Lecture: R. Anderson Sutton on Fusion Music and Contemporary Korean Cultural Identity


April 13, 2012 - 4:00pm

The notion of cultural purity is demonstrably a myth, as any careful historical analysis of cultural expression anywhere in the world can reveal multiple origins, blends, syncretisms, hybridities that are the inevitable result of human contact.  Yet in Korea, as in many countries around the globe, some forms of cultural expression have come to be recognized as “pure” or “authentic” indigenous forms, often celebrated in official discourse as invaluable assets, to be nurtured and preserved against the perceived onslaught of foreign mixture and “pollution.”  Korean official discourse on the arts and government-supported cultural policy in Korea has strongly favored the forms with the least evident influence from other countries and cultures, but the vast majority of Korean people today and in the recent past have felt remarkably little appreciation for many of these forms.  While most would not deny that these forms are indeed part of their cultural heritage as Koreans and are clearly and unambiguously identifiable as “Korean arts,” they also feel culturally “estranged” from them.  That they enjoy other forms of music in almost all contexts presents us with a challenge as we try to come to terms with Korean notions of identity and music.  Korean fusion music, a broad and somewhat controversial category of diverse musical practices, all of which involve at least some perceivable cultural mix between unambiguously Korean elements and other elements with foreign origins that are readily apparent, is becoming an increasingly important response to the unsettled cultural terrain on which musicians find themselves in contemporary Korea.  This paper considers examples of Korean fusion music, both mainstream and marginal, in an attempt to illuminate aspects of contemporary Korean cultural identity and its discourses in music.  These examples range from music that is basically American jazz or Western classical but involving at least some Korean instruments, to traditional Korean folk music that incorporates Western harmony, instruments, or other stylistic features.  In between are examples of Korean fusion music that seeks and attains more of a balance between Korean traditional and other elements. The paper considers both the sound objects themselves and representative popular and scholarly discourse about them, and argues that fusion music is an important locus, perhaps the most important locus, for the creative struggle for the future of what will increasingly be thought of as “Korean music.” 

R. Anderson Sutton is Professor in the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since 1973, he has made numerous research trips to Indonesia, concentrating most of his work in Central Java and in South Sulawesi. He is the author of major books on Makassarese performing arts (Calling Back the Spirit: Music, Dance, and Cultural Politics in Lowland South Sulawesi, Oxford, 2002) and on Javanese gamelan music (Traditions of Gamelan Music in Java, Cambridge, 1991; and Variation in Central Javanese Gamelan Music, Northern Illinois, 1993). Since 2001 he has been devoting much of his research time to recent musical developments in South Korea, and is currently working on a book whose focus is "new music" in East and Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published numerous articles on music in Indonesia and Korea, including aspects of music television in both countries, and he wrote the Indonesia chapter in the widely-used ethnomusicology textbook Worlds of Music (Schirmer, latest edition, 2005). Sutton has served as First Vice President of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and is chair of the Publications Advisory Committee of that society and on the editorial board of three scholarly music journals. He is now serving his third term as Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UW-Madison (2006-2009), and recently completed a six-year term as co-director of the UW-Madison's Research Circle on "Media, Performance, and Identity in World Perspective." He has also taught at the Universities of Michigan and Hawaii and performed and lectured throughout the United States, and in Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Australia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.

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