Exploring the Intersections between Music and History

by Hyeok Hweon (Kevin) Kang

As a double major in History and Music, I have had the privilege of exploring the intersections between these two distinct majors and reap the benefits of interdisciplinary learning. The beauty of studying in a liberal arts institution like Emory is that willing students can introduce fresh perspectives to their academic career through cross-disciplinary understanding and synergy. I found that the combination of my majors enabled me to recontextualize the significance of each subject. Many limit the scope of history to the past and that of music to the present, with the assumption that history is a fixed narrative of bygone events and the understanding that music exists in the present catering to current society’s needs for entertainment. However, concentrating in ethnomusicology – an anthropological study of musical traditions – inspired me to realize that music not only embodies the cultural and ethnic identity of musicians but also reveals insight into their creative energy to reconstruct and revise their ethnic past. In this context, the cultural history of an ethnic group breathes in the present through the musical culture, undergoing constant reinterpretation and revision with variances in musical performance style and other extra-musical elements associated with the performance. I realized history is not a fossil of the past, but that it lives in the present and dictates the future. It is a powerful, dynamic narrative of human societies that demands constant interpretation and re-examination of the old in new contexts to achieve truthful representations of the past.

I have pursued various research projects that reflect such interdisciplinary. One of my most recent presentations was about the historical origins of p’ansori, a genre of Korean narrative singing, in the San Diego Association for Asian Studies Conference. Employing both historical and ethnomusicological research methodologies, I proposed a new theory that p’ansori singing intersected with recitation of military manuals in Korean armies of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). Through textual evidence from military manuals, p’ansori songbooks and institutional records, I argued that shaman musicians who served in the military band interacted with reciters of manuals and gave rise to early p’ansori singing. My presentation was successful and it attracted much curiosity and tentative approval from the attending scholars. An expanded article on the topic will be included in the forthcoming issue of the Rutledge Handbook on Asian Music.

I would like to extend my gratitude towards the liberal arts education that Emory University has provided thus far and the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry for fostering my interdisciplinary interests.

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