By Nancy Summers, guest blogger
As in the West, the 20th Century was one of dreadful violence and suffering in Asia. In the midst of these ongoing tragedies, three of the composers whose work will be performed this year in the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival found music, as world traditions of music found them.
Toro Takemitsu, Isang Yun, and Tan Dun lived through the most horrific upheavals and yet came away with music, the universal significance of which cannot be destroyed…
Toro Takemitsu (1930-96) is widely recognized as the first great Asian composer whose work reached an international audience. Born in Japan in 1930, he experienced Total War. At the age of 14 he was forced to work in a labor gang assigned to build an army camp. He was a youth while every major city in Japan was being destroyed by bombs. During this period most Western music was forbidden, and Takemitsu at first associated Japanese music with the bitterness of war. Takemitsu worked with the US army of occupation after the war, and he heard Western music – of all kinds - on the radio! And he loved it all.., Duke Ellington, Olivier Messaien, Debussy, John Cage…And then he returned to his native traditions. and he sought harmony…For Takemitsu, it was not Nature that was his inspiration – which he knew too well could be red in tooth and claw – but the Garden, the harmonies of nature tended by the Gardener (to whom he compared himself) a secured place for birds, not bombs…
[Image: Toru Takemitsu "Study for Vibration" - Etude 1 from Corona for piano - graphic score]
Isang Yun (1917- 95) was born in Korea when it was a colony of Japan, and after Japan entered World War II he joined the Korean independence movement. In 1943 he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. Isang Yun was so moved by the suffering he saw during the World War that he established an orphanage for war orphans as well as teaching music. The Korean War is not so present in the historical consciousness of most Americans, but for Koreans, the death and destruction that occurred between 1950-1953 cannot be forgotten. In both his music and his life, Isang Yun, wished always for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and reconciliation between East and West. In 1956 Isang Yun moved to Europe where he completed his musical studies and began his career as a composer, one in which he combined Western avant-garde music with traditional Chinese and Korean music.. But the violence of a divided Korea followed him to the West….While living in Berlin in 1964 he was kidnapped by the South Korean Secret Service, brought back to Seoul, accused of espionage, imprisoned and tortured, forced to confess, and sentenced to death. His life was saved by a worldwide petition of artists; the South Korean government let him go…though, they tried to recapture him! Today, Isang Yun is a musical icon in both North and South Korea…This may seem an irony, but it is the kind of end to division that Isang Yun hoped for….
[Image: Isang Yun Autograph from a postcard - work unidentified]
Tan Dun, (1957-) who lives today in New York is perhaps the composer most deserving of the title “world musician”. And yet the beginning of his life in Maoist China could hardly have been more difficult and more limiting. When he was a boy during the Cultural Revolution, his parents were sent away for “re-education”, and he was raised by his grandmother in rural Hunan province. He described himself as “a wild child…living alone, running up mountains barefoot – and being intoxicated only by music”…And then, Tan Dun himself was sent to be “re-educated”, to do backbreaking labor in a rice paddy Even as he worked in the rice paddies, he continued to live his life through music. He listened to all the folk music, wrote it down, arranged it, (using what ever he could find that made noise!) and he became the musical leader of his village…Indeed, today Tan Dun’s music is enriched with the sounds of the shamanist culture he grew up with..
The Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1978, and Tan Dun found himself, “standing on the ruins. Everything's been destroyed. Family's been destroyed, culture [has] been destroyed. And nobody [was] allowed to touch anything Western or ancient. And suddenly you heard Bach. It's like a medicine curing everything you were suffering." When the Central Conservatory reopened in 1978, Tan Dun won one of the coveted spots for composition. And in 1983 he received international recognition, winning the Weber Prize in Dresden for his String Quartet. Tan Dun is today one of the most renowned composer in the world.. His life story, and the life stories of Isang Yun and Takemitsu are indeed tributes to the resiliency of the human spirit, expressing itself in music…
[Image: Tan Dun "Sound & Visual Sketch on Nu Shu's Characters"]