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Classical Music

Paul Boghossian
Michael Beckerman

Part II

14. Contemporary Classical Music: A Komodo Dragon? New Opportunities Exemplified by a Concert Series in South Korea1

Unsuk Chin et Maris Gothoni

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  • 1 Both authors were active in curating the new music series of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) (...)

1Composer and professor Joshua Fineberg, in his thought-provoking analysis of the state of the reception of classical music, prophesizes that composers will find themselves in the situation of the Komodo dragon, facing likely extinction if no societal consensus about the value of their existence is being restored (2006: 142–143). Fineberg diagnoses a changing environment to which contemporary classical music may not be adaptable in the mid-term future.

2At first glance, such a pessimistic claim seems puzzling. There exists undoubtedly no shortage of classical music events. YouTube, Spotify, and other such companies make the world flat, and, as for the circuit of live performing arts, at least the global jet set can theoretically experience a variety of musical styles, genres, and approaches unheard-of in previous times.

3And yet, something has changed. The notion that society should support forms of art that possibly only a small minority will engage with is currently losing traction (Fineberg, 2006: 10–14). Market-think and the omnipresence of quickly changing modern mass media alter expectations and contexts radically. There exists an unprecedented amount of available information due to the Internet revolution. Theoretically, this could contribute to inspire wonder in a manner similar to ancient cabinets of curiosities (Gehl, 2009) and help to spotlight niche players who would otherwise not get a chance to be heard. Such a democratic dream may bear some fruit here and there, but does not always hold true since the monetization of user-generated content has created new hierarchies, not to mention the establishment of veritable digital “disinformation architectures” (Pomerantsev, 2019). At worst, this unaccustomed explosion of “information” leads to a state of overload, with no control over quality and lots of “alternative facts”: social media algorithms are very poor educators, as recent political upheavals have proven, and certainly not adequate curators for the arts. Just because there is an oversupply of content in this ecosystem, does not in the least guarantee biodiversity.

  • 2 The popular sociologist notion of elitist traditional culture used as a device of class distinction (...)
  • 3 For a more substantial discussion of the topic, see Johnson (2002: 10–33).

4The problem, of course, starts with a decline in general music education. Children’s aesthetic tastes form at an early age, and their innate curiosity and instinctive understanding for the arts atrophies if it is not being trained, and if one is instead left uncritically exposed to options providing instant gratification. Some universities appear to seek music students who are not able to read sheet music, a notion of inclusion that can take on rather myopic forms and could very easily lead to the further erosion of general musical culture and skills (Pace, 2017). Ironically, the effect of this relativism can be non-democratic, actually fostering social division. This is especially true when people who have had the benefit of such a musical education decide that current students don’t need it; or when children with affluent parents get an early music education while others do not. It is not that classical music is (or has to be) elitist: it becomes so if people are deprived of making an informed choice about whether they would like to occupy themselves with it or not.2 It is an exclusion that happens not by way of decree, but when there is tacit consent that school curricula have mainly to serve the purposes of efficiency and economy, and that, in music, a basic general education worthy of its name, is not required. All of this is based on the premise that the arts—unlike the humanities or, in particular, mathematics and the natural sciences—are merely a matter of taste, resisting any claims of objectivity. This premise, like many clichés, may contain a grain of truth, but is nonetheless a fatal oversimplification. There is insufficient space to discuss this complex topic further here,3 except to remark that it is rather difficult to develop one’s personal tastes if the act of choosing is merely being left to the “pseudodemocracy of the marketplace” (Johnson, 2002: 25). It too often happens that the (in principle) well-meaning notion of pluralism inadvertently leads one to become an uninformed and docile aide of the market, which is, in fact, the opposite of free choice. A common phenomenon is a cul-de-sac situation where both a number of educational institutions and arts enterprises try to imitate market-think methods, a race that is usually doomed in the same way as the contest between the hare and the victorious hedgehog in the classic tale by the Brothers Grimm.

