Interview with Dr. Katherine In-Young Lee

In light of teaching her first quarter at UCLA in spring of 2018, assistant professor Katherine Lee sat down with Ethnomusicology Review to talk about her background outside and inside academia. We were interested to know the journey that led her through Ethnomusicology, the public sector, and politics within music. In this interview, Dr. Lee also talks about her new publication in 2018, Dynamic Korea and Rhythmic Form, and future courses that shed light on the understudied topics of East Asian music within Ethnomusicology.



Photo by Nicholas Yoon

Dr. Lee’s new book Dynamic Korea and Rhythmic Form (Wesleyan University Press)


ER:     OK, first question. Could you tell us about your educational background and how it influenced your research interests?


KL:      Sure. I majored in piano performance and musicology at the University of Michigan. Originally when I entered U of M— the short name for the University of Michigan— I was pretty serious as a classical pianist (I studied with Anton Nel). But it was my first year at Michigan during this core musicology sequence that I took a World Music class, which was required for all music majors or performance majors. It was very interesting to me at the time; it was taught by Lorna McDaniel. I just remembered all of the listening examples, and just being fascinated by these different cultures. But I was still very much dedicated to the piano. But then in my sophomore year, I took a class with Professor Judith Becker; she was running the Javanese Gamelan ensemble there. In that particular year, 1995, there was a resident artist by the name of F.X. Widaryanto, who was teaching the class at Michigan. So, I had this opportunity to be in the gamelan and learned how to play all the different instruments and then there was a big performance at Hill Auditorium in that academic year. I think that was my first entry point into the idea of ethnomusicology, and then I just kept taking more and more ethnomusicology courses, and musicology courses as well, at Michigan. But I was still practicing and still very much a piano major at the time.

I think it was my fifth year of Michigan-- five years instead of four... I took a proseminar in ethnomusicology with Judith Becker and it was at that stage when I decided what to do after my undergraduate degree. I decided not to pursue classical piano at the master's level, but to go into ethnomusicology. So, I applied to graduate programs in ethnomusicology and I ended up getting into the University of Washington in Seattle. I was there for two years, and it was kind of a rigorous introduction to ethnomusicology: history, theory, and method. I took two solid years of coursework and then also was involved in many performance ensembles.

After that, I took a long break because I had been in school for a quite a while, and I felt that I needed to learn the Korean language if I was going to study Korean music and culture. Then I really needed to acquire some language proficiency because I did not grow up speaking Korean. I received the grant, called the Blakemore Freeman Foundation Fellowship, and I was able to study in Seoul at Yonsei University for a year and a half, just doing language. But in the afternoons, I always made sure to try to take some kind of music lesson or explore the city. And it was really a gift to be able to spend that much time studying language and just exploring because I had that kind of familiarity with ethnomusicology as a discipline. But that was really the first encounter that I had with learning how to perform some of the instruments and getting to know some of the musicians.

After that language program ended, I ended up working for Kim Duk Soo’s Samul Nori Hanullim ensemble and I was the overseas coordinator. I ended up corresponding with non-Korean presenters and I was trying to help and create events, gigs, tours or things like that. Also, there were performances in Korea that involved invited foreign guests, Then, I would serve as the translator or the guide for many of these people. I was in arts management in Korea. I kind of stumbled into it, and it wasn't something that I initially planned to do.

After that, there was another year kind of freelancing, I worked for UNESCO in Korea as a freelancer and worked for a magazine called Seoul, and a Buddhist newspaper as well. All in the copy-editing realm, editing English publications, but then checking the Korean as well... the Korean translation into English. 

In 2005, I entered the doctoral program at Harvard University, and that was another two years of coursework, I taught there, and then I went to Korea to do my fieldwork in 2008 and 2009. I studied with Kay Shelemay there. It was a very intense experience for me. I learned a great deal, but it took me a while to feel comfortable there as a graduate student. I did my fieldwork in South Korea and it was supported by Fulbright, and the topic of study was samul nori-- the South Korean percussion genre. It connected to the experience that I had in the arts management company because I was essentially interviewing and observing many of my former coworkers and people that I used to work with. That was an interesting kind of experience that led to my research--being in arts management, and then ending up working with the group that I was a staff member for.   


