The Korea Herald


Composer making name for himself

Contemporary classical composer Ryu Jea-joon’s music is new, but familiar

By Korea Herald

Published : March 20, 2014 - 20:29

    • Link copied

Given Korea’s thriving classical music scene, it is surprising how little support there is in Korea for composers.

With little public interest in contemporary classical music and anemic financial support for composition, composers often struggle to make ends meet with the music they make.

Ryu Jea-joon, however, is an exception.

The 43-year-old is making a name for himself in the tough field, although he is more recognized overseas than domestically.

With an album with Naxos, a leading classical music label, under his belt, the musician has a jam-packed composing schedule mostly comprised of commissioned works from foreign orchestras and musical institutions, two annual music festivals to put together and an ensemble to manage.

And it is as if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, he writes regular columns in a magazine and a newspaper.

“I am all booked until 2018,” the musician said, sipping his Americano at a cafe in Bangbae-dong, southern Seoul. “This year alone, I have to finish eight pieces.” 
Composer Ryu Jea-joon poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at a cafe in Bangbaedong, southern Seoul, last week. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald) Composer Ryu Jea-joon poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at a cafe in Bangbaedong, southern Seoul, last week. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“I’m almost done with a violin sonata,” he said, talking quickly, “It is going to be premiered in July here. And there’s a Manificat too, (a Christian hymn,) which I am dedicating to the victims of the Yongsan disaster. It’s to be premiered in September.”

By Yongsan victims, he was referring to the six people, including one police officer, who died in a 2009 fire that broke out during a pre-dawn operation by a SWAT team to evict squatters opposing the redevelopment of Seoul’s Yongsan area.

“Going forward, I would like to write a violin concerto, a cello sonata and then a piano sonata and a piano concerto. Then, I would have a complete portfolio of sonatas and concerts for all three major instruments.”

What about symphonies? Ryu said he wants to have four of his own, like Brahms.

Sound like a musical genius who completes a piece in one sitting?

He insisted otherwise.

“I have to study and learn 100 to eke out an output of 1. What kind of genius is that?”

He is just a hard worker, he said.

Despite his stated poor work efficiency, he’s written nearly 40 pieces so far since he started composing in earnest in 2006.

Best known internationally are two of his earliest works ― violin concerto No. 1, premiered in Poland in 2006, and Sinfonia da Requiem, premiered in 2008, also in Poland. Both are featured on his 2009 album with Naxos.

The 40-minute intense and powerful requiem was dedicated to Chung Ju-young, the deceased founder of Hyundai Group, and all others in his generation who rebuilt Korea from acute postwar poverty.

Premiered at the 2008 Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw, it evoked a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland’s classical music magnet and one of the most prominent composers of today, hailed it as “a masterpiece.”

“Penderecki has had an immense influence on me and my music,” Ryu said. He studied for many years under the Polish master, after graduating from Seoul National University. Penderecki later announced Ryu as his successor.

He feels a privilege as well as a sense of responsibility to carry on the music of Penderecki, he said.

Thinking about musical tradition ― Penderecki and all other composers before him ― he is just in awe. “I respect every single composer before me.”

“When I write music, I try to uphold this tremendous tradition,” he said.

Of course, Ryu, too, respects experimenting. But an experiment shouldn’t go as far as to undermine the essence of music which, according to him, is communication.

“I feel that we ― contemporary composers ― are losing audience, because we’re like juveniles speaking with our own slang. We might have a compelling story to tell, with all the right logic in it, but what good will that be if we don’t speak the language that our audience can understand.”

One of Ryu’s recent works, “Three Madrigals,” will get its Asian debut at Seoul Arts Center on Sunday, as part of the March 14-23 Cazals Festival Korea, which he organized as artistic director.

By Lee Sun-young (