5Proclamations of the decline of culture are probably as old as mankind, and—in hindsight—usually turn out to be examples of tunnel-vision. Besides, promulgating news of doom and gloom, let alone scapegoating, is hardly ever a helpful approach. One can keep lamenting the state of school music education, and may conclude that, as long as it remains as it is, providing access to classical music is piecemeal work. Even if this may be true, would it not be more productive to listen to those who look for pragmatic solutions, who place trust both in the common audience and in the communicative power of complex art? In one of his case studies, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks described a man who acquired an obsessive musicophilia after he had been struck by lightning (Sacks, 2007). Such a wondrous “conversion” is an extreme case. Still, it is reasonable to assume that there exist “late bloomers,” audiences that can be won over with creative ideas and new approaches even though they may not have had previous exposure to classical music.

  • 4 A case in point is the fusion of the two orchestras of the Südwestrundfunk (SWR) broadcasting compa (...)

6 Yet, irrefutable seismic changes have occurred during the last decades, and their full impact still remains to be seen. Arguably, the change has been especially palpable in Europe, since the arts have traditionally relied on state support there. As early as the 1990s, key orchestras that had been, up until then, untouchable—to mention one example— began to merge, be radically cut, or abolished. This is a tendency that started in Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Poland (Goertz, 2004: 20), and that has also reached German-speaking countries.4 The problem here is not that changes take place, a phenomenon which is—to a degree—inevitable, but that classical music is highly vulnerable as “the infrastructure it requires is so massive and so expensive” (Fineberg, 2006: 148). The problem is hardly that this music would vanish altogether, but rather that the consensus of the importance of supporting it is being questioned, which can lead to a silent erosion from within.

  • 5 A prominent pattern is as follows: the historical performance practice movement transformed from a (...)

7In a way, the COVID-19 crisis could be likened to a macabre litmus test which mercilessly exposes the level of importance our societies attribute to non-functional and not immediately accessible art. At best, it might—despite all the tragedy it causes—re-awaken the appetite for what classical music can offer: as a source of intellectual and emotional stimulation, a health product whose effect can be profound even though it cannot be easily measured, and a powerful refuge of contemplation in our age of profitability, efficiency, information overkill, and consumerism. At worst, it could mark a landslide for the fragile infrastructures of classical music. Whatever comes out of the crisis—and it is impossible to generalize on a global scale as funding systems and approaches are different—we already sense that it could be at the cost of diversity, due to economic reasons. The situation is especially worrying for small- or medium-scale free-sector music ensembles which have been the great success story of the last fifty years. Free ensembles with their modular organizational structures have been an indispensable thorn in the side of large-scale established institutions,5 and there is no doubt that a functioning musical life needs both sides.

8Since this chapter focuses on contemporary classical music, a few words about the situation of the composer today are necessary.

  • 6 Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert, and Esa-Pekka Salonen are merely a few obvious examples. Here, the infl (...)

9In many ways, the life of a composer has improved during the course of the last centuries, with the present degree of performances and working conditions being, in principle, of probably unprecedented quality, composers being potentially recognized by a very diverse group of listeners, and, of course, a staggering availability of music from all epochs (Tiensuu, 2000). Nor do the usually non-existent financial prospects scare aspiring composers from entering the profession and trying their luck (Fineberg, 2006: XIII). (Any jury member of an international composition competition can testify to this.) Many musical institutions, even previously rather inflexible “dinosaurs,” have become much more accommodating to new music and experiments, often due to the significant input of a new generation of conductors for whom the challenges of new scores are as natural a part of their repertoire as the Classical-Romantic canon.6 And the idealistic entrepreneurship of numerous ensembles, soloists, and auteurs in the world of contemporary music deserves high praise.

  • 7 As reflected, for instance, in the previously radical difference between the aesthetics of a specia (...)

10At the same time, one can argue that the ideal of a composer largely independent from Court, Church, or the marketplace—writing music that is often not immediately appreciated, but the support of which is seen as valuable from a long-term perspective—is in peril. Market-think has also permeated the spheres of contemporary classical music. The reality, then, is multifaceted and complex—in many ways. Old certainties crumble: the turf wars between tradition and the avant-garde7 cannot have a place in a world where classical music faces major challenges because of the rapid change of society and technology, and where the prejudice that classical music is merely a substitutable commodity and a tiny minority’s pastime has gained ground (Chin, 2015).