ER:     After taking a glance at your CV we saw that you worked in the public sector before entering into your Ph.D. program. Could you tell us about that period? How did these experiences shape your decision to go to grad school?


KL:      I learned so much when I was working for Samul Nori Hanullim and also the larger arts management company called Nanjang Cultures. There were many Korean musicians and kugak musicians who needed representation of some kind, and it’s an interesting thing to enter this world and then also try to mediate with foreign presenters who don't know much about Korean music or Korean traditional music. I tried to use some of my background in ethnomusicology acquired at the master's level to provide insightful information to presenters and to what they were going to hear or what they could expect. It's tricky in between the two worlds, but I learned so much about Korean music scenes, kugak-- traditional Korean music scenes.

Managers are serving both the artists and the presenters that they are working with. Experienced managers or experienced coordinators know how to accommodate both parties. That was very interesting for me to learn. Anytime I present or host a Korean music performance, I always try to think from those perspectives. Because now I'm more on the presenter side, and just to think what the artist needs to get out of this particular event, and how would they feel comfortable, how can an explanation help the audience to understand what is going on. I don't want the music to be presented completely out of context, or disembodied. I like for there to be some kind of educational moment so that people understand something from the local perspective, but maybe there are some points of entry for these audiences as well. 


ER:     What were your positions when working at the UNESCO and the art management company? 


KL:      Those were two completely different types of jobs. The arts management position that I had was a full-time job that I had for about a year. Working in an office in Seoul but then also going to sites where there were festivals or events going on. And then I also served as tour manager for Samul Nori Hanullim in 2003 in Denmark for a three-week tour (Ethnography of the Transnational). That was more like a full-time job. And then UNESCO: I was the rapporteur for two conferences on intangible cultural heritage, preserving and documenting heritage, and that was more event based. I just went to those events and transcribed the proceedings as a rapporteur. That was very much a freelance gig. 


ER:     How does your experience here differ from your time in other ethnomusicology programs at different institutions?


KL:      I have been at a lot of different institutions. At Michigan, I would say I was more in the School of Music as a piano performance major but took a lot of ethnomusicology courses. My first real experience as an ethnomusicology student would be at the University of Washington followed by Harvard. And then for the past five years, I was teaching at UC Davis. All of these institutions are quite different from UCLA. UCLA is the only Department of Ethnomusicology, and that feels quite different in scale. Because there are so many ethnomusicologists and faculty, and it has the long legacy of ethnomusicology as well that is connected to all of the institutions that I mentioned. Not necessary in an obvious way, but I feel everyone is connected to that early history of ethnomusicology and the first graduates of the program who then went on to establish ethnomusicology programs at the University of Washington, or UC Berkeley, or the University of Hawaii, so everything comes back to UCLA in some way.

Let's see the previous institution where I was at, UC Davis, was a department of music. That's a pretty different kind of structure from what we have here at UCLA. It was about fourteen faculty, ladder rank faculty, who were in musicology, composition, ethnomusicology, and conducting. So, a very small department, but the sub-disciplines of music, I think, were very conversant with one another at UC Davis. For instance, I often attended many of the concerts that were linked with the composers, or I attended the musicology talks. It was a small department, but it was more integrated than some other places that I have studied at.


ER:     You were saying that you were active in the music ensembles at University of Washington and also UC Davis. So which ensembles did you play in exactly? And do you have any plans to participate, or even create - or I should say resuscitate - the ensemble for Korean music?


KL:      At the University of Washington I was so excited about all of the performance ensembles, and I took a performance ensemble almost every single quarter. I'm trying to remember what I was in: Philippine kulintang, the Tibetan Buddhist Music ensemble that was led by the Venerable Phursang Kelak Lama, Ashanti Drumming with Koo Nimo - I was very lucky to study with him - and actually oud with Professor M√ľnir Beken (now at UCLA) who happened to be a visiting artist at the time. I loved all of those performance opportunities because I had never had that opportunity to do - other than the gamelan at the University of Michigan - I just never had a chance to do non-Western music before. And in my second year at the University of Washington I started commuting to Morning Star Korean Cultural Institute (in Lynnwood, WA) to start taking lessons in Korean drumming, Korean changgo. That was the first time I had really had encountered Korean music, because my background is really in classical Western music.

