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Reviewed by:
  • Perspectives on Korean Music
  • Yong-Shik Lee (bio)
Perspectives on Korean Music, by Keith Howard. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. 2 vols.: 264, 260 pp. Illustrations, music examples, CDs. $99.95 each volume (cloth).

Music is a mirror to understand the discourse of identity in Korean society. As in many Third World countries that have experienced rapid Westernization and urbanization, Western music has been the dominating power in Korean society since the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, Koreans have attempted to find their national identity from traditional culture and music. Although most Koreans prefer Western classical music and Western-style popular music to traditional music, they believe that traditional music has played a key role as the carrier of the "five thousand years" of Korean identity and has to be developed in order to enhance the notion of Koreanness.

Traditional music has been the core of the Intangible Cultural Properties system in order to preserve and promote the valuable cultural heritage. At the same time, musicians have attempted to create a new music culture in order to appeal to the tastes of contemporary audiences. In this regard, preserving and creating are double sides of a coin for Korean musicians.

Keith Howard seriously explores the double sides of the coin in his comprehensive two-volume publication. The author is one of the first foreign ethnomusicologists [End Page 88] to conduct extensive field research in Korea. His publication, Bands, Songs, and Shamanistic Rituals: Folk Music in Korean Society (1989), based on his fieldwork on Jindo Island, at the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula and a "Treasure Island," in its literal meaning, or as Howard puts it, "a virtual heritage museum" (p. 1: 101) of Korean folk music, is one of the most comprehensive musical ethnographies of Korean music. In his 1989 study, Howard explores the background and process of Korea's promotion of the Intangible Cultural Properties system and its application to Jindo cultural properties. His interest is not confined to Jindo islanders' music but has expanded to most traditional musical genres from court music to folk music and to newly composed music since the late 1980s. This two-volume study is the result of twenty-five years of research from an outsider's view.

Since the late 1960s Korean traditional music has been "recovered" by two oppositional powers. On one hand, the Korean government has promoted traditional music to gain popular recognition of the regime's legitimacy, exploiting the term "nationalism." The aim of such governmental manipulation is to legitimize and increase its authoritative power through the inspiration of people's historical consciousness. The most effective meaning of reviving cultural nationalism was to efface its emergent nature by invoking the past. This process of invoking the past becomes a matter of empowerment in creating national self. The government emphasized the importance of traditional culture and redefined the Confucian ethics that have governed Korean life and ideology for more than six hundred years (Lee 2004: 38–39). The government's exertion in establishing traditional culture resulted in the system of Intangible Cultural Properties, as explored by Howard in his first volume, Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity.

On the other hand, the minjung (people) movement, which "attempts to heal the nation's wounded history by reconstructing a popular culture common to all" (Choi 1995: 107), aims to revive the traditional culture. Those who oppose state authority have embraced especially folk culture, including folk songs, farmers' band music, masked dances, and shamanic arts, as a counter-hegemonic reaction to elite culture. The recognition of traditional music by the activist was not restricted to a momentary movement. It has resulted in the development of new Korean music as the key role in the discourse of the Korean identity, as examined in Howard's second volume, Creating Korean Music: Tradition, Innovation and the Discourse of Identity.

To preserve and to create Korean music are contradictory tasks for Korean musicians, although they are complementary in nature. Most Korean musicologists argue that traditional music should be preserved as its own to exhibit the splendid traditional culture. In fact, maintaining archetypes based on the notion of originality is the...


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