11The new disorder also creates opportunities. While music education is dwindling in countries where it has had a particularly strong foothold— such as Germany—many Asian and Latin American countries are experiencing an impressive surge of musical talent and activities. What is already clear is that collaboration, openness, and cosmopolitanism are more important than ever. Strangely, although music is often—usually in a simplistic way—talked of as a “universal art,” the fences here often seem especially thick, when compared with cinema, visual arts, and even literature. Prejudices that imply that an Austrian musician performs the most authentic Schubert, and that an interpretation of Debussy must come from France, are still prevalent. Even in the field of contemporary music the exchange is often surprisingly limited between countries, as well as between the different scenes and sub-scenes of contemporary music.

  • 8 Which is surely an option to be preferred to any retro-nationalistic imitations and other calculate (...)

12With all due respect for maintaining precious traditions, art has always thrived when there has been the possibility of cross-fertilization, and advocating identity traps (Sen, 2007) would be a grave misunderstanding of the concept of heritage, especially in our times. The world of contemporary music is an international one, as the list of students at any leading music university or the list of composition competitors testifies: stylistically speaking, it has been split up into different linguae francae, where different schools (which are, in a simplistic manner, associated with catchphrases such as spectralism, musique concrète instrumentale, postserialism, neotraditionalism, etc.) often become more of a hallmark than one’s national identity.8 What is often lacking here is communication and collaboration, the critical reception of different approaches, and the embrace of diversity. Furthermore, it seems that the music business still thrives on obsolete images: instead of actively promoting interchange and interaction, the finding of the next national celebrity is, consciously or unconsciously, still often the order of the day.

  • 9 Of course, this is nothing new. Consider, for example, when the Austro-German tradition entered a p (...)

13Regardless of old habits and inflexible patterns, the growing diversification is palpable. Whether it comes to symphony orchestras, festivals, or contemporary music, or the classical music circuit in general, there is no single center that has defining power. This creates a situation where that which used to be the periphery can become fertile ground for creative impulses.9

  • 10 The series existed from 2005–2018. It was founded by Unsuk Chin, when she was appointed SPO’s Compo (...)

14This was our hope when we were curating and managing “Ars Nova,” the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra’s new music series, for twelve years.10

15When founding the Ars Nova series, the starting assumption was that the act of choosing repertoire and curating concerts arguably becomes more and more important given the conditions of our time, when it is easy to become disoriented due to the huge range of options available. This is particularly true when it comes to new music about which quality information is not readily available. When “everything” is out there on the net 24/7, and on a global scale, and when listening habits have changed due to the immediate accessibility of masses of recorded music, it becomes more and more crucial to provide orientation and to offer something that can only happen here and now. Spotify and YouTube algorithms can never replace conscious programming policy, and glossy and slick market trends cannot compensate for a deeply satisfying artistic experience.

  • 11 “The last few decades have seen orchestras become involved in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ra (...)

16Music, an art form occurring in time, demands great concentration and receptivity from the listener. Hence, it may be especially challenging to find new forms of presentation keeping up pace with the rapid changes of our times without compromising what constitutes its core essence. This also partly relates to the question of whether the etiquette of the classical concert and its other traditions are obsolete and whether they should be combated—an interesting topic that certainly merits discussion (Ross, 2005; Brönnimann, 2014). Most arts institutions are very active in finding new approaches, and many of these initiatives are worthwhile. Yet, none of these initiatives will bear long-term fruit if they don’t, first and foremost, serve the artistic purpose of an organization.11

17In the following section, we will focus on the curatorial work itself and on the experiences gained when working in Seoul. We wish to stress that the following examples may not be adaptable everywhere: the challenges may be international, but each community and organization must find their own ways of addressing the issues at hand.


18Founding the Ars Nova series (and curating it for twelve years) could be seen as an open-ended experiment. The goal was to provide new aesthetic experiences which would not be straitjacketed by market-think, nor constricted by mere academic discourse. The context—a symphony orchestra in South Korea—provided two particular challenges.

  • 12 A number of musicians and other arts practitioners, among them Pierre Boulez, Iván Fischer, and Ern (...)

