This project began in 2020 supported by the ArtsEngine at the University of Michigan and works to make Korean art song accessible to English speakers. To date, we have collected nearly 1000 unique songs and have created a database containing information about these songs: composer, poet, key, vocal range, tempo, instrumentation, and links to recordings. In some cases, materials have been identified which are a good entry point for English speakers curious about Korean art song; these products have translations, phonetic transcriptions, and performance recordings easily available. In other cases, and as a longer range goal, the team works to create phonetic transcriptions, translations, explanations of historic references, and recordings of the texts spoken for study so that Korean art song (가곡) can be as easily studied and performed as German Lieder or French mélodies.
Thank you to the University of Michigan ArtsEngine, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and the Nam Center for Korean Studies for supporting this project.
A Personal Note
Over the years of this project, people have asked me “Why are you studying Korean art song?” which I have sussed out to be phrased more precisely as “How did a guy from rural North Carolina become invested enough in this repertoire to take on a project like this?” The answer I usually give is simple, straight forward, and true to my most immediate inspiration for the project: I’m married to a Korean. For over a decade, I’ve lived in a household with the food, language, music, television shows, and movies, encountering the culture. So after years of teaching and playing songs in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, and even languages like Russian that are not based on the Latin/Roman alphabet, I begin to question the barrier for Korean song.
As is often the case with a short answer, my explanation of marriage belies the complexity of the matter. Actually, my family has ties that extend a couple generations with Korea. The earliest connection I know comes from an oft told story I heard growing up. January 12, 1949, the day after his eighteenth birthday, my paternal grandfather, William Ottis Thompson, volunteered for service in the United States Army. In August of 1950, he landed in Busan and was sent into action two days later. February 1951, his unit fell behind enemy lines and he was shot multiple times. He feigned death, his equipment was taken, and he was left for dead. Left with only his toothpaste to eat, he made his way to a village and was aided by Koreans, who gave him food, shelter, and hid him. Traveling by night and sleeping during the day, guided by the sound of artillery fire, he returned to the allied forces and eventually the US. For this service, he received several awards, including the Purple Heart.