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A border-crossing Korean-born composer

Isang Yun in an undated photo.Yonhap/AP/file

This Sunday marks a century since the birth of Isang Yun (1917-95). The Korean-born composer acquired his reputation in the 1950s and ’60s, refocusing post-World War II atonal modernism through a lens of Asian philosophy and musical practice. He became a cause in 1967, when South Korean president Park Chung-Hee’s intelligence agents kidnapped Yun and his wife from Europe to Korea (along with nearly 200 other Korean expatriates) to stand trial on highly dubious espionage charges. International outcry — with musicians across the globe (and political spectrum) protesting Yun’s imprisonment — finally freed him two years later. The experience, Yun reflected, made him musically consider political division “more structurally and deeply.” But his music always had explored variance and rapprochement.

Growing up under Japanese occupation, Yun first composed music for his local silent movie house. He prevailed against his father’s wishes to pursue advanced musical study in Osaka and, later, Tokyo. He also joined the World War II-era underground resistance against the Japanese. Detained and imprisoned, Yun escaped to Seoul.


After the Korean War, Yun settled in Germany, absorbing the avant-garde’s intricate dissonances. Inspired by the Asian musical focus on individual tones, colored and ornamented to call attention to their existence as temporal objects, Yun organized his music around held-out notes, shaped with unusual instrumental techniques, embroidered with pitches extending their expressivity within the surrounding sonic structure.

Yun’s music was banned in South Korea following his arrest, but North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung invited the composer to visit, establishing a Pyongyang music institute named for Yun. Rehabilitation in the south was slower — even as democratization began to take hold, Yun, insulted by South Korean demands to avoid political statements as a precondition for any visit, never returned — but he became the rare figure celebrated on both sides of the DMZ. Yun used his renown to organize a series of pro-unification concerts in the 1980s and ’90s, featuring musicians from both Koreas.


In America, Yun’s centenary has generated less fanfare. (A Sept. 30 concert at the Rivers School in Weston, sponsored by the Korean Cultural Society of Boston, is the only local commemoration.) His rhetoric diverges from much standard concert-hall fare; for all its expressionist energy, Yun’s music often forgoes Western styles of catharsis. Sometimes, it mirrors Yun’s Taoist beliefs, engines of stasis and change generating equilibrium rather than climax. But sometimes one hears frustration, a deliberate lack of resolution and reconciliation. (Yun’s five symphonies, all dating from the 1980s, seem to swing between both interpretations.)

Yun could write explicitly topical works (most notably “Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju,” a harsh elegy for victims of a massive, brutally suppressed South Korean pro-democracy uprising), but he often insisted that he was apolitical. For Yun, borders and ideologies weren’t guiding principles, but obstructions. Humanity was Yun’s concern, the unity of the Korean people — of all people — his goal.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.