19Firstly, a symphony orchestra is not an institution that readily embraces the spirit of experimentation new music calls for, for it is an organization that has its roots in the nineteenth century. While it is a great cultural achievement that has ongoing relevance, it nonetheless carries a certain risk of conservatism, of the mere preservation of existing conventions, and—due to its hierarchical structures—is occasionally in danger of draining the creativity of individual orchestral musicians which can, at worst, cause frustration and a detached attitude to music-making. To this structurally conditioned risk, there may be no easy answers,12 although the aforementioned achievements of ensembles and chamber orchestras during the last fifty years have often, by the effect of example, managed to stir up the internal workings of symphony orchestras in a positive way.

20The second challenge was to launch this kind of series from scratch in South Korea, a country which has roughly a one-hundred-year-old history with Western classical music, a relationship that has been highly intense, probably partly prompted by the fact that most ties with traditional Korean music were cut during the Japanese occupation in the early-twentieth century. There have been Korean composers of international stature since the 1950s (Isang Yun, living in German exile, was the trailblazer), and a number of brilliant performing musicians, several of whom reside abroad, as well as an enthusiastic audience. Yet, what has been more difficult has been building up an infrastructure with orchestras, ensembles, and festivals with continuous quality and stability. Besides, the concert circuit, generally speaking, remains star-centered and traditional in its expectations.

21The installation of a series for new music coincided with radical changes in the structure of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, when it became a foundation on its own: an orchestra that had not even been performing with regularity was catapulted into a very different level when a leading international conductor, Myung-whun Chung, was appointed as its Chief Conductor in 2005 (Park & Schmitt, 2008; see also Stephan, 2012).

22What was immediately noticeable was the pressing need to catch up in terms of repertoire and diversity of styles. Here, Korean orchestras and other institutions used to have, and still have, a conservative approach, with a focus on an unquestioned and not infrequently narrow “canon of musical masterworks”. This was noticeable with the music of all epochs, but first and foremost with twentieth- and twenty-first-century music.

Fig. 1 ARS NOVA, Dress rehearsal for the Korean premiere of Pierre Boulez’ Notations pour orchestra.

© 2008, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.

  • 13 For a detailed list and full documentation, please see Lee (2017). See also Harders-Wuthenow (2011)

23In the twelve years of our association with the Seoul Philharmonic, we counted approximately 200 Korean premieres of works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and this applied not only to Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and contemporary rarities, but also to classic works such as Claude Debussy, Anton Webern, Charles Ives, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Alberto Ginastera, Olivier Messiaen, and many others.13 Even national “classics,” such as works from the 1960s and 1970s by Isang Yun or Sukhi Kang, had not entered the orchestral repertoire.

24The Ars Nova series was a mixture of a festival and a concert series, with two concerts, one for full orchestra and the other one for ensemble (as well as workshops, masterclasses, reading sessions and, occasionally, fringe activities) within a two-week span twice a year. The ensemble concerts were an indispensable part of the series, bearing in mind that a great deal of twentieth- and twenty-first-century masterpieces have been written for non-standard formations.

25Conductors included Myung-Whun Chung, Susanna Mälkki, Peter Eötvös, François-Xavier Roth, Pascal Rophé, Thierry Fischer, Stefan Asbury, Ilan Volkov, Baldur Brönnimann, and others. The idealism of the conductors and the other artists was remarkable: though the repertoire was usually pre-determined by the curators, everyone accepted the heavy workload, even though it could have meant learning ten new scores for a two-week festival.

26Commissions were an important part of the series. Starting in 2011, a symphonic work by an international composer was regularly commissioned for the series, among them Pascal Dusapin, Peter Eötvös, Tristan Murail, York Höller, Ivan Fedele, Jukka Tiensuu, Anders Hillborg, and Bernd Richard Deutsch. Equally important was the supporting of Korean contemporary music, with eighteen premieres of commissioned work by composers from different generations. This also presented an opportunity to involve the Korean diaspora (not only a number of remarkable performers but also several accomplished composers live abroad, often without contact with Korea—and vice versa). Talented young composers who had not yet had a chance to have works performed by a symphony orchestra got a chance to have their sketches rehearsed by high-profile conductors such as Susanna Mälkki, François-Xavier Roth, and Ilan Volkov, in reading sessions. There were regular masterclasses and workshops held by the undersigned (Unsuk Chin) as well as by guest composers such as Peter Eötvös, Tristan Murail, Pascal Dusapin, York Höller, Ivan Fedele, Johannes Schöllhorn, and Chris Paul Harman.