After University of Washington - as I mentioned I had taken many music lessons in Korea - so I took kayagum lessons for about three years, which is the Korean zither, and then the Korean drumming, and dabbled even in p’ansori the Korean vocal tradition, and went to workshops of various kinds. So, when I started at UC Davis I actually began the - or rather established - the Korean percussion ensemble there, and I was able to acquire the instruments with my research funds. To be honest I had not led an ensemble like that before, but I had played in an ensemble [at MIT]. It was a lot of learning by trial [chuckles], but I offered this course nearly every single quarter. And I would encounter different kinds of students, many of whom had no musical experience. By the end of the quarter the final goal was to perform a piece that they had learned just through the drumming syllables - no written notation just oral transmission. And all of the classes I had were all successful! Some of the quarters I had another event planned, sometimes they would perform at Mondavi Center, or at the new Pitzer Center as part of a noon concert. So that was really a great learning experience. 

And as for Korean music at UCLA, I'm not sure if I will teach Korean percussion in the same way. But what I would like to do is to present a variety of different Korean music genres because there's much more than the drumming. There could be one quarter of kayagum ensemble, one quarter of p’ansori singing, one quarter of some wind instrument. And I think that might be more interesting for me and also for the students. Certainly, you know, I think that percussion is very important, samul nori, but there is a student group that does that. I'm still thinking about the best types of genres to present, and of course it's also linked with potential musicians and artists who can be in-residence. But I would like to present more of a variety of different Korean music genres.


ER:      Excited to see that! Ok, so what classes do you hope to offer in the future?


KL:      Right! This coming academic year, so that would be 2018 and '19, I'm going to be offering a graduate seminar called Interrogating Sound, Music and Politics. I think this is going to be a very broad course, where people from different sub-disciplines even, can participate: musicology, ethnomusicology, even composition if they're interested. Just to think more carefully about how political music can be ascribed, or political meaning can be ascribed to music. But also how music can...or music or sound can lead to political action as well. And this is a class I've taught once before at UC Davis and I enjoy the larger conversations that we can have using a variety of different case studies, not just from ethnomusicology but from, you know, opera. For instance, we looked at The Death of Klinghoffer to think about the political response to that opera. And we studied the score and looked at the opinion pieces that were generated by this, and the protests surrounding the operatic production. I'm interested in thinking about political, or music and politics in a variety of different ways. And that connects, I think, to my research, too! Just having a fascination with that theme. 

And then another class I'll be teaching is a graduate seminar on the Cold War in Asia...and music and sound in relation to the Cold War. Because often times, Asia, I feel like there's not as much discussion about the Asian component of this historical period, but yet the Korean War, 1950-1953, was kind of the first major event of the Cold War. And thinking about the major ideological divisions in the world. And even to this day when you think about what's going on in North Korea and the United States, there's still Cold War resonances. So, this is an area that I am very interested in and I feel like this could be an interesting seminar topic. 

And then I'm going to be doing an undergraduate course on Korean music, which I never have had the opportunity to do so, because most of the courses I taught before are either "large musics of the world" survey courses. Or I guess I taught musics of East Asia - I had a two-week unit on Korea. And of course, I did the Korean percussion ensemble, but I've never had the chance to just do a singular class on Korean music. So that'll be exciting! And I think it'll be chronological, and I can also engage with the popular music traditions, K-Pop, but also thinking about the earlier genres of music: classical or traditional Korean music, and court music as well. That's what is in store for next academic year.


ER:     Awesome! Alright so last question, unless there's a follow-up. Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about yourself that we haven't covered so far?


KL:      Well I would just say that I'm really excited to get to know the students, all the graduate students, and undergrads as well. I just started a Fiat Lux seminar this past week and that's a really interesting group of students. And, you know, they're non-music majors who are studying critical K-Pop this quarter. I guess I'm just interested in meeting a lot of students from different backgrounds. And of course, getting to know the ethnomusicology graduate students, everyone has such interesting projects. And I have to admit I learn so much from the conversations with graduate students, and that was certainly the case at UC Davis. And that’s a real privilege, so come talk to me!


Classes Dr. Lee is offering the 2018-19 year:


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