Sunday, October 14, 2007

Symphony for the Devil

This is an interesting development -- the New York Philharmonic is debating whether to play in North Korea. Apparently the orchestra will be playing in China in February 2008, and since they would be in the neighborhood, they could potentially swing by Pyongyang for a show.

Bizarre, you say? Or worse, endorsing an evil regime? I hope that is not what you are thinking, because the idea has some interesting possibilities.
The State Department supports the trip and has helped guide the orchestra in planning. Orchestra management calls the visit purely musical and apolitical, but Korea experts say a concert in Pyongyang by a major American orchestra would be a publicity coup for North Korea.

“This is going to be a major media event, particularly on the Korean peninsula,” said Frederick F. Carriere, the executive director of the Korea Society, a nonprofit organization that seeks closer ties between the United States and both Koreas. “You couldn’t get that from Ping-Pong, or whatever.” He said that in the view of North Korea, normalizing relations with the United States was “absolutely key” to improving ties with South Korea.

Besides, if there is anything an orchestra understands, it is following in lock-step to the whims of a madman.

Okay, I joke. But seriously, though, classical music still has real power to shape people's thinking. I'm reminded of Glenn Gould's trip to Russia back in the 1957. But do the North Koreans take their classical music as seriously as the Russians do (or did)?

I just talked to Andrei Lankov (the obvious go-to guy for comparing North Korea and Russia), and he said that the North Koreans do take their classical music seriously. They have not politicized it the way the Soviet Union did (although they did ban the public performance of classical music for about 15 years, in the 1960s and 70s), and it is probably the least controversial part of high culture, accepted in a way that painting and the other Western fine arts art not.

So if classical music is relatively accepted in NK, how can performances by the New York Philharmonic help? Well, it is always good to show Americans in a positive way publicly in North Korea. If it could lead to a North Korean orchestra playing in the United States, so much the better. Since so much of NK is built in propaganda and lies, the more channels you have to bring in outside information and influences the better.

UPDATE: Thanks to the Marmot for the link. I also have written something of a follow-up.

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