27New music often requires additional in-depth information. All program notes were written by Habakuk Traber, a Berlin-based musicologist and dramaturg known especially for his pre-concert talks and program notes for the Berlin Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and every concert was preceded by an extensive pre-concert talk hosted by Unsuk Chin. The symphony concerts (which took place at Seoul Arts Center, the Lotte Concert Hall, and the LG Arts Center in Seoul) were attended by 800–1200 people, which could be considered a success given the novelty of the concept, but was not always seen as such by local authorities and other commentators, some of whom wondered why it wasn’t possible to fill a 2000-seat hall, as it would be with the Chief Conductor’s interpretation of a Mahler symphony.

28 As for programming, it was clear from the outset that the mission could not simply involve presenting another festival for contemporary music, but that cutting-edge works had to be put into specific contexts in order to create a point of orientation for listeners and musicians alike. This was a crucial difference from, say, new music enterprises in Europe, since, in Korea, there is a greater need to inform the audience about the general landscape of modernist twentieth-century music. Yet, virtue could be made out of that necessity, since it requires the curator to think more diversely and to program a wide range of musical styles, and also prohibits succumbing to “premieritis,” i.e. the tendency to overemphasize the first performance. Instead, a mixture of music by excellent, but unheard-of composers with lesser-known works and revived “classics” by more established or canonic composers could be attempted. Since most of the repertoire was completely new for the vast majority of audiences, reactions could sometimes be surprising— occasionally, a more recent piece by a living composer received the warmest audience reaction.

29The need to find meaningful contexts was exemplified by the first concert in our series which carried the programmatic title “EarlyNew”. One of the crucial influences on modernism, starting with von Webern, Ravel, and Stravinsky, was an enormous, heightened curiosity about music that preceded the romanticist aesthetics of genius and expression. We took up this concept two more times, presenting the way J. S. Bach was reflected through the lens of Webern’s pointillism; how strongly Stravinsky and Ravel were influenced by pre-Classical music; how Oliver Knussen reworked medieval organa, as well as “meetings” between Betsy Jolas and Orlando di Lassus, Harrison Birtwistle and Johannes Ciconia, Isabel Mundry and Louis Couperin, Sukhi Kang and Antonio Vivaldi, George Benjamin and Nicolas de Grigny, Brett Dean and Carlo Gesualdo, Johannes Schöllhorn and Bach, Georg Friedrich Haas and Franz Schubert, or Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Alfred Schnittke, and Luciano Berio playfully reflecting centuries of musical history.

  • 14 P.D.Q.Bach (alias Peter Schickele), New Horizons in Music Appreciation: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (...)

30The message could also be a controversial one. Korean audiences were used to putting Beethoven on a pedestal, and an unusual interpretation or a loving parody—let alone questioning his stature—could be perceived as provocative. A concert titled “A Different Beethoven” presented Mauricio Kagel’s avantgarde movie Ludwig van from 1970 (which was met with outrage by parts of the audience), Jukka Tiensuu’s ironic collage work Le Tombeau de Beethoven (1980), P.D.Q. Bach’s parody of a moderated performance of the iconic Fifth Symphony (1971),14 as well as Brett Dean’s “environmental” Pastoral Symphony (2000).

Fig. 2 ARS NOVA, Korean premiere of John Cage’s Credo in the US.

© 2008, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.

31Differences and diversity were frequently celebrated in many other contexts: an ensemble concert in April 2010 contrasted Roberto Sierra’s salsa-infused Piezas caracteristicas (1991) with a spatially experimental work by Dai Fujikura, a work employing special techniques by Sun-Young Pahg as well as John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992). A program from October 2011 juxtaposed John Zorn’s avant-garde wind quintet, an austere meditation on writings by Walter Benjamin, with a song cycle by Perttu Haapanen which commented musically on how European society has dealt with Otherness and on “madness” in different times, juxtaposing ancient witch hunt documents, Google Search protocols, and poems by Paul Celan.

32An important attempt was made to break with conventional concert structure, as exemplified in most symphonic performances by the usual order of overture-concerto-symphony. In our view, an orchestral concert could just as easily start with a work for violin solo and live electronics, or include a work for a percussion ensemble.

