Pyongyang Interrupted: Part II


So, once they let all 400 Americans into their country, the largest contingent of U.S. citizens to grace their land since the end of the U.S. invasion some fifty years ago, what did the North Koreans get to hear?

First, the orchestra played both the North Korean national anthem and ours. I love to hear the anthems of those Asian countries who, in attempt to give the appearance that they have joined the modern world, adopted some trashy European-style chorale. North Korea’s was one of these, chock full of brave major chords and triumphal melody (not a pentatonic scale within ear shot), with seldom an excursion into minor areas.

What was lovely, and also honorable to see the North Korean audience remain standing while it was played, was to hear the American national anthem right afterward. I’ll admit, I’ve always been a fan. It has flair. From that awesome plunging arpeggio at the beginning, to the lyrical, sacharrine B section that always receives lovely, light colors in the orchestration, the Star Spangled Banner leaps and meanders, takes its time, then has this crazy build up at the end (2 octave range high note optional, although, thanks to the pop divas, it’s now approaching obligatory). I also love that the melody comes from a British drinking song (duly pointed out by Bob Woodruff), and that there is no mention of G – O – D in the entire thing (personal preference, and, now that I think about it, kinda commie).

At any rate, soon after this, Maazel and orchestra busted out Wagner’s overture to Lohengrin, which Anthony Tommasini at The Times railed against, in yet another tired and posthumous mudsling at the composer. Again, we get that Wagner was a bastard, just like we get that K. Ju is a crazy bitch. (And, while we’re at it, where the F did that satellite shot of the Koreas at night come from? You know, the one where S. Korea is lit up like a tiki torch, and N. Korea is black as, well, the night? I mean, a chimpanzee could probably have Photoshopped that thing in his/her sleep. Plus, you can kind other pictures of pyongyang with lights abalze. Alz I’m saying is, remember, about five years ago when Colin Powell stood up in front of the U.N. and waived a “satellite” photo of supposed Iraqi WMD storage units, and the American press ran these pictures without questioning their validity? Hi. All I’m trying to do is make the point that there has been precedent set, in our very own country, for the government to manipulate documents to further their own political ends. We should be, maybe not just as skeptical, but skeptical nonetheless of this kind of “intelligence.” But I digress…)

What was especially fun was to compare the images from the broadcast with the reports that were coming in from reporters. And if you never really appreciated the essential subversiveness of information–the very thing the North Korean government does everything in their power to control–look at wealth of information that came out of that country in less than forty-eight hours of a handful of reporters being on the ground. Hundreds of photographs and written accounts of what the country looks like, what the people are like, anecdotes about certain behaviors, the lack of street traffic (almost no cars) and street lights. You could understand why (but certainly never endorse) fascist countries need to control information. Although, we have to consider this a fundamental violation of human rights. BTW, when does our Freedom of Information Act come up for renewal?…

The shots of the orchestra were mixed in with steady shots on the audience, which was mainly the North Korean privileged hand-picked to put their best face forward, some 60 or so members of the media, and strangely, our very own privileged, NY Phil patrons who paid thousands of dollars to tag along (again, that difference; our elective, and sometimes passive privilege compared with N. Korea’s mandated privilege). Each and every North Korean had on their little Kim Jung-il pins; some round, some in flag shapes, as described by Daniel J. Wakin in his coverage for The Times. Arranged in little pyramid seating areas pointed toward the beflowered lip of the stage, all the men were in suits, while the ladies wore traditional, colorful gowns.


It was also heartening to see that North Koreans also sleep through classical music concerts. Although, you can blame Maazel for that one, and while I understand the significance of choosing Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” as the second piece on the program, that work, once you get past all the parts John Williams stole for his early Spielberg scores, can put you into a classical coma, and stat.

