The Korea Herald


Bass Youn Kwang-chul explores 'Koreanness,' identity in Korean art song album

"An Anthology of Korean Art Song" released by Pungwoldang sheds light on "Korean" classical music

By Park Ga-young

Published : Nov. 9, 2023 - 16:00

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(From left) Bass singer Youn Kwang-chul, pianist Shin Min-jung and Pungwoldang CEO Park Jong-ho pose for photos at Pungwoldang in Apgujeong-dong in Seoul on Nov. 3. (From left) Bass singer Youn Kwang-chul, pianist Shin Min-jung and Pungwoldang CEO Park Jong-ho pose for photos at Pungwoldang in Apgujeong-dong in Seoul on Nov. 3.

Youn Kwang-chul, a renowned South Korean bass opera singer who has performed on the world's major opera stages, has recently released an album dedicated to gagok, or Korean art songs.

“I debuted in Europe almost 30 years ago and for those 30 years overseas, I made a tremendous effort to live alongside their works, music and culture, interpreting them and making efforts to inspire them with their music. At the same time, however, there have been moments of confusion about my own identity,” Youn, 58, said during a press conference held at the Pungwoldang record store on Nov. 3.

"While singing Korean art songs, it felt as if I were back living in the countryside where there was no electricity. I discovered my true self, not a foreigner singing opera, but someone who was raised in Korea,” said the “Kammersanger” singer, a prestigious and honorary title in Germany and Austria awarded to exceptional opera and classical music singers.

Korean art song is a lyrical composition set to Korean poems, influenced by European art songs. The 1920s to the 1970s were the heydays of Korean art songs.

Titled “An Anthology of Korean Art Song,” the album contains 18 tracks including well-known "Spring of Hometown," "Wooden Marker," and "I will Live in the Green Mountain."

“I wanted to go back to how Korean art songs began,” Youn said when asked about the selection of the songs, adding that the Korean language is great for singing and has great potential when met with great melodies and harmonics.

For the album, pianist Shin Min-jung and recording producer Choi Jin joined forces. They recorded the album from July 4 to 7 this year at the Tongyeong Concert Hall in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, one of the most sought-after concert halls for recording.

The cover of the album is the artwork “Ecriture No.980308” by the late Park Seo-bo, Korea’s iconic contemporary artist and Dansaekhwa master, who passed away on Oct. 14.

“Music, poetry and even cover design have all been created to represent our country,” Park Jong-ho, CEO of Pungwoldang, said, adding that he wanted Korean art songs to reach people around the world.

For that, the album is presented in a hardcover book with some 160 pages. It includes lyrics and their translations in English, Japanese, and German in addition to an explanatory note on Korean art songs.

The album was created as Korean Art Song Project by Pungwoldang to mark its 20th anniversary and was supported by some 200 Pungwoldang patrons after discussions with an international record label went awry.

Pulwoldang began as a record store dedicated to classical music but has evolved into an important place for classical music enthusiasts and musicians that offers art academy, art tours and publishing.

Pulwongdang is located at the center of Apgujeong-dong in Gangnam district, a place it has occupied for the past 20 years since opening its door at a time when online shopping and digital albums appeared to take over the music industry.

"Since we've managed to stay without relocating, people assume that I own the entire building. However, we pay a monthly rent of 20 million won ($15,300), which serves as a motivation for us to put in more effort," explained Park, a former psychiatrist.

He also expressed his reasons for being hesitant about moving or closing.

"One day, talking with a young person sitting in the store, I found out that he used to come here with his father. Now that the father has passed away, he listens to the father's records at home and comes here, thinking about him. That made me reconsider the value of this space. I can't even think of moving now. People's fingerprints are all over everything here," Park said.

Pulwoldang's space for lectures and events (Pungwoldang) Pulwoldang's space for lectures and events (Pungwoldang)