33 Often the connections were hidden, as in an ensemble concert from 1 November 2012, when Peter Eötvös’s contemplation on texts by Samuel Beckett was set side by side with Donghoon Shin’s Led Zeppelin-influenced work, Ligeti’s apocalyptical Mysteries of the Macabre (1977), and Luke Bedford’s work By The Screen in the Sun at the Hill (2009), an almost musico-sociological study about the city of Johannesburg. Another case in point was a concert in October 2006, which juxtaposed—as if in a hall of mirrors—François Couperin with Béla Bartók, George Benjamin, Messiaen, as well as a work of Marko Nikodijevic (which, in turn, was influenced by DJs, Stravinsky, Ligeti, and algorithms), with Michael Daugherty’s Le Tombeau de Liberace (1996). What may sound chaotic when outlined in this manner was in fact a conceptual programme with different red threads. Modern music, often highly abstract, can also be full of emotional messages, as expressed, for instance by two concerts called “Fairy Tales”.

34Modernism brought with itself a liberation of sound and of timbre. This was reflected in a number of programs and their titles. A concert featuring viola soloist Richard Youngjae O’Neill with two contemporary viola concertos (by Brett Dean and Chris Paul Harman) placed them alongside cosmically-inspired works by Alexander Scriabin and his contemporaries, so as to create a stark contrast with the viola’s austere sound-world. As a further example, a concert on 13 June 2018 was named “Couleurs exotiques,” a title also referring to the pivotal inspiration of non-European musical cultures. But modern composers were also obsessed with the emancipation of rhythm and were always looking for new sources of inspiration outside the “civilized” sphere of symphonic high culture. Most explicitly, this was commented upon in two concerts named “Dance,” two programs called “Folk Music,” and a concert titled “High & Low”.

35While, in general, the earliest pieces were from the early-twentieth century, it was occasionally necessary to go further back in time. A program called “Carnival” presented Heinrich Biber’s proto-avant-gardistic Battalia (a macabre battle piece written on the occasion of a Carnival in 1673) alongside the Korean premieres of Francis Poulenc’s surrealist Le Bal Masqué (1932) and of Anders Hillborg’s sinister Vaporised Tivoli (2010). Political and satirical dimensions of music, reflected also in the biographies of the composers, were explored in a concert combining the music of Xenakis with the Korean premieres of Shostakovich’s suite from his opera The Nose (1928) as well as Witold Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto (1970).

36Other thematic rubrics included cities and countries that had been central to crucial developments: for instance, Vienna—with a wide-ranging repertoire from Arnold Schönberg to Olga Neuwirth and Georg Friedrich Haas—Paris, American mavericks (such as John Cage, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, George Antheil, Conlon Nancarrow, Terry Riley, Elliott Carter, and John Zorn), and Hungarian modernism.

Fig. 3 ARS NOVA, video installation of Hugo Verlinde.

© Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.

37A recurring topic was the exploration of meeting points between Eastern and Western traditions, and also an attempt to discover connections between the music of different East-Asian countries, which—due mostly to political sensitivities and historical reasons—had not taken place to a large extent. Key composers of the second half of the twentieth century were honored with special themed programmes: Ligeti in March 2007, Messiaen in October 2008, Boulez and Yun in March 2017.

38A number of concerts were devoted to certain instruments: such as viola (November 2007) and experimental piano (June 2008 and October 2016, ranging from toy piano to innovations on the piano’s strings and music inspired by player piano). Vocal experiments were celebrated in October 2006, October 2010, October 2011, and November 2012. In turn, more unusual instruments were showcased, with special focuses on the accordion (with Stefan Hussong, in May 2012), the trumpet (with Håkan Hardenberger, in April 2013), and the sheng (the Chinese mouth organ, with the instrument’s leading virtuoso Wu Wei, in November 2015). The exploration of novel sounds did not stop with standard instruments: good examples were concerts featuring Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962) for 100 metronomes, a performance overseen by children, Cage’s Living Room Music (1940), and a performance by Stringgraphy, an ensemble from Japan which had constructed a new instrument, a kind of gigantic avant-garde harp constructed after the principle of the tin can telephone.

Fig. 4 ARS NOVA, preparations for the Korean premiere of György Ligeti’s ‘Poéme symphonique pour 100 metronomes”.

