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.