The illegitimate nephew of Napoleon

Next Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic will perform in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater in North Korea. It’s a concert that has spurred loud, predictable consternation that the Philharmonic is, in essence, handing an undeserved public relations victory to Kim Jong-Il and the repressive North Korean regime. Most criticism has regarded the mere fact of the trip as unconscionable. Some critics, though, took a more interesting tack, criticizing the Philharmonic for their choice of repertoire: Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, Wagner’s Act III Prelude from Lohengrin, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal:

How might the Philharmonic emerge from this misbegotten venture with its honor intact? The answer came from the musician who accompanied me to last Friday’s concert. In the hush that followed the rage and anguish of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, she leaned over to me and whispered, “Forget Gershwin—this is what they ought to play in North Korea.” And so they should. Instead of handing out musical bonbons to Kim Jong Il, Mr. Maazel and the Philharmonic could pay tribute to his innocent victims by performing a piece that speaks with shattering eloquence of the devastation wrought on an equally innocent people by an equally vicious tyrant.

Jens Laurson and George Pieler came up with the same idea in the Washington Times (a paper which, it is far from inappropriate to point out, is funded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon):

The Dvorak and Gershwin are considered classic Americana, both premiered by the NYPO. It’s nice music that should be attractive to those having a first-time experience with Western classics. But in these circumstances, it risks being an inoffensive sham of a program, offering timid Amerikanisch repertoire while avoiding both serious American music, and serious American civic content…. [T]he orchestra’s administration should have accepted on condition their repertoire be Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third — “Eroica” — Symphony, followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.

Provocative choices, although the continuing beatification of Shostakovich as a patron saint of speaking truth to power is, I think, a far too one-dimensional assessment of that complex composer. And I can’t help imagining that such suggested programming would be less for Korean consumption and more for back-home reassurance—we may be going to Pyongyang, but we’re going on our terms. Besides, the Philharmonic, wittingly or not, has already programmed a piece that, in its own way, speaks directly to the Korean situation: George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

Gershwin’s sparkling surface is just that: a surface. Even from the start, An American in Paris is more emotionally complicated than casual listening lets on. The opening theme, the jaunty stroll that critic W. James Henderson called “without doubt the sassiest orchestral theme of the century,” is nonetheless curiously disjunct and unbalanced. The opening takes a simple so-la-ti from the scale and distends the first note into another octave (I’m ignoring the grace note, which doesn’t always appear in other statements of the theme):

The result—a downward seventh followed by an upward step—still leaves a gap of a sixth, hanging on the leading tone of the scale. Unusually for Gershwin, the rest of the theme never fills in that gap. (Compare the slow section of Rhapsody in Blue, where each octave leap is patched with stepwise motion.) The melody, quite literally, has a hole in its heart. By two-thirds of the way through the first musical paragraph, the cadence of the opening theme—

—has been stretched into a gaping augmented octave, A to A-flat:

The entire opening section is one of Gershwin’s most dizzying portrayals of modern life, the disorienting pace and chaos of the city—shifting through keys in a whirl, often by half-step; pushing the accent all over the beat; frequently answering a melody with a sped-up version of itself. (Although originally conceived on a brief stay in Paris, Gershwin actually sketched much of the piece in Manhattan, prior to the longer trip it supposedly commemorates.) And the famous “Tempo Blues” theme at the center of the work, the ex-pat’s melancholy (Gershwin indicated “Drunk” on one draft), echoes the opening; the keening long note gives way to another series of disjunct intervals, a tumbling of sixths and sevenths:

AnFor all its joie de vivre, An American in Paris is, at its core, music of displacement and homesickness—two of the defining conditions of post-1948 Korean life.

One of the most famous natural landmarks in Korea is Mount Kumgang (Kumgangsan), which falls north of the DMZ. In 1998, the South Korean firm Hyundai agreed to pay $945 million over six years to the North Korean government in exchange for the right to bring South Korean tourists to Kumgangsan. Hyundai lost money on the deal—yet last year, Kumgangsan saw its one millionth visitor from the South. For all the enmity between the two Korean republics, the line between them is so historically and geographically illogical that a full two percent of the South Korean population has been willing to fund the North Korean regime in order to temporarily erase it.

