An Orchestra to Break 72 Years of Silence A musical response to "Fire and Fury"

If the populations of two countries but one nation haven't spoken to each other for decades how does one break this silence? When political measures keep failing, can a musical performance challenge the status quo, achieve the unthinkable?

When I first heard of the Lindenbaum project I was immediately fascinated. The proposal of the South Korean musician and founder of Lindenbaum Project, Hyung Joon Won sounds simple and intriguing: Let's organize a joint concert on the border between North and South Korea with the participation of musicians from both sides.

"On the border" means at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, one of the world’s least penetrable borders, a place for provocation, 72 years of intransigence, and the clash of two countries, two ideologies, two ways of life.

An ambitious endeavor. Hyung Joon Won has been trying for eight years to make his Korean dream come true, but so far without any success. His unshakable faith, that such a concert is possible and can contribute to reunification captivated me and I decided to visit him in Korea to gain a better understanding of the reunification question of the Korean peninsula and what role music could play in this context.

That was in the Spring of 2017. Before the latest testings of intercontinental ballistic missiles by North Korea on 4 and 28 July, before the alarming reactions from the US administration, before the escalation of the tensions and threats of war from both sides.

When I finally packed my luggage on 3 August I had no idea where this journey would take me, if it was a wise idea to travel to this region at such times and if the concert could take place at all.

Meeting Hyung Joon Won

The next day, I found myself in Songdo-Dong in the North of South Korea on the large Incheon Global Campus. Meant to host thousands of students, the newly built university campus felt abandoned and sterile during the summer break. But that should change soon.

I met the lively Hyung Joon Won in the park for a first conversation. He is in the mid forties, South Korean, with short hair and he wears glasses. His face changes quickly between high concentration and a big mischievous smile, always ready to make a joke or to laugh about circumstances surrounding him. He is dressed in the Lindenbaum project T-Shirt which all the musicians are wearing this week - he is one of them. He has multiple roles, not only is he the overall organizer, he also acts as a teacher for some of the students and plays as well in the orchestra.

Most of the time he is between the office and the rehearsal room with a phone in one hand and a violin in the other, making sure all international guests arrive safely, finding a replacement for the orchestra director who has cancelled at the last minute, negotiating with the government for the permissions to enter the DMZ and many more foreseeable and unexpected emergencies. He seems to work 20 hours a day, sending messages at any time of the day and replying to messages in a speed which seems to embody the “bally-bally” mentality I had heard about - everything needs to happen quickly in South Korea.

In my first conversation with Hyung Joon Won I wanted to hear from him how the idea of the Lindenbaum Project was born and if and how music can play a role in this gridlocked conflict. The first festival Hyung Joon Won organized back in 2009. At that time his work didn't have any link with peace building. But then... (please excuse the cicadas in the background, we tried to negotiate with them, but they were too excited to keep quiet...)

Shortly after I arrived, the 37 musicians from South Korea arrived to rehearse all week for the concert on the DMZ. They had been selected through an audition process and many of them now were meeting for the first time. They have only four days to get ready for the stage and they work hard from nine in the morning till nine at night. With eagerness and infectious motivation they soon flood the empty campus with music and hope for reunification with a country which none of them has ever visited.

While most people believe that there is nothing they can do about this conflict as long as they are not decision makers, Hyung Joon Won is convinced, that musicians too have a role to play in creating an environment which can enhance peace:

Hyung Joon Won also highlights how difficult it is to find people ready to commit their time for free and announces with a proud smile that there will be a total of 100 musicians who participate in this year's concert, people from all over South Korea united through music and their wish to play an active role in promoting reconciliation.

Rehearsing for Peace

I visit the rehearsals every day and watch some of these talented fingers, some of them so small that they have trouble getting around the neck of their instrument. They rehearse with concentration and eagerness and I can observe what Won had mentioned, the process of developing a variety of different melodies, that in the end - once combined with the other instruments - will create a harmonious melody. Only at that moment when these successions of notes, which on their own do not seem to make sense and often sound weird to our ears, are produced together with other instruments do the tunes turn into music.