© 2007, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.

39And, of course, the super instrument of our time had to be featured (in October 2009): the computer. A collaboration with IRCAM, the Paris-based center for electro-acoustic music, with Susanna Mälkki as conductor, presented central works created at IRCAM alongside a revival of Korean electronic music classics, as well as acoustic works influenced by the techniques and aesthetics of electronic music. Sound and light installations, as well as outreach events involving children, rounded out the picture.

40What was the series’ legacy? This is always difficult to frame, as many changes happen under the radar and are not readily visible. Of course, there are facts and figures involving such things as the number of repeat visitors, as well as the performers, composers, and organizers who gained inspiration as a result of the events. And this, of course, would be the most important achievement: stimulating curiosity among performers, audiences, composers, as well as arts administrators. The musicians did a remarkable job in all phases of the process, becoming ever more acclimated to the new compositions, and knowledgeable about the individual musical language of modernist composers. This was also true when the process involved a work with lots of special techniques by composers such as Helmut Lachenmann or Beat Furrer. A number of long-time participants in the masterclasses of Ars Nova have made international careers since that time.15 Other Korean orchestras have introduced Composer-in-Residence schemes and are becoming more active in commissioning new music or offering workshop opportunities for young composers. The series was noted internationally, and its concerts were frequently featured on The New York Times’s international classical season picks. Reviewers also remarked that the Seoul Philharmonic had developed a reputation of programming more new music than any other Asian orchestra (Swed, 2012), and the series’ tenth anniversary celebration book included contributions from a number of international and local musicians and arts practitioners, among them Kent Nagano, Peter Eötvös, George Benjamin, Alex Ross, and Ivan Hewett (see Lee, 2017). The Ars Nova series was one of the nominated projects for the Classical: NEXT 2018 Innovation Award.16

Fig. 5 ARS NOVA, audiovisual installation inspired by Mauricio Kagel’s movie ‘Ludwig van’.

© 2006, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.

41 A European representative of the music industry once asked: “But is there any interest in this kind of music over there?” Yes, there is. We are convinced that audiences outside of Europe are not just hooked into endless Mahler- or Beethoven-cycles, but that part of the future of classical music will doubtlessly be in those countries outside Europe and North America. (Western) classical music has long since ceased to be only European, and if it is to stay alive audiences and practitioners will have to be found away from old centers, discourses, and temples, and further internationalization will be necessary.

42Maintaining this series was constantly challenging—and its existence was called into question often enough, with only little guarantee of stability. However, the most important thing is not that a series or an institution survives forever, but that it sets something into motion. It could be likened to a message sent out in a bottle, sent out in the hope that whoever picks it up will draw inspiration and motivation for new innovative ideas and approaches.



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1 Both authors were active in curating the new music series of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO), Unsuk Chin as Artistic Director and Maris Gothoni as Artistic Programme Planner.

2 The popular sociologist notion of elitist traditional culture used as a device of class distinction has, by and large, become obsolete ever since homogenized popular culture has become the dominant culture and ever since forms of counterculture have been commercially exploited. See Johnson (2002: 112, 122) and Heath & Potter (2004). We do not advocate the notion of “Western” classical music as superior to other kinds of music. However, we decry the widespread uncritical exposure to the commercial logic of a homogenized global music industry which degrades music into a mere commodity. This is a tendency that works at the expense of musical biodiversity equally in the realm of non-Western musical traditions, “Western” classical music, independent rock, and jazz, among other musical forms.

3 For a more substantial discussion of the topic, see Johnson (2002: 10–33).

4 A case in point is the fusion of the two orchestras of the Südwestrundfunk (SWR) broadcasting company in 2016. The fusion was especially problematic since both orchestras had distinct profiles and served different purposes. The SWR Baden-Baden Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, led by leading lights of modernism such as conductors Michael Gielen and François-Xavier Roth, used to be Germany’s flagship orchestra for modern music. The SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, used to be pioneering in the area of historical performance practice due to its long-time association with Sir Roger Norrington. One can expect further changes to happen with broadcasting orchestras, which have traditionally been a supporting pillar of (not only) experimental contemporary music in Central Europe.

