Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Younghi Pagh-Paan: Sharing art

"Art is about sharing and exchanging expressions and forming a community."

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with international pioneers among Korean artists that marks the 61st anniversary of The Korea Times, which fell on Nov. 1, and is sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation. — ED.

By Lee Hyo-won

PANICALE, Italy — “Molto bene (very good)!” exclaimed Younghi Pagh-Paan as she bit into a fig, fresh and juicy right off the tree, and wrapped with prosciutto prepared by the town butcher.

The composer spun out sentences in a rhythmic mixture of Italian, Korean, German and English, depending on whether she addressed a neighbor or a German musician that performed one of her pieces. Regardless of the language, she spoke with the same “jeong,” or affectionate concern, typical of a Korean mother. Though the 66-year-old shares hearty classic local dishes with visitors, her refrigerator is stocked with Korean food.

“Panicale is like North Chungcheong Province. I don’t feel like I’m abroad, as if I’m in Korea except that the people speak Italian,” she said.

Pagh may be one of the most exciting contemporary composers and highly reputed pedagogues to emerge from Germany, where she has lived since the 1970s — but the Cheongju native’s penchant for mountainous regions makes her feel most at home in the central Italian city, and she spends at least several months a year here.

“My mind is at peace here,” she said, climbing to the second floor of the vacation house she shares with her husband (the esteemed composer Klaus Huber occupies the first floor to work on his own music).

This is where she feels comfortable crafting music — where she sits pensively to remain true to the meaning of her pen name “Paan.” She has always sought to be a “philosophical composer” that reflects deeply on the meaning of art and ways to tell life stories through music notes.

“My music has first and foremost been about spirituality and inspiration. It’s not meant to be played or heard any time of the day; but if someone could come and concentrate on a piece of mine for 10 minutes and return home feeling something, then I will have accomplished something.”

The Seoul National University graduate came to Europe on a German state scholarship, with an aggressive purpose “to learn about the enemy” — she felt that a progressive Korean composer could not mimic Western models.

Yet her oeuvre leaps nimbly over binaries of Eastern and Western aesthetics; though almost always titled in Korean, her pieces fuse unique rhythmic structures found in “gugak” (traditional Korean music) with Western composition techniques, and translate fluidly across borders because they evoke basic human emotions and experiences.

After winning the top prize at the prestigious Composers Seminar in Boswil, Switzerland, in 1978, Pagh became the first female composer to premiere a commissioned piece at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1980. She was the second Korean to have the latter honor after the late Isang Yun, and gained wide international attention for “Sori,” a piece meaning “sound” in Korean that gives flight to the spirit of rebellious peasant music.

Classical music, especially contemporary pieces, is often considered esoteric. However, Pagh demonstrates that in the end, music, regardless of genre, is about sharing.

“Art is not a solo act. It’s about sharing and exchanging expressions and forming a community. A composer can write music only if there are performers that can bring it to life, but people can only play if there is an audience that could listen.”

Likewise, she considers her success a shared accomplishment — her parents instilled in her the confidence that uplifts her to this day; her sister encouraged her to learn the piano to ease the pain of losing their father at the age of 10; and even the guard at her elementary school let her slip into the empty classroom at 4 in the morning to play the instrument.

“I was able to settle down in Europe thanks to my friends and family, and I never forgot that. This communion of love has made me who I am now,” she said. Not long after pulling the grin she always wears into a larger crescent moon, however, she had to pause to wipe away a tear. “Oh, it must be all this reminiscing.”

There were also musicians that were instrumental to her growth, she continued. Pagh swore to become a composer upon hearing Ahn Eak-tai’s “Korea Fantasy” as a teenager — “the first time this little girl from the suburbs ever saw instruments in person,” she recalled “the electrifying experience.”

Listening to Germany-trained Yun’s “Reak” as a university student solidified her determination to study in the European country, purging all artistic doubts and the thought of switching majors to psychology. Visiting Beethoven’s home and seeing how even the great maestro had to erase and correct notes taught her the grace of letting go, to eliminate unnecessary notes. She developed a critical eye while studying under teachers like Huber.

Pagh turned to academia in the 1990s because she, too, wanted to give to others.

“I wanted to teach because I wanted to do something for the next generation. Someone has to; composers can solely focus on their own careers but I believed it was equally important to nurture the young. Even retiring means passing on the professorship to the next generation; it’s about sharing,” she said about wrapping up her tenure at the University of Arts Bremen.

She was the first woman to reach such high ranks as vice-president in a teutophone institute of higher education. When asked about the hardships of paving a way through a conservative, male-dominated field in a foreign country, she shook her head. “It was a human, not a woman's, struggle. I risked everything coming to Europe and my life depended on it. It may be difficult to imagine since I look so much at ease now but I fought ferociously in my early days,” she said.

The battle had always been within, as she sought, and continues to seek, the purposes of art. As an educator she wished to instill this attitude in students. “I wanted teach the importance of spirituality in music. There is too much emphasis on technique these days.”

She also espouses the importance of catering to individual needs. “Not all of my students were destined to become composers that are invited to showcase their work at the Donaueschingen Festival. But I taught them to play important roles in society regardless of what they became, by developing their unique individual talent.”

Pagh frowned slightly as she went on to express concern for Korean adolescents. “Koreans today are obsessed with being No. 1 in everything. Society is not comprised of just top dogs. A creative mind is different from intelligence. Anyone, no matter what she or he does, can be creative.”

Creativity, the artist believes, stems from the openness to learn. “I am a perennial student, always ready to learn,” she said. When asked about what she wishes to learn — or teach or compose— in the future, Pagh shrugged. But what seems certain is that her soul compass would be pointing toward her homeland.

Source: The Korea Times

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