Modern Music Matinee: Maverick Asian Voices
Saturday, 12 October 2019 @ 3:00pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall
Contributed by Joey Tan (BMUS4, YST) & Jing Wen Joan Tan (BMUS1, YST)
Born in 1917, Sancheong, Korea (present day South Korea), amidst Japanese colonial rule, Isang Yun was a leading figure in the development of Western avant garde music in Korea. A large part of Yun’s early years were tumultuous; wars and social instability were a constant in his life. He studied composition briefly at the Osaka College of Music from 1934-1936 before moving back to Korea, and participated in the Korean independence movement after Japan entered World War II in 1942. Yun was then captured and imprisoned by the Japanese in 1943, but released in 1945 when Japan lost the war.
After the Korean Civil War, Yun began teaching at the Seoul National University, and in 1955, he was awarded the Seoul City Culture Award, funding his studies in Europe at the Paris Conservatoire (1956-1957) and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1958- 1959). However, this was short lived. On 17 June 1967, Yun was kidnapped in West Berlin by the South Korean Secret Service on the account of acts of espionage. He was brought back to Seoul where in prison, he was tortured, forced to confess to espionage, and sentenced to life imprisonment. A worldwide petition was presented to the South Korean government. Under intense public pressure, Yun was released in 1969 on the condition that he would never speak of what had happened. Yun then left for Germany where he became a citizen. He never returned to South Korea and spent the rest of his life teaching at the Hochschule der Künste in West Berlin. Yun was embraced as a composer in both North and South Korea upon his death in 1995, the specifics of what exactly happened in his time in prison remaining a mystery.
Unlike Western music, which focuses on movement through the combination of notes, Yun believed that every note had life, and therefore, movement inside of it. This belief stemmed from one of the main principles of Taoism, known as Jeong-Jun-Dong — the idea that everything is always in constant motion. As such, an excess of notes were not necessary. This concept of perpetual movement is exemplified through his creation of the Hauptton technique.
In his compositions, Yun worked with the principle of the Hauptton, which translates to “main tone”. The single tone was his compositional foundation, the building block of his music. The tone, however, has many ways in which it can vary: through the addition of grace notes, vibrato, oscillations, accents, and ornamentations. Despite the changes, the Hauptton remains in the ears of the listeners. According to Yun, it lasts for a maximum of 3 bars, which corresponds to the length of a breath. He combined Haupttöne to form Hauptklang, “main sound”, in which each instrument plays its individual Hauptton in an ensemble setting. These concepts can be observed in Yun’s Quartet for Horn, Trumpet, Trombone and Piano.
The Quartet for Horn, Trumpet, Trombone and Piano can be divided into 3 sections, indicated by tempo changes and solo piano passages. The first section opens with the horn playing the first Hauptton, leaping in octaves, accompanied by heavy piano chords. The trumpet and trombone enter in low registers on their respective Haupttöne, which morph as the section progresses. As the music becomes increasingly ornamented, the resulting complexity in texture stirs a sense of chaos in the music.
In contrast to the first section, the second section starts with the piano heavily ornamented with trills in a high register. This is later joined by sweeping arpeggio-like figurations. The brasses play Hauptklänge together, introducing long notes which are varied through changes in dynamics. There is limited movement in pitch. The brasses generally move in a chromatic or stepwise motion, and the music always gravitates towards the higher registers with soft dynamics. The result is an atmosphere of calm tranquility.
Towards the end of the second section, large crescendos in the brass and increasing rhythmic intensity in the piano direct the movement of the music forward. The use of loud dynamics, large leaps in the brasses, and the contrast between tremolos and accented chords in the piano, brings the piece to a brilliant climax.
The Quartet for Horn, Trumpet, Trombone and Piano was composed by Yun in August 1992 and premiered in a chamber music hall of the Berlin Philharmonie as part of the Berlin Festival Week on 16 September 1992, the eve of Yun’s 75th birthday.