Han for string quartet (2019)
The Korean term han originates from the Sinitic-language hen (恨) conveying pity and regret. This Chinese character amalgamates two different characters, one that denotes the mind and the other the state of limitation or stagnancy. This idea of impasse in one’s mind is central to the concept of han in Korea, a feeling of unresolved anger, grief, and regret that has been prolonged and accumulated over time. It has been identified that han, like trauma, suffers from its delayed manifestation which results in its ambivalent, paradoxical, and transgenerational quality.1
In the first movement of my string quartet Han, the traditional Korean tune, Saeya, Saeya, Parang Saeya (Birds, Birds, Blue Birds) is used to describe the concept of han. The origin of this melody owes much to why I selected this tune to describe han. It is both a lullaby and an elegy. It was sung to commemorate Bong-jun Jeon, one of the leaders in Donghak Peasant Revolution (1894-95), an armed rebellion in Korea by aggravated peasants against the corrupt government. It was also sung by the widows of the Jeon’s army as a lullaby for their babies. I found that these historical qualities of the original melody resemble the complexity of han that encompasses grief, regret, and hope. The original melody is stated at the beginning, and its fragments appear in different shapes and emotions, sometimes peaceful like a lullaby and other times explosive and pleading.
The second movement imitates the color and intensity of singing style of pansori, Korean musical storytelling performed by a singer and drummer. Written without barlines, this movement acts like a monologue or recitative after the slow developing yet dramatic first movement.
The third movement is inspired by sanjo, which is a Korean musical genre that features a solo instrument accompanied by janggu (a Korean hourglass drum). In sanjo, chuimsae (vocal signals) is used by the drummer to add to the musical excitement and to communicate with the audience as well as the soloist.
The title of the fourth movement, Mu, means not, nothing, or without. I named this movement as such because this movement does not have a recognizable melody, yet expresses itself through dynamics, texture, and register. Here I wanted to write about the aspect of han having to do with the repression of repulsive elements deep within our psyche, which when allowed to surface can incite a visceral feeling within oneself so strong as to induce a desire to purge as a consequence. My goal was to create music that captures the process of purging these emotions from one’s being, and try to make something beautiful out of this. In the process of doing so, I hoped to challenge traditional aesthetics of what can be considered beautiful music and, as a consequence, beautiful emotions.
The final movement, Maum, means heart or mind in Korean. It calls for Amita Buddha, a cosmic energy called into presence through the syllables. Through repetitious calling, chanting, singing, and meditating, I try to reach the state of emptiness, awareness, and the resolution of han.
1 Meera Lee, “Sorrowful Feeling: Han and Its Haunting Legacies,” Telos 184 (2018): 106. iii