Asia as Silent Soul in the West

[Jin Hi Kim tours, performs and resides with Joseph Celli, the man behind one of our favorite independent labels, OO Discs. While I think we tread across a snakepit of controversy in equating Newtonian and Eisensteinian physics with fluctuations in human behavior, Ms Kim’s account of Asian esthetics in both ideal and practical terms comes across as a fascinating read. Ed.]

Jin Hi Kim

for “Dancing Mosaic: A Pan-Asian Performance Showcase” Handbook (September, 1999)

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]

For my upcoming trip to Minnesota, I researched some of the interesting arts organizations to visit and was informed about each organization’s goals and missions. One day I received a very enthusiastic and serious email letter from Vidhya Shanker, Community Program Manager of Asian American Renaissance. We have corresponded several times and shared concerns about the social and historical impact of Asian culture on the USA. In this article I try to connect my experiences as a professional composer and Korean komungo performer with some of Ms Shanker’s valuable concerns.

I grew up in Korea after the country went through the crisis of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. None of our schools — including primary, middle, or high school — taught us Korean traditional music. Classes in both music and art meant classes in Western music and art; Korean music was never mentioned. So, of course, it was quite natural that I played piano. One day my father saw an advertisement in the newspaper calling for students to apply to the newly opened National High School for Korean Traditional Music. It was 1973, and the government had recently founded this school under the nation’s only music institute, the highly prestigious National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. While this institute had preserved the nation’s historical events and performing arts such as Korean traditional court music and dance for over 1,500 years, and several of the select traditional musicians who trained there have now become National Living Treasures, I was among the first students to attend the high school during that very first year in which it was founded.

Initially, I wasn’t proud of carrying my traditional komungo (4th century fretted board zither) in public and many people would quiz me about this rather exotic instrument. I always sensed that they denigrated me because I wasn’t performing on a Western instrument. When I completed the high school I went to Seoul National University for further study on Korean traditional music. The university is still the best academic school in Korea and was the first university to establish a Korean traditional music section within its music department in 1958. I studied both Korean and Western music there, but was rather disappointed by the school system in that the department was mainly controlled by Western music and no balance existed between Western and Korean music. More than three-fourths of the students were Western music majors. Again, even among the musicians in Korea and the academics at the university, I recall feeling as if Korean music was not worthy.

I think this story applies to many countries in Asia. The 20th century has been a century in which the modernization of society, aesthetics and culture has happened quite rapidly and has happened with a Western bias. Generally, Asians know more about Western culture than about the cultures of their neighbor countries. Furthermore, in Korea, Japan, and India, court music was not opened to the public until 1930s. As a result of this combination, the Asian public learned and appreciated Western music earlier and to a greater degree than their own music. Thus, needless to say, the historical significance of various Asian performing arts was appreciated neither by Westerners nor by the natives of Asia. Times have changed! Does this fact cause problems for our life or was it a natural cause of change?

Shanker: Even though providing a platform for immigrant- and first-generation artists who have trained in their native countries and settled here, only to find no serious audience for their craft. Music and dance are often expected to provide a spectacle for what is assumed to be a Euro-American audience.

Kim: If one wishes to experience Asian music and dance, one should try to understand the different artistic concept, function, and method in Asia. Most music and dance were created for life rituals and meditation, not for entertainment. In daily life, music was often used to heal sick people and mark occasions such as birth, death, harvest, etc. In contrast, music is very commercialized in the US. Music is to be sold and to help sell. People nowadays need music to touch them only at an emotional level. Most people don’t appreciate how the process of music-making has the profound energy to reach deep inside, into our silent souls.

Music was often integrated with dance in Asia. Both were usually performed on a grand scale at outdoor rituals and ceremonies. There, the audience had a different position than now-a-days in the West. Oftentimes, Asian music and dance were expressed through subtle nuances, as one looked for inner energy rather than overt expression of emotions. This concept was practiced in the same way that the martial arts were practiced: one works with concentrated and meditative energy instead of with the body’s physical power.