And you understand that a symphony can work only if the musicians have different instruments that play different tunes. Each of them has an individual role and place in the whole. And only by listening to each other and respecting each other can the music work. And I try to imagine what would happen if Trump and Kim had to play together in one orchestra...

Under war threats

But the newspapers get me back to the political context of this project. While Lindenbaum is rehearsing, the US president articulates his highly alarming threats to North Korea, that the US would react “with fire and fury” to Kim’s provocations, and within hours the tensions between the two countries escalate. A shock for the global community and for us 60km from North Korea.

I often ask people I interview when they think it is appropriate to bring culture into conflict resolution and I seriously doubt if this is the right moment to hope for the parties to be receptive to such a word as „dialogue“. Diplomacy is no longer on the agenda, what seems to matter is the strength and reach of missiles, and poker and provocation are the only language.

When I come to the temporary office of the organizers, I expect to see that the concert is canceled. But nothing like that. The organizers are all on mobile devices, busy and hectic as always, but no signs of cancellation. “The parents haven’t canceled, not a single person of the orchestra has indicated they will not join the concert at the DMZ”. What about the governments, any news? So far the Department of Reunification has not withdrawn the authorization to perform on the DMZ which Won had striven so hard to get.

We still have two days to go. Could military action take place already tomorrow? Hyung is convinced that If war breaks out, the DMZ is the safest place to be. I am not sure I should believe him. I am still so new to this context and the Korean question, feeling unable to judge whatsoever. Planning seems useless, we need to take every day as it comes.

In the meantime, the conductor arrives and so does the choir. The over 50 singers are part of the senior choir The Youth Gray all of them are over 60.

Here a one-camera one-shot impression of the last rehearsal before the concert in Aram Nuri Goyang, before entering DMZ:

The orchestra and choir during the concert, still in the concert hall in Aram Nuri Goyang, on the north end of South Korea:

Hyung has been close to his dream so many times. In 2015, for example, he received the authorization from both Koreas to perform together and North Korea had sent a choir which was supposed to meet the orchestra from the South at the DMZ. But a mine explosion shortly before the Liberation Day increased the tensions and the countries withdrew their authorizations. This year the obstacles are not the mines, but nuclear weapons, in position and ready to be fired at any moment.

While we are driving northward towards the DMZ I wanted to understand the personal motivation of Hyung to put so much effort in this project, to keep going after so many years and so many disappointments and to take the risk to deal with this delicate question of reunification.

Approaching the North

In the meantime it is midnight and we are still at the checkpoint, trying to enter the demilitarized zone. The border control keeps checking and rechecking our passports with their emotionless faces. “No jokes, behave and stay calm”, Won had warned the children before arrival. The frontier-guards seem to have a problem allowing the American citizens in, the American students who had been teaching the Korean kids all week get nervous. The Lindenbaum-team makes one phone call after another and sends emails frantically on their phones.

Afterwaiting long hours, they finally let us enter. We drive on an absurdly large highway. Built as a main traffic highway, there is absolutely no traffic, no light, no buildings or any other signs of life. Blinded by the night I lose orientation and wonder if it could happen, that - by mistake - we end up on the other side, the part of the DMZ belonging to the DPRK. The bus moves slowly, the driver highly concentrated, as if he too is expecting anything to come out of the dark at any moment. I remember the satellite image of North Korea at night, which is just a black spot and I literally feel that I am getting closer to it. And as the whole situation seems surreal I wonder if we could get swallowed up by this black hole. Before my fantasy could get any further, we stop somewhere in the dark behind a barbed wire fence and something resembling a bunker. We have arrived at the military camp where we are planning to stay for the night.

Idyllic War Zone

When I wake up in the morning in a military basement on a green mattress, and under a camouflage-patterned cover, I have trouble recognizing myself. I find myself next to a contrabass case, the kids had slept in the dorm next to their instruments. Sun is shining, the sky is bluer than blue and the joyful voices of cicadas and birds give the place the feel of a holiday resort. The kids are excited and run around playing games and I feel very much like I am in a scout camp.

