German Shepherds and German Musical Politics in North Korea

By | October 01, 2014 | No Comments

Korean composer Yun I-sang in contemplation. Image via Artistopia.

Korean composer Yun I-sang in contemplation. | Image: Artistopia.

When the North Korean People’s Army brings out its German shepherds to attack dummies of South Korean state officials, it becomes difficult to absorb the notion of a Pyongyang government that is amenable to diplomacy of any kind.  The metaphorical growl of the German shepherd was last heard as an undertone in North Korean state media for months prior to the explosions of spring 2013, and then sprang into full fury with rumors about such dogs having been the means of Jang Sung-taek’s grisly execution.

The problem with our focusing on the dog (or on the nuclear threats), is that “the bark” of the statements meant for foreign consumption often has very little to do with daily life in the DPRK, much less the daily lives of elite North Koreans who may be more receptive to aspects of Western culture than we give them credit for. If only temporarily, we need to “muzzle the dog” of Songun triumphalism and our own tendency to riff upon awful rumors for the sake of more accurately gauging the status and the direction of North Korean culture.

Fortunately, a perfect counterpoint arrives in the form of a cultural ambassador, a man of great skill with both baton and pen. Alexander Liebreich is the chief director of the Munich Chamber Orchestra (Munchen Kammerorchester) who, like Bard College’s cerebral firebrand Leon Botstein, is both a fine conductor and a fine musicologist himself (einer Musikwissenschaftler). He has had great success in bringing musical ensembles to Pyongyang to work with North Korean classical musicians. He is not a Norwegian accordionist and seems more interested in Alban Berg than Abba.

Fortunately, in addition to a very interesting film, Leibreich has left behind a written record of his work in the DPRK in the form of an article, published in 2005, in a volume of essays on the manifold connections between various Germanys and Koreas. I was fortunate to come across this text in the East Asian Studies Library of the Goethe University Frankfurt, and a recent concert in Pyongyang has provided the occasion for more discussion of Leibreich’s views, and perhaps even his influence.

To make a sweeping cultural generalization, German musicians tend to bring great seriousness and historical sensitivities (in the best sense) to their views of, and work with, North Korean musicians. Notions of music’s function toward binding the community/Gesellschaft together, as well as the idea of composers under tremendous political pressure, all resonate with the experiences and memories of the German Democratic Republic, whose state-funded classical music apparatus was formidable, but ultimately undermined by Western popular music and the collapse of the state itself. Tracing German contemporary history back even further, musicians trained in recent years are also mindful of the notion of music conservatories, musicology training academies, and concert halls themselves as having the terrible potential to musically segregate out the undesirables for a society that has a tendency to fill its prison camps, and where even the greatest musicians can disappear.

This is all a heavy burden when one walks into a North Korean rehearsal hall, yet one which Liebreich wears lightly. Showing a keen awareness of the possible controversy surrounding his work in the DRPK, he begins one of his essays noting that the public image of North Korea is unquestionably closer to “Public Enemy No. 1” (“Feindbild Nummer 1”) than it is to some artistic utopia (p. 313). Moving through a handful of operative clichés, the conductor notes this, perceptively, about both how the DPRK presents itself externally and how we in the West tend to interpret it: “The emotionless North Korean, who so coldly dons the mask for marching, remains in the pole position of evil.”

Yet, for musicians, Liebreich notes the almost unbelievable advantages of life in Pyongyang.  He writes, with no apology whatsoever, how we should never underestimate “how important it is for a human, especially a musician, to have a [clear] acoustic environment” in which to live and work. The lack of clangor in Pyongyang that one associates with modern and noisy Seoul is, for this conductor, something which he cannot ignore, an advantage which is handed to him, unconsciously, by his hosts soon after his arrival (p. 314).

A Rare Auditory Glimpse of the Yun I-sang Ensemble in Pyongyang, September 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

Students Get a Rare Auditory Glimpse of the Yun I-sang Ensemble in Pyongyang, September 2014. | Image: Chosun Central TV.

Leibreich goes on to describe his perceptions of how North Koreans he encounters in Pyongyang go about listening to music. They are highly attentive and fully focused. He is impressed with their use of small notebooks–and he, unwittingly taking the place of a true leader on an on-site inspection of a musical score.

A further aspect which impresses the conductor is that of language–he is somewhat shocked to find out that the distinction between formal and informal language in Korea is even more acute than that of the German language. It seems unlikely that he was able to progress to “du” with his interlocutors, but that, after all, is what time and alcohol is for. North Koreans, however, are not seen by Leibreich as humorless–anything but. The women with their “Sprechstimme/Singsprechen” and emotional glissandi, also giggle and cry easily, and the bass voices of the men grumbles along (p. 315).

Leibreich is nothing if not an apostle for German orchestral and symphonic music. One gets the sense that the North Korean cultural bureaucrats who approved of his visit hold the music which he has mastered in high esteem, rather than treating it like some kind of Trojan Horse for cultural pollution against which the Moranbong Band acts more as a prophylactic than a gateway drug. A 2013 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Pyongyang might indicate as much. But what might the roots of such a performance be?

A Momument to Organist-Composer Anton Bruckner, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Momument to Organist-Composer Anton Bruckner | Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Leibreich describes how Dr. Uwe Schmelter, the head of the Goethe-Institute in Seoul at the time, had pushed forward with real and seemingly inexhaustible forward force (unermuedlich treibende Kraft) after the breakthroughs of the year 2000, capitalizing on the momentary response to Sunshine in Pyongyang.  This resulted in a joint performance of Anton Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony, during which 20 young (but obviously advanced) students from North Korea’s classical music academies would sit alongside the 50 or so members of the German orchestra. Leibreich recounts how, at the first rehearsal at the Yun I-sang Institut, he was presented with 70 students who wanted to play along. In a gesture to accommodate all of them, ballooning the orchestra to positively Mahlerian size of 120 players, the entire operation was moved to to Moranbong Theater, with its seating for about for 2000 people, double the size of the original venue.

Three days later, they performed Yun I-sang’s Third Violin Concerto (with the North Korean concertmaster acting as soloist) and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in B minor. The Schubert, fortunately, is only two movements long, leaving more time to rehearse the Yun, which is fiercely difficult and somewhat abstract.

This past week in Pyongyang, the Yun I-sang Ensemble celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Institute for which it is named. The program included, fittingly enough, one of Yun’s violin concerti, performed with a North Korean violin soloist. The hall was full, the listening was intent, and the applause was genuine. A Minister of Culture, in post since April and the third such man to serve Kim Jong-un, was there, and his deputy gave a speech. No Europeans appeared to be there to hear it, but a delegation of South Korean musicians was reportedly in attendance. North Korea’s journey between the harsh bray of the German shepherd and the soft click of the conductor’s baton, that ictus and invitation to the dance, took a small step in the right direction.

Source: Alexander Liebreich, ”Kulturarbeit in Nordkorea (Cultural Work in North Korea)” in Deutschland, Korea: geteilt, vereint (Germany & Korea: Divided, United), Hartmut Koschyk, ed. (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005), 313-329.

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