Music and Politics on the Korean Peninsula. Special Volume of The World of Music

Editor: Hesselink, Nathan

Publication details: Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung


The collection of essays in this volume moves forward from the position that music and politics are always inextricably linked. The modern conceit of autonomous art fails to account for the historical and cultural embeddedness of music, that its creation and performance exist within overlapping spheres of economics, social status, political control, religious practice, and public reception. Music is also realized within specific spaces—each with their own semantically laden histories and uses—and that performances always have an audience, the act of listening itself contingent on appropriation, control, and the construction of meaning. Music as embodied, performative art is an essentially social entity, snared within webs of relationships between patrons, rulers, composers, performers, audiences, and technology. That the musical worlds of the East and West could be conceptualized as separate (but increasingly interacting) universes during much of the twentieth century belies their remarkably similar foundations. For both ancient Greek theorists and early Confucian scholar-officials, music was the arena in which the proper balance between mankind, the state, and the broader world was checked and regulated. A concern with numbers, ratios, cosmology, and ideas related to beauty were as much passions of the Pythagoreans as they were early Chinese ritual specialists. And while music and politics were comfortable bedfellows in both of these societies more than two millennia ago, in East Asia—here focusing on the Korean peninsula—such a heightened sensitivity to music’s social and spiritual properties and energies maintained an explanatory power much longer than it did in the West, at least on the official governmental level. What this collection of essays will illustrate in dramatic manner is the seriousness with which music was and continues to be taken within political contexts that is frankly quite surprising to those unfamiliar with the Korean experience.