Werner Henze emphasizes that we are witnesses to our time and “should take advantage of every available opportunity for communication… it has something to do with social responsibility.”

Let me sum up with Yun’s statement:    ‘Basically to me art and politics are segregated. I am only a musician, nothing else, I have nothing to do directly with politics. As a musician I have only one goal: to follow my artistic knowledge and its high demand for purity and great dimensions of consciousness… Always in a catastrophe, an artist is also a human like all others, and must do something for all, hence, to get involved in politics.’

*Isang Yun Remembered Postlude II: Music and Cultures (Music by Isang Yun and John Stringer) will be posted soon.




[1] Pablo Picasso, from an interview with Simone Téry “Picasso n’est pas officier dans l’armée française,” March 24, 1945, in Les Lettres Françaises, vol. V, p. 48.
[2] Andrew Heywood, Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 2013.
[3] Adrian Leftwich (ed). What is Politics?: The Activity and its Study (Cambridge: Polity Press), 2004.
[4] Walter B. Bailey, “Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)” in Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook, edited by Larry Sitsky (Westport: Greenwood Press), 2002.
[5] Christopher Fox, “Luigi Nono and the Darmstadt School: Form and meaning in the early works (1950-1959),” Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 18, Issue 2, 1999.
[6] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2012.







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