Portrait Younghi Pagh-Paan

German version

She learned to play the piano as a child, and at the age of twelve she put her first composition to paper: a song with piano on a poem she had written herself. But Younghi Pagh-Paan’s most lasting musical impressions came from the marketplace in the small town of Cheongju, where she grew up. Here she heard the folk music of Korea: songs, instrumental music, Shamanist daily rituals, but above all, pansori, the popular form of song epic in which an actor or actress, alternating between recitation and expressive singing and accompanied only by a drummer, can hold the spectators entranced for hours. Years later these childhood experiences came back into her mind. What brought this about was the political unrest of 1968, which she became involved in as a student at Seoul University. She suddenly realised that a progressive composer in Korea could not go running after Western models, but that new Korean music must connect to its own cultural traditions. Yet it took another five years, and the decisive move to Europe, before these insights led to valid artistic outcomes.

In 1974 she went to Germany, to continue her studies with Klaus Huber in Freiburg. The distance acted as a catalyst, releasing her creative powers. After some chamber music pieces marking her first steps into new territory – the flute solo "Dreisam-Nore", and "Man-Nam" for clarinet and string trio – the moment of real artistic liberation came in 1980, in the form of the orchestral piece "Sori", whose Donaueschingen premiere brought her wide public recognition. 'Sori' means everything that makes a sound: speech, song, cries, uproar, exclamations. In a sweeping gesture, this music opens itself up to the world. Rhythms and melodies from Korean peasant music, colourful harmony, exciting sonic processes, introverted silence, and a spirit of rebellion: these are the main aspects of its physiognomy.

In "Sori" one can already see the main features of the compositional aesthetic that Younghi Pagh-Paan formulated in a fundamental text from 1983, "On the Way: Reflections on my Activity as a Composer", which still remains largely valid today (see bibliography). There she explains in detail how the handling of parameters in her compositions derives from the structure of Korean music. The essential points are: the structuring of sonic space and harmony through "mother chords", where permutation of the chords' notes gives rise to a sort of fluctuating stasis; working with rhythmic modes; shaping lines on the basis of expressive Korean vocal music; a unified concept of sound which, following Korean tradition, makes no distinction between pitch and noise; and finally, a specific form of polyphony which the composer describes as heterophonic counterpoint.

With Younghi Pagh-Paan, the immersion in Korean music is evident not only in the way she handles material, but also in terms of content and traditional genres. The series of "Ta-Ryong" pieces is built on the principle of rhythmic repetition implicit in the title – a term taken from folk music. But the composer also sees something fatalistic in this – a metaphor for the fateful endurance of social circumstances that never allow a people to escape their political immaturity. In the "Ta-Ryong" pieces, with all their percussion, the interplay of cyclic structures often turns into a sonic ritual, again alluding to the music’s Korean sources. The composition "Tsi-Shin-Kut" relates to a traditional Earth Spirit ritual. Here the live sounds of the four percussionists and the computer music fuse into a magical incantation in sound, in the midst of which, as if from far away, an excerpt from a pansori song is heard. The technical medium of electronics is subtly infiltrated by these mysterious sound symbols.

Younghi Pagh-Paan has no inhibitions at all about letting the expressivity that typifies Korean music appear without restriction in her own work. In the string trio "NoUl" ("Sunset") the glowing red colour of the setting sun inspired her to write string textures of searing intensity. At the head of the score she places a motto by Ernesto Cardenal: "The colour red sinks into the earth, generation after generation". Red: the colour of blood, the symbol of force and physical pain. And in one of her latest works, "Dorthin, wo der Himmel endet" ("To Where the Sky Ends") she lets Io, put to flight by Zeus, break into an open song of lament, resting on six male voices.

The strangely gruesome nature of ancient Greek mythology has held great fascination for Younghi Pagh-Paan since the mid-nineties. She finds that themes like strangeness and unfamiliarity, which have strong personal significance for her, are portrayed in exemplary fashion in the uncompassionate tales about Io, the expelled Oedipus, or Antigone. The cry of the living Antigone, walled in: for Younghi Pagh-Paan this is the core image of musical expression, the rebellious symbol of an unbroken will to live.

Max Nyffeler (1/2002)

German version
Komponisten: Portraits und Dossiers