The third piece was, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” was, much to my dismay, also quite boring. Now, Gershwin is fresh in my mind because I’m still laboring through The Rest Is Noise (the laboring is not necessarily the book’s fault, but my own scattered attention when it comes to the millions of things I’m trying to read at the same time), because Alex Ross figures him largely in his writing, from the opening of the book, where he describes a meeting between Gershwin and my super hero, Alban Berg, to a section dedicated solely to the composer in the chapter titled “Invisible Men.” I was rethinking the music, listening to it, watching that fierce bitch in the gold dress stare through a squinted, stoic expression that never changed throughout the night, trying to get a deeper sense of it. And, sadly, what I came out with, was thinking even less highly of the composer than I once did. Aside from the audacity of using jazz as his idiom for writing concert music, the technique Gershwin employed was basically the laundry machine technique; oh, there’s that red sock again; hey, I was wondering where that shirt went; gee, those are my favorite underwear; if you loved this melody fast, you’re gonna loooooove it slow! He brings his themes back time after time, stretching them here, fucking with the harmonies there, but never with any ingenuity other than the craft of his sense of variation. But, unlike, say, the variations in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, they sound haphazardly arrived at. There is no sense of inevitability in this piece of Gershwin; except for the inevitability of recycling, which can be quite tedious.

After all that, the orchestra played three encores, which I had anticipated after Wakin’s account.

The first, though, was a throw away from Bizet. Fast and flashy and all that jazz, and utterly forgettable.

Next was the thing I had been most excited about. Maazel stepped away from the podium while the orchestra played Bernstein’s “Candide Overture” without a director, although, Maazel likes to make a shtick of imagining the ghost of Bernstein presiding over the band, yet another way to prevent the players from really receiving any credit for making the music happen. Anyway, that shit is hot–the music, that is–and you should all go see City Opera’s production this season.

Then came the surprise of the night, an arrangement of “Arirang,” a nationally treasured Korean folk song (know throughout both halves of the peninsula), that according to accounts, was a stirring experience that brought those in the audience into an intense closeness with those on-stage. Well, I don’t know if it was all the ABC negativity, or the medium of television itself, but the deeply emotional experience didn’t really get conveyed. Read any account of that last number (and check out these accompanying pictures from The Wall Street Journal), and you get the sense that the audience really broke some kind of code, standing and waving in earnest at the orchestra members, some of whom were said to have been moved to tears.

I don’t supposed it helped that ABC cut this part out of their broadcast, the applause, that is, breaking away as soon as the last note had been played in order to let us know that we could purchase this recording for fifty bucks or something like that. How cynical is ABC that they would not only present this landmark event in the context of diplomatic mistrust, but that then they would go so far as to intentionally downplay the one good that came from the concert, which comes from all great experiences with art: real communication between people.

I am of the mind that any peaceful step toward another human being is a good step to take. And where we kind find room, we should step through. The Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea brought tons of new information out of that isolated society, while at the same time bringing at least some kind of positive representation of American into the country. As far as I’m concerned, and despite the American Broadcasting Company’s attempts to soften the impact: Mission Accomplished.



  1. Your pictures are beautiful, and I appreciate the love that you show for the music being played.

    So why do you have to spoil it with political rants against the US? Everyone has heard the same tired cliches. I’m pretty sure most of those reading this would much rather see and hear about North Korea, not about US media or US politicians.

    Frankly, from everything I have read, North Korea is a spookily surrealist experience that needs no comparison with life in the USA, however demented you feel US politicians are. If you can’t see the difference between people fully free to say how much they hate Bush and Norh Koreans in robotic lockstep saying how much they love Kim Jong Il, I just don’t have much to say.

    I fully support your right to express your opinions about our President, but your article would be so much more interesting if you’d expressed them elsewhere on your site.

    Yes, the North Korean skyline is lit up, in a feeble sort of way. If you look at the shot of the dark North Korea compared to the “you need shades” South, you will notice that there are a few areas of NK that are lit up, and presumably one of them is Pongyang. I would estimate that the satellite photos show that the dense areas of NK are about 1/4-1/2 as luminous as SK’s highly urbanized section. If you check out the photos of Pongyang in the Google image search, it looks like the skyline is indeed about 1/4-1/2 as luminous as the equivalent South Korean areas, so the satellite image appears accurate.

    Note that the rural areas of NK have little light because of grinding poverty that is consistent with your worst nightmares.

    George W Bush freed the Iraqis from a very similar government, with statues of Saddam all over the place and rape rooms and people being fed into industrial shredders, feet first so they would die slowly and in agony.

    He made mistakes, and the people he appointed made mistakes. But most Iraqis have no interest in returning to the world of torturing and maiming political opponents, or having to have pictures and statues of Saddam as their constant companions. Indeed, polling within Iraq has shown a very tiny percentage of people who would rather have Saddam back. In short, the overwhelming majority have supported the results of Bush’s war, even if they, as a proud people, wish they could have done it themselves.