Korean traditional folk music was strongly influenced by Shamanism’s ecstatic possession. Court music was based on Taoism’s middle way between the static (yin) and dynamic (yang); on the Confucian concept of right conduct emphasizing ceremony and utilization of the cosmic sound; and on Buddhism’s meditative quest for nothingness. These are all very powerful arts, indeed. Do we simply buy music and dance? Have we thought about how arts effect one’s life instead? In our focus upon instant pleasure in contemporary times, the craft of Asian art has been neglected.

Shanker: Aesthetics and culturally informed notions of grace: What concepts about body language are lost or changed through emigration? What literal and figurative changes result from performing under different circumstances, in a different climate and upon a different geography?

Kim: Although I had enormous pleasure learning Korean music in Korea, my frustration about not being respected equally compared to my Western music colleagues there, germinated in my heart an anxiety that caused me to come to the USA after graduating. I thought I should compose a piece that combines both Western and Korean instruments on an equal basis. I believed that this would change the lack of balance between Western and Korean music in society. I realized that to achieve my dream, I must study Western music thoroughly. My reason for coming to the US was not to protect traditional music but to discover others in pursuing my mission. I had the pleasure of studying Western music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to, and received an MFA degree in electronic music and composition at Mills College. In the USA, I also had the pleasure of attending many kinds of world music and dance concerts, and many contemporary music and dance series. I had the opportunity to meet more than 300 composers and musicians during the New Music America Festivals that took place between 1981 and 1990. It is in the nature of the arts to evolve constantly with different environments, geographies, and times. We can’t stop traditional arts from changing, as life is changing. The most important thing is to make the new art of high quality. Of course, a few select artists have already been successful in achieving this goal.

Shanker: How do the arts inevitably change with each passing generation and how are these changes compounded when people migrate to other countries?

Kim: If I were living in Korea now, I could not be developing my career along the same lines as I am here in the USA. My musical interest is in cross-cultural collaboration. This would not be possible in Korea. I now travel and live in many different countries, and I collaborate with various musicians around the world. Additionally, America is a country of immigrants, and therefore it is a natural place for cultures to melt together. Many outstanding professional musicians have immigrated to the USA. According to the database from the World Music Institute, there are more than 50 musicians from the middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, South America and Russia now living in New York area and who knows how many in Minnesota. Only in America is it possible to bring together artists with different voices and create a new aesthetic. Needless to say, more non-Western musicians than indicated by this database perform their traditional music and create new pieces with others. It is an invaluable opportunity for a composer/ choreographer to meet so many different artists from around the world in a single city such as New York or Minnesota and to collaborate with them. More important during the process of collaborating is the sharing of different cultures and souls.

Shanker: Art as a carrier of culture, immigrant generation parents often say the reason they enroll their children in dance class is because they want them to be aware of their cultural heritage.

Kim: Learning about non-Western cultural heritage is for all of us in the world, not just for those who have emigrated from non-Western countries to the West. When I first arrived in the United States, I tried to develop and promote greater awareness of Korea among Americans and Europe through my own performances, compositions, and lectures. Finding Korean identity in the US as an immigrant was a small challenge. Now I see an even bigger challenge: living in a world overpowered by Western values. The arts and aesthetics are not balanced in contemporary times, and one way I hope to change that is by serving as board director of International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM). IAWM is an educational vehicles for me to pursue the idea that everyone should share different cultural backgrounds and historical contexts in creative arts.

Shanker: When an established artist from a European country emigrates to the U.S., his or her talent, training, knowledge, and expertise is still recognized. Why is the same is not true of a similarly established artist from Asia or a “Third World” country?

