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„The universe breathes, it grows and declines …“

Dedicated to the National Orchestra of Korea

It’s not the first time that I, as a Korean composer, cite Lao Tse’s “Tao Te King” as an inspiration for my music. The Taoist theme of sinking into an alluring emptiness is reflected in many of my works. By writing for an orchestra playing traditional Korean instruments now, I open a door and step into a new, empty space myself. It’s a challenge.

During my times in both Korea and Europe, I kept learning, and teaching, and learning even more, and I became a more complex and present person for it. Committing yourself to emptiness is another thing that you have to learn.

Korean instrumental music has always been ensemble music, and the orchestration of music has been a modern phenomenon. The instruments have to flow together to form a single stream to approach Tao.

Inhaling, exhaling: presence and resonance form the basis of any music, not only vocals and wind instruments. Every note rings out and resonates, und every note fades away into silence. I subscribed to this principle: not a single note is interrupted, cut off or muted. I stay true to our musical tradition this way.

And if the emptying of one’s self – not only in Taoism, but in mysticism worldwide – means making room for the riches of the human heart, inhaling means growth, and exhaling means decline… By giving yourself to emptiness, humbling yourself, you gain inner depth. But highs and lows are one and the same (Master Eckart, ca. 1260-1327).

I minimize the vertical as an open sound space, stretched between the highest and the lowest notes (heaven and earth) from the beginning. This sound space is never entirely filled out. A more horizontal, melodic flow appears in its middle, only bit by bit. The instruments sound like human voices.

Korean instruments are generally oriented on the vocal capacities of male and female singers. That is a sharp contrast to Western European instruments, who since centuries have been striving to cover a wider tonal range. Particularly the concert piano, with its extremely high and low notes, is capable of dominating any sound space on its own. On the other hand, in Korean music, the focus is more on a flow of voices, leaving an open space.

Music is worship of all things living. Every note is ringing out for itself. When it fades, it leads us into acoustic emptiness, into silence. Silence can be just as fulfilling, if our ears are open to it. Open to listen.

Younghi Pagh-Paan, Panicale/Italy, September 6th 2007


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