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Seung-Ah Oh - Korea, Schoenberg, and the appeal of an eastern philosophy


Round-trip to Vienna

Seung-Ah Oh

“Music was important to our family when I grew up”, says Seung-Ah Oh, who was born in 1969. Yet in the Roman Catholic Oh household no ancient Korean chamber music could be heard or folk music from the villages or rural areas. In the 1970s, Seung-Ah’s father worked in Saudi Arabia for a while and came back with a fabulous hi-fi system, including a tape recorder and an extensive collection of opera tapes. “He played Pavarotti, all of the well-known singers”, Oh remembers, “very often and very loudly. When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s nobody believed that Korean music was important. We did music in primary and secondary school but it was almost exclusively about western music, mainly classical, starting with Beethoven and the Romantics. We had theory lessons and sang Schubert and Schumann.”

In Korean circles of well-off urban families it was customary for children to learn to play the piano. Seung-Ah didn’t like it. “The method was tedious, we were taught in groups using a number of pianos so we didn’t get a lot of attention and barely received any instructions.” When she was thirteen she switched to violin, “it was much better, but the teacher was really bad”. As a result her neck started to hurt terribly. Her mother wanted her to go to the art high school. “Education was very important for Korean parents, you really had to do your best to rise above your class. Parents invested as much money as possible in their children’s education. To us it meant: work, work, work.” On violin, Seung-Ah did not achieve top results. Nevertheless she did play Bach, Haydn, and Mozart with her sister, who played cello, and brother, who played the flute. Especially during the parties and dinners for her father’s business acquaintances and fellow churchgoers, which took place most weeks.

When it became clear that playing the violin was no longer an option, Seung-Ah’s parents decided she should take up medicine. “That was fine with me; I was crazy about biology and really enjoyed dissecting animals.” Then she became seriously ill. She was condemned to lie flat on her back and do nothing for an entire summer. Subsequently, her usually sublime academic record deteriorated. It was unlikely that she would be admitted to a top medical school. She explained her problem to her mentor in high school, a music teacher who studied composition at the University of Seoul. This gave the mentor the idea that composition might be a suitable subject for her student, who had always earned high marks for music. Oh: “Although this was true I had never written any actual music.” The mentor thought that her skills on the piano and violin as well as the theoretical knowledge she had gained during music lessons were an adequate basis for further studies. “So I said to my parents: I want to study composition.” They weren’t happy. “My father thinks music is something you do in your spare time; in Korea you don’t earn money as a composer.” He refused to speak to her for a month but her mother supported her. Seung-Ah took expensive private lessons for one and a half year. She was taught harmony, composition for voice and piano, and musical dictation, while learning to play the piano more proficiently.

“The entrance examination for the university was unbelievably difficult”, Oh says. “Especially dictation. Tonal music was never a problem for me but there was always an atonal piece as well and I don’t have perfect pitch.” She failed; Seung-Ah was deeply embarrassed. The prospect that she would have to take a resit, and risk failing again, did not appeal. Somewhat dejectedly she enrolled temporarily at the Ghu-Gae School of Art in Seoul. The composition lessons were largely a continuation of what she had already studied for the entrance test. Traditional Korean music was mentioned in passing but was not taken seriously by most, including Seung-Ah herself: “If someone did a music major playing the Korean zither kayageum people would say she probably has low marks in music.” Yet she vividly remembers her composition professor Jong-Suh Park. After looking at one of her piano solos he asked for an eraser and started to rub out arbitrary passages in her manuscript. “I was so shocked. He said that music needs to breathe and that I should learn to compose silences. At the time I still had no idea what he meant.”

Seung-Ah sporadically came into contact with contemporary music. She recalls how in 1989 she and her fellow students were compelled to attend a concert by a world-famous French ensemble. She experienced this music as ‘a slow-moving racket’. “I did my best to appreciate it but found it soporific.” The piece she listened to was Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps, written by Olivier Messiaen, the highly-gifted Frenchman who would later become the subject of Seung-Ah’s dissertation and whose ideas and techniques have become an integral part of her compositions.

The Ghu-Gae School of Art was not an actual university yet Seung-Ah aspired to an academic degree. “My mother begged me, please sign up for a place where you stand a good chance of being accepted.” That seemed to be the case at the Ehwa Women’s University of Seoul. Seung-Ah was already ‘a bit feminist’ but still felt that she had to swallow her pride to some extent. But there were also advantages to a university exclusively for women: “No discrimination between the sexes. Everywhere else you go (however capable you might be) men always get offered more opportunities, whether they deserve it or not.” Ehwa accepted her without hesitation and from 1990 Seung-Ah continued with her composition studies at university level. Suddenly, contemporary music became part of the programme. Twelve-tone music, to be more precise. It was quite confrontational. “There was no gradual transition, no bridge, and no lessons on how to take the next step in this direction. I was completely lost. I wanted to write proper contemporary music but nobody told me how to do it.”

“Everyone was talking about the twelve-tone system so I wanted to try it out.” She asked her teacher Doo-Young Sung, who had lived in France all his life, about Schoenberg and his music. “He said, ‘I don’t know anything about this music and I don’t like it’. He did give me a book, translated from the Japanese, saying that I should look into it myself. So I set to work.” To her it was a game involving numbers; the application of an orderly system. “Before each lesson I would spend a couple of hours writing a piece. I didn’t even listen to hear if it added up.” According to her teachers, it always tallied. They praised Seung-Ah as one of the best composers of her class. “Meanwhile, I didn’t have a clue what it was all about, I just skimmed the surface without understanding the essence of twelve-tone composition.” Her teachers barely appeared interested in music at all and what they had to offer was limited. Nevertheless, Seung-Ah decided to stay on in Seoul so she could do her Master’s degree. But she didn’t want to take her PhD in Korea; of that she was sure.

