Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea

Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea

Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea

Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea

Synopsis

Songs of Seoul is an ethnographic study of voice in South Korea, where the performance of Western opera, art songs, and choral music is an overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian enterprise. Drawing on fieldwork in churches, concert halls, and schools of music, Harkness argues that the European-style classical voice has become a specifically Christian emblem of South Korean prosperity. By cultivating certain qualities of voice and suppressing others, Korean Christians strive to personally embody the social transformations promised by their religion: from superstition to enlightenment; from dictatorship to democracy; from sickness to health; from poverty to wealth; from dirtiness to cleanliness; from sadness to joy; from suffering to grace. Tackling the problematic of voice in anthropology and across a number of disciplines, Songs of Seoul develops an innovative semiotic approach to connecting the materiality of body and sound, the social life of speech and song, and the cultural voicing of perspective and personhood.

Excerpt

Pudae tchigae is a bubbling, reddish stew consisting of chunks of processed meat, vegetables, spices, and red pepper paste. Often translated as “army base stew,” “GI stew,” or even “Yankee stew,” the dish takes its name from the way hungry Koreans in the 1950s boiled leftover food from U.S. Army bases—some donated, some pulled from the trash—to feed themselves and their families. Although an unscavenged form of pudae tchigae is popular today and continues its flexible model of culinary integration by incorporating contemporary consumer products such as ramen noodles and thinly sliced American cheese into its spicy broth, its origins in South Korea’s (hereafter Korea’s) impoverished, war-torn past are not lost on those who consume it.

In November 2008 I shared a pot of pudae tchigae with Su-yŏn, a soprano and church choir director in Seoul. As we dined, she explained that when she ate this stew, she was reminded of Korea’s history and occasionally felt sad. She said that Korea’s history was extremely sad and that the dish was obviously associated with that fact. For her, it still had the taste of poverty. Then she added, with a characteristic chuckle, “We still like to eat pudae tchigae, even though these days we should not be sad.” “Why should you not be sad?” I asked. She replied, “Because we have God’s grace [ŭnhye].”

After dinner, we walked to the nearby Seoul Arts Center to hear her friend sing. The scene at the massive performing arts and education complex, which was completed in 1993, was a stark contrast to that . . .

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