Seung-Won Oh: “This acknowledges the philosophy and message of YeonDo.”

The originally South Korean composer Seung-Won Oh will receive the Kees van Baaren Prize on 17 June 2023 for her remarkable work YeonDo. As the finale of the festival day, her work will be performed that evening by the New European Ensemble and Cappella Pratensis. Seung-Won fills us in on her work and the significance of this award.

On 17 June you will receive the Kees van Baaren Prize for YeonDo from the municipality of The Hague. What does this award mean to you?
Not only the crafts and musicality but more importantly also the philosophy and the message in YeonDo are acknowledged. This prestigious recognition is a significant validation of my musical thought process. It encourages me to continue to breathe in this music philosophy and pay attention to the importance of the players and the audience: they are growing to be the integral parts when designing a new composition.

What inspired you to create YeonDo?
I was inspired by the Korean prayer yeondo and the percussion heavy funeral march in Korean tradition. In Korea, yeondo is a prayer for souls in purgatory. It is a unique ritual, mixing elements of traditional Korean funeral culture with Catholic beliefs. My composition YeonDo is a combination of a European Latin requiem, Korean Catholic prayer and funeral march. However, the concept of death and life cycle and the eternity of after-life also inspired me profoundly.

How did you go about researching and developing the piece?
I started my research with a historical survey focusing on the origin of traditions such as yeondo. I found out that yeondo does not exist in other catholic countries and is an entirely unique phenomenon in Korea. Since the Korean peninsula went through Confucianism, Buddhism and many other religions for over 5000 years, the Catholicism – important in the 19 century – could not entirely abolish the ceremonial culture. Each family household puts huge importance to commemorate the dead ancestors. Among other things I also researched the function of bells in various traditions, the role they play in death and funeral culture in various forms. These researches provided a rich base to build the entire work of layered structures in YeonDo.

During the performance of YeonDo you don’t traditionally put the musicians together on stage, but you use the whole church. Why this choice?
I wanted to create a unique sound space where the audience is entirely surrounded from all angles. YeonDo invites the willing audience to become active participants of an immersive ceremonial experience rather than being passive listeners. The first time I entered Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, where YeonDo premiered in the festival November Music, I knew immediately I wanted to write for this unique space. The compositional and formal idea including the stage design flew into my imagination naturally and organically.

What are you currently working on?
I am in the editing period for a half hour long string quartet work called Elegy In Me for Raqazze quartet, to be premiered during the String Quartet Biennale 2024 (Muziekgebouw Amsterdam). Ragazze commissioned me a new work in the theme of “Lamento” after seeing the performance of YeonDo back in 2021. I am also working on a new piece for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a 20 minutes long work in the theme of spirituality for the 2024-2025 season. This commission also came in after the performance of YeonDo. I am again realizing the significant impact of YeonDo on my future projects.

The award ceremony and the performance of YeonDo will take place on Saturday 17 June 2023 at 8:30 pm in De Nieuwe Kerk. Buy tickets here

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