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Hwang-To/Yellow Earth

For a mixed choir, including solos, and nine instrumentalists (1988/1989)

Inspired by the poetry of Kim Chi-Ha.

The Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha uses the image of Yellow Earth, HWANG-TO, as a symbol for the Korean people’s shared history of suffering; at the same time, it’s an expression of hope for freedom and democracy.

For her composition Hwang-To/Yellow Earth, Younghi Pagh-Paan chose three poems by Kim Chi-Ha, who wrote most of his poems under persecution, or while incarcerated: „The Plateau“, which deals with the destruction of the earth; „earth“ being a metaphor for the human community and their shared experience. „The Path To Seoul“ describes the fate of a peasant who forfeits his soul via rural exodus, therefore denying the very core of his being. In the third poem, „On A Rainy Night“, the terrible consequences of rural exodus become apparent: the fruitless search for a home. There is no way back.

The piece puts the poems in that very order, invoking the process of a „destruction of society through rural migration“. However, Younghi Pagh-Paan is not putting a „story“ to music. She uses line groups or minute details that obtain texture through repetition, gear shifting and layering.

The Korean-German title ties into the bi-lingual nature of the composition: while the middle part („The Path To Seoul“) is sung entirely in Korean, the lyrics of the first and the last part are recited in both original Korean, and the German translation. This means a vastness of sound connections and a huge level of phonetic expressivity.

This also illustrates the unusual situation of the composer between two cultures: the Asian culture that she grew up in, as well as the European culture that she lives in. The European influence on Younghi Pagh-Paans works shows itself, for one, in the arrangements: a mixed choir with wind- and string instruments; the written score is also European in style. The material and the composition technique, on the other hand, are derived from the musical tradition of Korean peasants. The choir is at the score’s center with the percussionists (the wind instruments are noted above it, the strings below). The connection between singing and percussion can be found in Korean p'ansori, a form of folk ballad, where a singer is accompanied by buk, a double drum. The drums – in Hwang-To, represented by one player with 15 different instruments – determines the timing and leads the musical performance.

The vocal solos cover various choir registers. The singing technique is derived from improvised Korean peasant music, but the parts are composed. Polyphony is achieved via heterophony, a solo expanding across many different voices in differing varieties. In Hwang-To/Yellow Earth, a classic p'ansori duo, multiplied through choir and drums, is further expanded on by eight instrumentalists. Their voices are linked with those of the choir singers, and support them with their unique capacities of articulation and timbre.

Regina Wohlfahrt


(English Translation by Alexandra Schulz)

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