But that stops immediately as one of the leaders gives short instructions on the programme of the day finishing with the sentence “And remember, under no circumstances should you leave the compound. There are land mines outside”. I shiver. My holiday feelings are gone. How confusing is this contradiction between what I see and what I know; this childhood summer ambiance conflicting with my brain, frightening me that I am in the middle of a (cold) war zone and that my life is exposed to two power-hungry men and their nuclear toys.

Sounds of Reunification

Hyung Joon Won is running around nervously. He is confronted with the next challenge. Many of the guests got blocked at the checkpoint. After many more phone calls and negotiations, the sports hall of the compound starts filling up. I am surprised that around 200 people have found their way to this inhospitable place associated with nothing but negative memories.

Finally, the concert starts. The concert I had been looking forward to for half a year - sometimes more , sometimes less optimistically. The concert which even during this week I had been sure that we would have to cancel it.

The sound quality isn’t great in this hall built for the physical exercise of soldiers but the musicians play with more enthusiasm than ever. Time passes very quickly, too quickly to realize that this was really happening, that we are sitting here under Damocles’ sword between two countries at war for 72 years now and playing music. We are one kilometer from the North Korean border, surrounded by military camps, mines, and barbed wire fences, after all that happened this week, after and in spite of all the threats.

Hyung had the spontaneous idea to bring the musicians outside for the last song, Arirang, a folk song that has a strong tradition in both North and South Korea and which is often considered as the unofficial national anthem of Korea and is inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity programme by UNESCO. “Let’s sing for North Korea”, he says, “As they were not allowed to join us, I want them at least to hear us!” All the 100 musicians and the audience move together to the yard for Arirang. Looking at the hills and the flag in the wind indicating the beginning of the DPRK territory the musicians play Arirang, the audience sings along, some people cry.

I listen to the melody that became dear to me this week and I look at these musicians between 10 and 84 years of age who had the courage to participate in this project. I return to my initial question. How can music contribute to reunification? Isn’t it naive to play music under the current circumstances? Will this concert change anything? And if not, does it make anyway sense? And is reunification really what these two countries need?

No, 100 musicians lost somewhere in the bush are definitely not going to change the political agenda of the world leaders, at least not today.

And it would have been an important, a meaningful message to perform together with musicians from the DPRK. But considering the circumstances, it was a success that the concert could take place at all. And looking at the musicians and the audience in front of the barbed wire fence, there can be no doubt how much this concert means to them and how much it changes for them to be part of it.

And when talking to the participants I could see that Lindenbaum succeeds in sensitizing the younger South Korean generation for the peace process with North Korea, a country and a conflict this generation has almost no relation to: they are born in the status quo and their parents and grandparents have lived with this separation. The less they feel related to the DPRK, the less they are ready to fight for reunification. Lindenbaum raises awareness of this unresolved conflict and shows the younger generation that their involvement is essential to achieve a change.

We never really know where peace starts. In an office, a situation room? On a desk with two signatures? With a demonstration of thousands of people in the street? With a facebook campaign with millions of likes and shares?

Or maybe it is growing slowly, peace, here and there, for some people through research in a library, for others through political activism and for others through musical expression. Because this is what they are best at. What else could be nobler and more useful to commit to peace than your talent?

Out of all possible options for rapprochement and collaboration between these two countries cultural activities and sports are probably the most probable to happen first. Maybe next time the DPRK musicians will join, who knows. Looking at the energy and relentless commitment by Hyung Joon Won, I am sure that he won’t give up. He makes me think of Havel's definition that hope is not when we know that something will work out, but the conviction that something makes sense no matter how it will turn out.

And I can feel a lot of hope here. The hope of four generations united to tell the world that silence between the countries can be broken and that there is a connection between human beings which is stronger than the oldest iron curtain in the world.

Created By
Lea Suter


Lea Suter

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