[Letter to the editor] Don’t take cultural purity too seriously

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[Letter to the editor] Don’t take cultural purity too seriously

As a music lover I read with interest your recent interview of Choi Jong-min [JoongAng Daily, Jan. 24] and found some of his comments uncomfortably biased against Western music and reactionary in his desire to preserve Korea’s music tradition at the expense of encouraging innovation and creativity. If the purpose of the interview was to educate a new audience in the mysteries and delights of music as a Korean art form, then I came away feeling less knowledgeable about gugak and less curious to learn more. The article seems to be more driven to push a political agenda than to help people love and appreciate this music. For example, when talking about public funding for “fusion” musical compositions, he states that “the government is paying to have our traditional music watered down with foreign influence.” (OK, maybe something was lost in translation.)
In the late 19th to early 20th century, world-famous Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini wrote two operas with Asian themes, “Madama Butterfly,” with some Western scoring of traditional Japanese songs and “Turandot,” based on a Chinese fable which contains traditional Chinese melodies scored for Western instruments or sung in Italian. I can hardly conceive that Puccini “watered down” or in some other sense defiled Italian opera by using musical quotations from other cultures.
My record collection also includes Vivaldi playing on traditional Japanese string instruments. I found the music fascinating because it opened me up to different nuances to this music I had never heard before, and it also made me aware of the beauty of Asian-style music. So shouldn’t we help others learn about Korean instruments by playing Western music on them? Cannot Korean musicians learn something about their own traditional instruments by trying to play Vivaldi on them? I have a growing collection of recordings of Korean music that include pansori, Trott and K-pop. I am sure I don’t have the background knowledge or the Korean language skills to fully appreciate why each is special. I just listen and enjoy, not because I find them “exotic” but because they seem to describe a different experience of life than I know and the emotions seem to overlap with my own even though they come from another place and another time. After all, isn’t music about capturing the essence of human experience so we can share our experiences with others?
I have to admit that I still get a nasty feeling in my stomach when I hear someone use the word “foreigner,” as interviewer Lee Jang-jik did in this article. I come from New York where there are no foreigners. A few years ago in a concert at Lincoln Center, when I sang a chorus from the Russian opera “Boris Godunov” which was being conducted by a famous Israeli conductor, I didn’t say to myself: “Wow! How exotic. Music from a foreign composer and conducted by that foreigner.” When I listen to Indian raga played by Ravi Shankar, I am too busy feeling the infusion of those sounds into my being and not worrying so much about where they originated from.
I agree that microphones distort live performances and singers at the peak of their talent should be able to project their voice in a sizeable arena without help from electronic equipment. The ability to project one’s voice so that the audience can feel every detail of the song, even in a large public concert hall with natural acoustics, is what separates the true professionals like Pavarotti from noraebang crooners. But this is not unique to pansori. I think there is a place for both preservation of culture as it was intended by its original creators, side by side with the fusion alternatives which evolve over time. Culture preservation can become a negative force when it aims to censor rather than preserve.
I go on at length about this interview because I think it represents a lot of experiences I have had in my six years living in Korea. Koreans are often nervous about how others view their culture that they automatically assume that others are not really interested in learning what they have to offer. If that’s how you feel, you are wrong. Please share your knowledge; please take the time to really share your culture, and most of all, please stop calling me a “foreigner.”
It is dangerous to world-wide harmony when we take our cultural purity a little too seriously.
Vincent A. Conte, Seoul

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