5 A prominent pattern is as follows: the historical performance practice movement transformed from a fringe phenomenon to a predominant one, setting the tone also in symphony orchestras. The innovations of the free sector are not only stylistic, but have also led to new modes and a kind of utopia of collaboration, education, communication, and even marketing.

6 Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert, and Esa-Pekka Salonen are merely a few obvious examples. Here, the influence of a trailblazer such as Pierre Boulez has been pivotal. Ensemble intercontemporain, founded by Boulez, became a potent breeding ground for talent, with former and present Music Directors including names such as Peter Eötvös, Kent Nagano, David Robertson, Jonathan Nott, Susanna Mälkki, and Matthias Pintscher, all of whom are in high demand with symphony orchestras nowadays.

7 As reflected, for instance, in the previously radical difference between the aesthetics of a specialized contemporary music festival and the more established large-scale institutions.

8 Which is surely an option to be preferred to any retro-nationalistic imitations and other calculated “inventions of tradition” (to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s famous concept), yet often falls short in exploiting the potentially available range of musical material.

9 Of course, this is nothing new. Consider, for example, when the Austro-German tradition entered a period of “supersaturation,” as reflected in frequently gigantic orchestral and operatic works—a tendency from which, within that national tradition, only utter abstraction such as dodecaphony seemed to show a way out. Some fresh air was offered by composers from the outskirts (e.g. Bartók, Janáček, Stravinsky, Sibelius), who drew upon unexhausted musical traditions beyond the shackles of high culture.

10 The series existed from 2005–2018. It was founded by Unsuk Chin, when she was appointed SPO’s Composer-in-Residence in 2005 at the invitation of the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Maestro Myung-whun Chung.

11 “The last few decades have seen orchestras become involved in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink range of activities, apparently designed to draw people in. Nontraditional programming, casual concerts, film nights, singles events, education, community outreach, open rehearsals—the list could go on and on. And don’t get me wrong—many of these activities are powerful and very worthwhile. The problem has been that as orchestras are involved in more and more areas, it is often not clear why they are doing what they are doing. When you get the sense that something might as well be a stand-alone venture, that it actually does not connect to the core of the organization that is behind it, you might reasonably start to wonder what the point is” (Gilbert, 2015: 7).

12 A number of musicians and other arts practitioners, among them Pierre Boulez, Iván Fischer, and Ernest Fleischmann, have envisioned future symphony orchestras as pools (or communities) of musicians and requested structural changes where musicians could lead the more fulfilling experience of a “complete” musician, a change that could also be to the benefit of the audience and to that of composers. Similar ideas have, to varying degrees, been put into practice in several institutions, among them the Berlin Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but the purest realization of that utopia may be the Budapest Festival Orchestra. See Vermeil (1996: 123–127), Gerstein (2020), and Judy (1996).

13 For a detailed list and full documentation, please see Lee (2017). See also Harders-Wuthenow (2011).

14 P.D.Q.Bach (alias Peter Schickele), New Horizons in Music Appreciation: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1971).

15 Among others, Donghoon Shin and Texu Kim.

16 See

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 ARS NOVA, Dress rehearsal for the Korean premiere of Pierre Boulez’ Notations pour orchestra.
Crédits © 2008, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Fichier image/jpeg, 41k
Légende Fig. 2 ARS NOVA, Korean premiere of John Cage’s Credo in the US.
Crédits © 2008, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Fichier image/jpeg, 34k
Légende Fig. 3 ARS NOVA, video installation of Hugo Verlinde.
Crédits © Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k
Légende Fig. 4 ARS NOVA, preparations for the Korean premiere of György Ligeti’s ‘Poéme symphonique pour 100 metronomes”.
Crédits © 2007, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Fichier image/jpeg, 27k
Légende Fig. 5 ARS NOVA, audiovisual installation inspired by Mauricio Kagel’s movie ‘Ludwig van’.
Crédits © 2006, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k


Is a Berlin-based composer. She is Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Seoul Festival in 2021, Artistic Director Designate of the Tongyeong International Music Festival in South Korea as well as Artistic Director Designate of the Weiwuying International Music Festival in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Is currently Head of Artistic Planning of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in Norway. He is also Artistic Advisor Designate of the Tongyeong International Music Festival in South Korea, as well as Artistic Advisor Designate of the Weiwuying International Music Festival in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.


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