Kim: I believe that it is time to be aware of an Asian presence in the arts today and to integrate it consciously. It is time to attain a balance between the ever-increasing presence of Western arts in Asia and the experiences and historical traditions of Asian artistic life. Western music has left a deep imprint on Asian composers. Many Asian composers and choreographers received their training in Europe and America and work within compositional standards set in the West. In contrast, there has been very little interest in Asian instruments and dance, concepts and history among artists in the West. The dominance of Western art has created a particular problem for artists who retain close contact with the indigenous cultures of their societies; their creative works do not easily fit into Western definitions or styles of creative thought. The notion of “the composer as an individual,” for example, is not central to Asian creative activity; it is a Western idea that developed over the centuries along with the rise of individualism. Until the infusion of Western thought, the creative process in Asia was conceived of as a collective act or as creation for the group. It is time to recognize that the evolution of a work in a non-Western traditional style and the development of new work with historical roots is an invaluable practice. Cross-culturalism and multi-culturalism require from us a great degree of respect and willingness to share different ways of thinking, organizing, living, and creating.

As written in the I Ching (Book of Change), “when yang reached its climax it retreats in favor of yin.” I believe that we are living on the turning point in which the feminist movement against masculine domination is a strong cultural current. Western values and aesthetics have also reached their climax and are retreating in favor of the East. The I Ching (Book of Change) states, “The movement is natural, arising spontaneously. The old is discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with the time; therefore no harm results.” Newton’s mechanistic conception is discarded and Einstein’s new reality of atomic physics is introduced, as his theory relativity can be useful to the space-time experience of Eastern mysticism. Within Newton’s belief system, the arts are conceived as being created in a fixed and controlled form (such as Western classical music). Within Einstein’s new belief system, the arts are conceived as being created in an organic way (such as Asian ritual music). We are living at that turning point where this new belief system has a long, long way to go before establishing its own life. As written in the I Ching (Book of Change), “yang and yin are not separate. They are integrated poles.” We need to reach a future state in which a coherent balance between male and female power has developed in society and a coherent balance between Western and Eastern aesthetics has developed in the contemporary art world.

Shanker: We all have multiple and often overlapping identities that the arts of Asia tend to be perceived as ancient-only, despite the fact that they are still living and continue to grow?

Kim: In Asia we have leading virtuoso soloists who have pioneered the creation of new music based on their individual cultures and Asian roots. These include, among others, Kazue Sawai (Japanese koto), Sainkho Namchylack (Tuvan voice), Min Xiao-Fen (Chinese pipa), and myself (Korean komungo/ electric komungo). These musicians highlight outstanding new work that is informed by materials reflective of the traditions and history of their respective countries within a contemporary context. The Asia Society and the World Music Institute, in association with IAWM, are presenting “Asian Women in Music Today” on October 22 and 23, 1999 at the Asia Society in New York City. The program, conceived by myself as IAWM’s International Liaison to Asia, will be composed of two evening concerts and an afternoon panel discussion focusing on new creative works that are derived from Asian roots. In new music, Asian materials are also blending with those of non-Asian contexts. Today in South Korea, Japan, China, and the Philippines, a large number of composers write for Western standard orchestral instruments. In India and Indonesia, however, Western music is still fairly new. And throughout Asia, some composers are working on the fusion of Eastern and Western music.

Shanker: Subtlety and Nuance: Although they can be used to distinguish regional and historical variations, they are rarely given the type of attention that similar subtleties and nuances in European and American art forms are given. Subsequently, all traditions — whether courtly, classical, or folk — are mixed up and presented in the same way.

Kim: The world is merging. Individuality and universality co-exist. Western and Asian cultures have their own aesthetics, and these too are merging. Hierarchical division is diminishing. Diversity is increasing. An unimaginable number of different kinds of beauties exists in the universe. My final mission is to connect our existence with the new solar system. I will continue my development in a new multi-cultural music theater work entitled Touching the Moons. The work will be the evolution of my on-going concern for the relationship of traditional Asian cultures within a 21st century context. Touching the Moons will be created through a collaborative process with Korean, Indian, and US-based artists working in the fields of music, dance, multi-media art and technology. The piece will juxtapose and interweave traditional Asian dance and musical forms with cutting-edge technology to create a truly cross-cultural work both in methodology and in subject. Touching the Moons is a multi-media homage to the moon, and will commemorate Western science’s continuing exploration of the solar system as the “last great frontier” as it celebrates the traditional Eastern belief in the moon as a female force that counterbalances the male energy of the sun.