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  • Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea by Nicholas Harkness
  • Kyung-Nan Koh
Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea. By Nicholas Harkness, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, xv, 303pp.

Songs of Seoul, winner of the 2014 Edward Sapir Book Prize by the Society of Linguistic Anthropology, is a semiotically informed anthropology of voice and specifically of sŏngak, or European-style classical vocal music, in Evangelical Christian South Korea. Research for this work was carried out at a major Protestant church (Somang Presbyterian Church) located in the upscale district of Gangnam and at a top educational institution for voice (Department of Voice, Seoul National University) with mostly Christian singers and students. Through Songs of Seoul, we learn that the voice—what Harkness analytically and methodologically conceptualizes as the “phonosonic nexus,” that which links and twines “the phonic production, shaping, and organization of sound, on the one hand, and the sonic uptake and categorization of sound in the [End Page 269] world, on the other” (12; see also Harkness 2011)—is a medium of communicating culturally meaningful qualities; and that the sŏngak voice, which is predominantly the voicing of Korean Christian aspiration, is the outcome of church-centered and church-oriented practices to embody, exhibit, and emanate the sound of the clean that is ideologically construed as the sound of the spiritually enlightened and advanced.

The book consists of two parts, “The Qualities of Voice” (Chapters 1 through 4) and “The Sociality of Voice” (Chapters 5 through 7). Part One is preceded by a theoretically and thematically grounding Introduction, which intriguingly begins with a detour into a cheap dish called pudae tchigae (“army stew”). This detour is helpful as a comparative illustration of a semiotic concept that is critical to the book, Charles Sanders Peirce’s “qualia,” which is the actual, concrete, and experiential instantiation of abstract “qualities” such as hotness, greyness, fishiness, fuzziness, or cleanliness (14; see also Chumley and Harkness 2013; Harkness 2013). The dish is popularly narrated as having originated during or following the Korean War around U.S. Army bases; and Koreans may very well say that the taste—that is, its qualia—invokes qualities of past suffering with its unusual mix of ingredients (e.g., canned beans, Spam, sliced hot dogs, and Korean red pepper paste). Su-yŏn, Harkness’s choir director, goes further to say that the dish evokes feelings of sadness. Similarly, for Christian sŏngak singers, the qualia of traditional Korean voice “is” a sound of suffering and thus sadness, which to quote Su-yŏn, “should not be” anymore in the God-graced, progressed, Korea (1).

In Chapter 1, “Transformation of Voice,” we begin to discover how Korean Christians hear two different voices that comprise the contemporary professional soundscape of Korea—the traditional Korean voice (e.g., p’ansori) versus the European classical voice. Integrating observations from three different encounters, Harkness reveals how these two voices are heard not only as distinct and contrasting but also as a “transformation” from one to the other, from a rough and husky voice interpreted as expressing sadness and han (“deep-seated sorrow from feeling wronged”) to a clean and healthy voice. Chapter 2, “Voicing an Advanced Korea,” then discusses how the voice becomes a medium of Bakhtinian voicing. This chapter analyzes how voice and other linguistic features are used in chronotopic narratives of Korea to tropically figure [End Page 270] the story of Korea’s advancement as a story of Christian achievement. A highly revelatory method of voice analysis is provided of a sermon delivered by the head pastor of the Somang Church. Using transcripts and spectrograms, Harkness vividly reproduces how Pastor Kim Chi-ch’ŏl manipulates his voice and links qualia to different characterological figures and different moral positions (71).

Chapter 3, “Cultivating the Christian Voice,” examines the way in which the voice that is not raspy, buzzy, or harsh—and thus not regarded “backward, self-destructive, forced, undeveloped, and unclean” but “a gift from God”—is cultivated and produced (100). Using data pertaining to the anatomical dimensions of voice production, this chapter explains how s...