    The problems of the middle east have been extremely difficult for decades, indeed centuries. The left wing seems to say “Watch those suffering Palastinians!” and “This is so complex we can’t actually do anything about it; everything is futile.” Against that advice, it seems to me George W Bush is to be commended. He has made a good-faith effort to bring freedom and democracy to a region that has had none of it. And, amazingly enough, in view of the Anbar Awakening and similar movements, he seems to be pulling it off. Iraqis hate Al Queda now, and they report AQ attacks to the Americans.

    Again, nothing’s perfect, especially not in the Middle East. But I think you should give George W Bush a fair shake instead of reflexibly condemning him for making an effort to clean up the mess made by successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, in Iraq.

    Hope that was thought-provoking.


  2. Hi David-

    I appreciate your comments. Definitely thought provoking. And thank you for submitting them.

    I would caution you against construing my comments as “rants against the US.” That is the “reflexive”, “cliche” right-wing response to anyone who decides to say anything negative about the Bush administration. The “for us or against us” mentality is not constructive, nor is it even democratic.

    Saying that George Bush didn’t win the first election isn’t a cliche: it’s a fact. Saying that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to make a case for invading Iraq is also not a cliche, because it happened. And this last event is what causes me to give pause any time the current administration trots out a new piece of “evidence” that is meant to prove the malfeasance of a government it perceives to be an enemy. I was very clear about the points I was making and why I was making them.

    And my rants were aimed at the frusting issues America’s foreign policy presents. A criticsm of the government ISN’T a criticism of the country. Our Democracy is founded on the belief that the executive government is merely a tennant in charge: They represent the country; they are not the country.

    And yes, I do recgonize and value the fact that I do have the freedom to write what I feel and think, without fear of imprisonment or torture. Although, the fact that the Bush administration has taken aggressive efforts to be able to tap my phone without a warrant–against the popular will–doesn’t make me feel that my freedom of expression is necessarily guaranteed in the United States. And that’s what bothers me, when certain people jump to point out the anti-democratic policies of other countries without criticizing those that are beginning to surface in our own country.

    Yes, this was a rant against certain people in my country, which, also, is not a rant against “the country,” but only those that fit the description of what I was describing. If my rant felt to you like I was railing against certain beliefs you have, that’s totally fair and probably accurate, but it isn’t fair or truthful for you to then say that beause my beliefs are different from yours that my beliefs are against America.

    Regarding whether my article would be more interesting without the political/media aspect, well, the article wouldn’t exist without it. That was the point. I had read much of the journalism coming out of the NY Phil’s trip, all of it serious, thought-provoking with NONE attempting to separate the political significance. And when I went to watch the broadcast, ABC made obvious choices to edit out certain events, and to insert political skepticism. Again, the cutting of “five minutes” of emotional applause at the end, accounted by writers from the NY Times, Symphony Magazine and The Wall Street Journal (where I got the pictures), an event that everyone from the orchestra players to the press were so moved by, was abruptly cut from the broadcast. That’s what I was criticizing. That’s what I was writing about. That’s what–actually–makes this piece interesting. (I should note that Part I addressed more of the political, while Part II focused more on the musical.)

    I hope you had the patience to get through all that. I know we all tend to read defensively. And I know certain phrases just turn people off, because we are tired of hearing certain things, but, if it needs to be said, it still needs to be said.

    But the main thing that concerns me is getting to a place where, as fellow Americans, we can get rid of the impulse to think that one way of thinking is American, and that another way of thinking isn’t. I have to be able to criticize you without you calling me un-American. I have to able to criticize George Bush without you telling me I’m criticizing America.

    What do you say? Can we at least take that step together, even if you disagree with my ideas? I’m willing if you are.

  3. I read one commentator who exposed an appalling lack of knowledge about Korea by wondering why in the world the Phil played “Arirang,” as he found it dull. Apparently ABC wasn’t quite aware of the significance, either. “Nationally treasured” might, in fact, be an understatement.

    Actually, God does get a shout-out in the Star-Spangled Banner, but not until verse 4. Who knew that the American penchant for short attention spans could be so inadvertently tolerant?

  4. Thanks for the info, Matthew. And thank god for secularism.


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