Indeed, only the carving up of the Middle East after World War I can rival the post-WWII partition of Korea for irrationality. Arbitrarily placed at the 38th parallel by two American army officers who had no knowledge of the country (Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, future Cold Warriors both), the division was added to General Order Number One—for the administration of postwar Japan. It would not be the last time Korean policy was an American afterthought. The line, hardened by war into the DMZ, split the government, the symbiotic economy, and the society: families still remain divided by geography and wartime kidnappings. (That so many promised family reunions have come to nought is indicative of how poorly, on the whole, both sets of leaders—not just the tyrants in the North—have served the Korean people.)

Koreans themselves have long recognized that only reunification can provide lasting stability on the peninsula—the contest between North and South has always been over the terms of reunification, not its desirability. The American government, though, has consistently viewed divided Korea, if at all, through the lens of whatever ideological struggle happens to be occupying American mindspace at the time, be it the Cold War or the War of Terrorism. The recent cautious optimism in North-South relations has been spurred by pragmatic South Korean leaders, leaders who might have come to power years ago, except for U.S.-condoned repression. Despite nominal command over the South Korean army, U.S. officials stood idly by through two South Korean military coups and years of authoritarian rule, culminating in the 1980 killing of pro-democracy protestors in Kwangju; until 1987, the country had enjoyed only two years of democracy since 1948.

Encouraging the ROK to quash liberal dissent, pushing the DPRK into increasing miltarism and isolation, the U.S.—and its troop presence, which continues, 29,000 strong—exacerbated the divide. American lip service towards a unified Korea has long since grown stale to both northern and southern ears. (Kim Il-Sung once cynically admitted to a fellow dictator that one of the main reasons North Korea continued to make diplomatic feints towards reunification was that it was an easy way to make the U.S. look hypocritical.) This isn’t meant to be a litany of guilt, or a suggestion that the ongoing sins of the North Korean regime are somehow neutralized by past American mistakes, but a reminder why American moralizing doesn’t carry as much weight on either side of the DMZ as we might like to think.

The problem is not that the Philharmonic’s visit will provide PR fodder for Kim Jong-Il; it’s that American policy towards Korea has long been so ad hoc, so tone-deaf to the situation of the Korean people that it almost invariably plays into the North’s hands, no matter what we do or don’t do. The most comparatively productive period in U.S.-DPRK relations, in the late 1990s, was nevertheless—sound familiar?—a reaction to a Pyongyang-triggered crisis over nuclear ambitions. Time and again, the North’s totalitarian leaders have turned outside attention, good and bad, to domestic gain; no doubt, the Bush administrations’s “Axis of Evil” rhetorical belligerence has been at least as propagandistically valuable to Kim Jong-Il as a visiting orchestra.

Perhaps the time has come to stop worrying about “legitimizing” a regime that’s outlasted ten U.S. presidents and come up with a substantive strategy to get them to open their society, empty their prisons, and feed their people—because isolation isn’t doing it. But instead we get the customary incoherence. Even the top U.S. negotiator on the North Korean nuclear question, Christopher Hill—who has been admirably pushing the current, fragile framework for disarmament (in which the Philharmonic visit is almost certainly playing a part)—has had to put up with neocon backbiting from his own administration.

Given such history, I’m pretty pessimistic about the diplomatic prospects for this concert. I’d love to believe that the Philharmonic’s visit will lead to something lasting, but I rather suspect that it will just be a particularly grand entry in the ledger of ill-coordinated signals and gestures that have long constituted American policy in Korea. Most likely, Koreans in the North will continue to starve, Koreans in the South will continue to wait, and the majority of divided Korean families will remain sadly divided—and when reunification does finally happen, it will probably be in spite of the United States, not because of us. Those Koreans able to hear the concert will hear neither a satisfying scold nor a new hope. But if they listen carefully to Gershwin’s deceptive insouciance, they might hear something even more rare: a hint that, somewhere along the line, at least some Americans have had at least some small idea of what it’s like to be Korean.


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  2. Who knew spambots were attracted to intelligent essays about Korea? Thanks for the thorough history lesson and heaping mounds of American hypocrisy.

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