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Music

German film portrays composer pitted between both Koreas

Hero, traitor, iconoclast, prisoner, exile: Enigmatic Korean composer Isang Yun has been many things. Almost two decades after his death, a German-made film goes searching for the truth behind the musician.

On June 17, 1967 Isang Yun received a knock on the door at his West Berlin apartment, where he had been living since 1964. His unexpected visitors were South Korean secret service agents, instructing him to travel to the country's embassy in Bonn.

Twenty-four hours later, Yun - South Korea's most notorious and divisive contemporary classical music composer - was imprisoned in Seoul at the behest of the country's military ruler, General Park Chung-hee, awaiting trial as a communist sympathizer, spy and traitor to his homeland. He was later tortured and sentenced to life in prison.

Yun's abduction is emblematic of the spectacular life he lived. While never explicitly political, he, like so many fellow Koreans, was a victim of the tragedy of his country's 20th-century narrative, brutally torn in two after the Korean War.

Yun was already a celebrated composer at home by the time the Japanese occupied the then unified Korean peninsula during the World War II, later taking him prisoner for his pro-Korean independence activities.

"I believe Isang Yun was essentially apolitical," Berlin-based filmmaker Maria Stodtmeier told DW. Stodtmeier's recent documentary, "In Between: Isang Yun in North and South Korea," investigates the many misconceptions surrounding the enigmatic composer and his political exile, investigating his conflicting legacy as it is viewed in both North and South Korea.

Still from the film In Between: Isang Yun in North and South Korea, directed by Maria Stodtmeier, Copyright: Accentus Music

Images of former leaders Kim Il Sung and son Kim Jong Il are prevalent in North Korea

"He was a composer first of all, but of course he was a product of this unique time in history," continued Stodtmeier, who traveled to both North and South Korea to research her film, which recently won Best Documentary at the Mumbai International Film Festival. "He grew up during Japanese colonization and then lived through the division of his country and the Korean War, and the rise of the two dictatorships in the North and South. He lived as a refugee in Germany. He was political only by an accident of who he was."

First to mesh musical traditions

Born in the unassuming coastal city of Tongyeong in what is now South Korea, Yun was trained in traditional Korean composition before leaving to further his musical studies in Tokyo and Paris, where he became enamoured by both the Western classical tradition and the avant-garde movement of the late 1950s.

Yun's idiosyncratic style soon became a synthesis of these three radically different traditions - utterly contemporary in his references to 12-tone composition, yet weaving in more formal elements from both the East and West. In his lifetime he would amass an impressive body of work, including four operas, over 20 works for orchestra and dozens of other compositions for chamber ensemble, choral groups and soloists.

Filmmaker Maria Stodtmeier, Copyright: Maria Stodtmeier

Stodtmeier traveled to both North and South Korea for the film

"He developed his own style both in music and life," Stodtmeier commented. "He mixed it up - the old sounds of Korea are all there. He brought that to contemporary Western music and then the other way around, he brought the modern back to Korea. He was the first guy who came to Western music as an Asian composer. He was brave enough to put his own Asian identity, which has nothing to do with Western music, into Western music for the first time."

Yun's abduction came in the wake of revelations that he'd been in contact with North Korea via its embassy in East Berlin. He had indeed visited both the embassy and the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in 1963. Yun was intrigued by the estranged North, where he had both family and friends.

This was also the 1960s, a time when artists and intellectuals were openly questioning capitalism and considering whether socialism. But, perhaps more profoundly, Yun's work was highly revered in North Korea for its fusion of ancient Korean traditions and ultra-modern innovation. This mélange suited the zeitgeist of Kim Il-sung's burgeoning communist state, and Yun welcomed the adoration.

"I think the North Koreans properly understood what Yun was about, with his mixture of old and new, and they embraced him," Stodtmeier said. "South Korea, on the other hand, was becoming more conservative under Park Chung-hee. Yun more and more fell out of favor there."

Writing history

Yun's fallout with the South was nothing short of spectacular. Kidnapped along with a number of fellow South Korean academics and artists based in Germany, he faced life in prison in South Korea - accused of being the kingpin of a communist spying racket. However, after intense lobbying from West Germany and a widely publicized petition for his release signed by reputable fellow composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Mauricio Kagel and Igor Stravinsky, Park Chung-hee's regime buckled to international pressure and released Yun on March 23, 1969. He returned to West Germany where he was granted citizenship. Yun would never return to South Korea, and his works would remain banned there until the mid-1990s.

Still from the film In Between: Isang Yun in North and South Korea, directed by Maria Stodtmeier, Copyright: Accentus Music

Born in 1917, Yun lived through the Korean War and division of his country

The composer spent the rest of his life teaching and writing in Germany (where he was awarded the Goethe Medal and Order of Merit of the Federal Republic). He regularly traveled to North Korea, where the state founded an orchestra dedicated solely to performing his works. Following his death in 1995, Yun's reputation saw a cautious rehabilitation in South Korea, and today both North and South host an Isang Yun festival and have established ensembles in his name.

Still, there remains a great deal of misunderstanding on both sides about the real Isang Yun.

"Identity was very important for him, which is why he was looking for his real identity in both music and in life," Stodtmeier concluded. "South Korea says he belongs to them, as does North Korea. And Germany, too, has its claims to Yun. Perhaps he belongs to all of us, or none of us. Identity is at the core of the Isang Yun story - it's everywhere in his music. His heart was broken, as he could never return to his homeland and he never lived to see Korea reunified, which was his ultimate wish."

Isang Yun, archive photo from 1988, Copyright: dpa

Yun was one of the first composers to link the Asian and Western music traditions

In what must have been a bittersweet moment, Yun did live through German reunification. But his homeland remains stalwartly divided, a fate Yun poignantly weaved into his virtuosic 1976 Cello Concerto, a work he described as his autobiography. The concerto revolves around the note of A - for Yun, a symbol of perfect union - yet the piece concludes dolefully short of the note. As with his homeland, his Cello Concerto remains frustratingly unreconciled.

As Yun himself would surmise: "A composer cannot view the world in which he lives with indifference. Human suffering, oppression, injustice - all that comes to me in my thoughts. Where there is pain, where there is injustice, I want to have my say through my music."

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