Newspaper Salutes Byong Won Lee as Pioneer of Korean Ethnomusicology

photo: Byong Won LeeThe Korean newspaper Cheonbuk Daily has recognized Center for Korean Studies faculty member Byong Won Lee as a “pioneer of Korean ethnomusicology.” Lee is professor of ethnomusicology in the UH Manoa Music Department, where he has taught for more than three decades.

The local newspaper crew in Cheonju City, located in Cholla Province, visited with Prof. Lee while he was at Cheonbuk University in November 2013 to give a special lecture on ethnomusicology. The November 28 (Thursday) issue of the newspaper ran a special feature on their interview with Lee pointing to his significant contributions to promoting Korean ethnomusicology in the West.

As a specialist in Korean Buddhist music, for example, Lee introduced traditional Korean music in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), providing for the first time a systematic overview for Western academia. He has taught and published many articles and several books on Korean music, continually contributing to developing and making known Korean ethnomusicology worldwide. Meanwhile, he has focused on maintaining the traditional mode of transmission of Korean classical music as a “process art” that preserves the unique characteristics of the music.

The featured interview shows a glimpse of the past of Korean ethnomusicology neglected in academic institutions in Korea and the West. Despite its slow development, it has potential for growth in the future, according to Lee. But he is particularly concerned about the current, Westernized method of teaching classical Korean music. The 1960s introduction of music transcription from Western culture has eliminated the spontaneity and flexibility of Korean classics—which is among its distinctive features compared to Western music—producing only one kind of performance based on the fixed, transcribed score. To revive the impromptu and pliable nature of traditional Korean music, Lee suggests that students should learn from several teachers about various fields of music in addition to their specialty area. This way they can develop their own way and ability to perform extemporaneously.

In addition, Lee blames the Korean system of designating intangible cultural assets that came from Japan for limiting the creativity of Korean music, because it has generated a prescriptive, static type that rejects variations of the latter. For him, the designation of cultural assets and music transcription do not fit a “process art” like Korean classics, though they do for so-called “completed art” such as Western and Japanese music.

The interview ends with Lee’s promise to help Cheonju become the world center of ethnomusicology. He also suggests that the city needs to maintain the identity of traditional Korean culture and music while interacting with the cities of different countries. The future of Korean ethnomusicology seems quite hopeful with a growing number of students and educators devoted to preserving its essence.

The complete interview can be found on line at the Cheonbuk Daily Web site.

DEALING WITH A different aspect of Korean music, Lee was one of the principal speakers in a program titled “Korean Wave Beyond Nationality: Conflicts Over the Globalization of Korean Popular Culture” April 25, 2014, at the University of Notre Dame. The event was organized by the Korean Program of Notre Dame’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. His talk was titled “K-Pop in the Process of Constructing an Imaginary Global Community of Korean Wave.”

In the fifteen years since its appearance in Chinese media, the term hallyu, or Korean Wave, has grown from references to TV dramas and K-pop to embrace Korean popular culture more broadly. Now included are such items and trends as economic hallyu, fashion, food, and hairstyles. Despite this widening definition, K-pop has continued to be the center of the Korean Wave. In his talk, Lee examined historical formation, musical idiosyncrasy, and syncretizing elements and attempted to pinpoint the strength and weakness of K-pop and project its future viability along with other cultural commodities within the hallyu context. He also took a critical look at ideas about the spread of K-pop over the global community.