Classical music is re-used and re-imagined in K-dramas
Korean dramas use classical music to add drama. Ongoing tvN drama “The Devil Judge” and Netflix original “Move to Heaven” as well as already-ended tvN drama “Vincenzo” are some of the dramas that have explored the use of classical music.
What they do is more than just using what’s already out there. The drama teams work with musicians to rearrange existing music to fit their style and record the music with international orchestras.
In tvN’s “The Devil Judge,” musical director Jung Se-rin rearranged Rachmaninoff Piano Concert No. 2 to triple beats so that the music can work better with a scene where actors dance the Waltz.
“We chose the music because the particular tune brings out more mysterious emotions with some strong tunes than other ordinary Waltz music presents,” said the director. “It was used as a theme song for judge Kang Yo-han in the drama whenever he has a new plan. So we wanted to rearrange the same music into many different versions to continuously play over and over again.”
This particular song was recorded by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
In the fourth episode when minister Cha Gyeong-hee agonizes about punishing her son, the drama plays Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes.”
“The music makes the drama become more lively to show the political ambition the minister has as well as the love she has for her son, and the fear coming from the son when he is dragged to the place for his punishment and the weird ambience felt in that place,” said Jung.
“Music that is very new and unknown doesn’t have much impact on the home audience, and music that’s widely known doesn’t bring forth any more entertainment.
“The music that makes one feels like they might have heard it somewhere before yet don’t recall its title is what we use to match well with the scenes we show in the drama, so that the music can carry the entire ambience we want to show.”
Some other dramas use existing songs with already established images to make certain scenes more entertaining. In JTBC’s “Nevertheless”, Chopin Etude Op. 25 No. 9 “Butterfly” is played for the scene when a then-boyfriend of the main character Nabi, which means butterfly in Korean, holds an exhibition with an artwork named after her which insinuates the nude body of a woman.
Music director Kim Tae-seong of “Nevertheless” said the song used for the exhibit scene helps create the awkward mood when Nabi is startled by the artwork and her nonchalant ex-boyfriend.
“The music creates even more extreme emotions when you learn the title of the music,” said Kim.
In SBS’s “Penthouse,” character Cheon Seo-jin plays Listz’s Transcendental Etudes No. 4 “Mazeppa,” which is about adultery, to hint at how the story will unfold. In JTBC’s “Sky Castle,” character Kim Ju-yeong’s theme song was Schubert’s Erlkönig, which is about an evil force chasing children.
Sometimes classical music is used as a prop to make a drama humorous. In tvN’s “Vincenzo,” Bach’s “Chaconne” is used in the scene when the main character Vincenzo, played by Song Joong-ki, kills members of the Italian mafia and escapes, adding a grandiose element. Later on, the same music is used for about 10 seconds in scenes involving Vincenzo, adding a somewhat comical element.
The music for opera "Cavalleria Rusticana," which was used in the first scene of the drama, helped create an Italian ambience, which is where the drama is set, but it was also used to make the home audience laugh. When Vincenzo came back to Korea and took a shower in his outdated home, the water kept on stopping and starting. The music, along with the rhythm of the water stopping and starting, stops and plays over and over again.
“Overall, people pay more attention to the importance of directing, and the quality of music played in dramas is also increasing,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun.
Another pop culture critic Ha Jae-keun said TV dramas these days use techniques that make the scenes feel more like those frequently seen in films — a style that goes well with classical music.
As budgets for making TV dramas get bigger and bigger, more investment goes into deciding what music to play. Netflix announced it will invest 550 billion ($480 million) into making local content in Korea.
“To make the overall quality of the drama higher, the importance of music has also gone up,” said an official with tvN.
“Although how much we invest into music has not increased as much as overall budget hikes, it has increased quite a lot.”
But even with the more frequent use of classical music in dramas, few local musicians or orchestras are showing interest in making music for TV. That is one of the reasons why the team from “The Devil Judge” had to ask the Czech orchestra to record the music.
“If local performers participate in music for movies or dramas more, maybe we can have musicians like John Williams or Joe Hisaishi” more often, said Han Jeong-ho a pop culture critic, adding that Korea has yet to see many classical musicians working on projects related to pop culture.
“So far, the investment in such music for TV work has been minimal, so local musicians didn’t pay much attention to such areas, but with more investment coming along the way, we can expect to see higher quality music in such TV dramas.”
BY KIM JEONG-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]