In 1996, as her graduation approached, Seung-Ah started to look into opportunities for studying in the United States. It made sense for two reasons: there were many universities to choose from and she could understand English. She had heard good things about the University of Pennsylvania, several fellow students were going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and there were some interesting composers on the faculty at the Rutgers University of New Jersey. Seung-Ah applied to all three, was also accepted at Rutgers, but eventually chose Illinois.

Her first college American style (in 1996) was a bewildering experience. A lecturer who talked about 20th century music she knew nothing about in sentences that might last 30 seconds, riddled with curious musical terms. No books, no debates. And what to think of the seminars where professors would pose questions that young students answered in various profound ways? Unthinkable in Korea, Seung-Ah suffered a culture shock. Even more so during the mandatory lectures and workshops regarding electro acoustics. She was not acquainted with the scientific terminology used in physics, not even in Korean. “Still, my introduction to electronic music was a revelation although I was so busy catching up that I didn’t have time to ask myself what was attractive, important or interesting about it.” She solved the problem of lectures on unfamiliar subjects by asking a fellow student to reiterate the details for her that same evening in exchange for a free dinner.

The principal part of the curriculum was still twelve-tone music. For people like her composition teacher John Melby, friend of the seasoned serialist Milton Babbitt, it was the only music. “He taught me a lot about temporal issues, timing, and phrasing. He pointed out that twelve-tone music is not a hermetic system that produces music after some deft manipulation but that everything starts with a musical concept. Also, the system is not sacred, you can mould it to your will.” As always, Seung-Ah excelled at her studies, and when Melby retired, he encouraged her to persevere. He advised her to move to Brandeis University in Boston, which represented the Second Viennese School on the East Coast of the US (Schoenberg himself once taught here at some stage). Oh: “It was a very conservative educational institution but here I absorbed infinitely more than I could ever have learned in Korea. My music became more musical.”

One reason for this was that Brandeis was not exclusively dedicated to serialism. “I heard Messiaen’s Réveil des Oiseaux; perhaps because it was on the same CD as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I listened again and again and really fell for it in the end. At first glance it appears as if he keeps repeating himself but in reality the music keeps changing ... a gradual transformation of harmony. It is very ingenious and I wanted to find out exactly how he did it.” To this end Seung-Ah decided to write a dissertation on Réveil des Oiseaux, which heralded her own awakening. By then, after another three years of grappling with the twelvetone technique, she felt an uncontrollable urge to do something completely different. “I was still stuck in that system; I needed a break.” She decided that she wanted to spend a year in Europe and asked her professor, David Rakowski, if she could postpone the completion of her PhD during that period.

To her surprise he immediately took her seriously. One of his other students had gone to the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague on a Fullbright Scholarship and he thought Seung-Ah would fit right in. “I knew nothing about The Hague but going to the Netherlands seemed like a good idea. I didn’t want to start off by having to learn French, German or Italian and I heard that English was not a problem in Holland. It turned out that Louis Andriessen was the great man in The Hague so I applied to him.” Wanting to find out what she could expect, Seung-Ah searched Boston’s university library for the music of Louis Andriessen. She unearthed a score for an unusual combination of instruments; all of the staves were linked vertically. And she found a recording of his work by De Volharding, perhaps Workers Union or Hoketus or Hout. “What on earth is this?” Seung-Ah wondered. “How can this be music?” Shortly afterwards, in the summer of 2001, she was told she was very welcome at the Royal Conservatoire.

Yet she wasn’t sure. Although some time earlier she had met a young composer from Hong Kong, Aenon Jia-en Loo. “He played on the interior of the piano, I heard the harmonics ring out and started to think, why don’t I immerse myself in such beautiful sounds? Why am I writing this bleak music?” What impressed her most was that Loo could just as easily play virtuosic and complex piano music. “Yet he chose not to do so because he loved simple but striking stuff. I had never met anyone who did that. I started to want it too.”

Seung-Ah told Bernard Rands, a Harvard professor, that the Royal Conservatoire had accepted her, and about her doubts after what she had seen and heard of Andriessen’s work. Coincidentally, that summer Andriessen was due to come to the US in connection with a performance by the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Company. On top of this he and Rands were old friends, they had both studied with Berio in Italy. Andriessen was going to stay in Rands’ house near Tanglewood and the professor invited Seung-Ah to come and meet the famous Dutchman. She listened to Andriessen’s lecture. His vast knowledge, sense of humour and eloquence struck a favourable chord. “She is going to study with you”, was how Rands introduced the Korean composer. She and Andriessen seemed to click straightaway. In that country house close to Tanglewood Seung-Ah took what may have been the most important decision of her career. In the Netherlands she would say farewell to Vienna and rediscover Korea. “In Holland, my musical life changed completely. I became a real composer.”

This interview is the second chapter in Intuition, guts, and a sensitive ear, the fourth book in a series of composers' portraits, published by November Music, Muziekcentrum Nederland en Buma Cultuur. Click here for the PDF-version of the complete publication.

Translation from Dutch by Moze Jacobs.

© Peter van Amstel - 2011