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[Community Reports]

A column about past, present and future ongoings in international electroacoustic and related communities [index].

Electronic Music in South Korea

The original version of this article was published by The EMF Institute, Electronic Music Foundation, Ltd., in 2007.


The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is one of the newest and rapidly growing centers of electronic music internationally. While the institutional history of the field in Korea began in the late 1980s, two of the essential elements required to prepare the groundwork have long been present — vital musical traditions and advanced technologies. Once several additional critical elements were in place, the field began to thrive and grow.

The Korean musical heritage dates to antiquity. Traditional classical and folk forms developed in parallel over several thousand years. Since the mid-Twentieth Century Korean society has also witnessed a growing engagement in Western European music.

Korean culture also boasts a long history of scientific and technological development. During the Middle Ages alone, Korean astronomers mapped the heavens, inventors created an early clock, and printers pioneered movable type, the latter unfolding two centuries before Europe. More recently, The modern Republic of Korea (South Korea) has become well-known for consumer and industrial electronics. It would seem natural that electronic music would emerge as a natural bridge between these technological and musical strengths. But the development of the field took some time.

Economic and Political Factors

To understand the time line for the unfolding of electronic music in Korea, some historical background is useful. The late development of electronic music can be understood in light of a confluence of factors — economic, political and cultural — and the time required to develop infrastructures.

Modern Korean economic growth and political development were severely hampered by nearly forty years of Japanese occupation, beginning in 1910. Korea had long resisted engaging with Japan and the West, only opening its borders to trade in 1876 and then under military and political pressure. These relationships tended to be consistently detrimental to the Korean economy and political structure. After the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, Russia and the USA divided Korea North from South under their respective military administrations. Independence for what were now two Koreas in 1948 was followed by the devastation of the Korean War, a crippling military dictatorship in the North and until the late 1980s, periods of political repression and instability in the South.

The South Korean economy began a period of slow growth with the adoption of a series of five-year economic development plans, stating in 1962. By the mid 1970s, export industries were on the rise, leading to strong economic growth through 1988 led by a shift from agriculture to electronics in the 1970 and 80s, and automobile exports in early 1980s (Nahm 1993). For a familiar example, Samsung, founded in 1938 as a company involved in paper manufacturing, insurance, and trade in dried fish, fruit and vegetables, moved into electronics in 1969 and then began its famous export of consumer electronics in the late 1970s, and subsequently semiconductors in early 1980s (Samsung website). By 1992, Korea’s $33 billion electronics industry was among the top five internationally (Handbook of Korea).

Though this process of industrialization, South Korea underwent a social and demographic transformation from a rural, agrarian society to one in which nearly three-quarters of the population lived in urban areas in 1990. Institutions of higher education proliferated, numbering fewer than 20 in 1945, with an enrollment of approximately 8000 to nearly 300 in 1992, with an enrollment just under one and a half million students. National educational policies recognized the importance of the arts. A new “Charter of National Education” (1987) called for [the] “Fostering of a truth-seeking spirit and the ability of scientific thinking for creative activity and rational living … [and] Development of an æsthetic sensibility to create and appreciate arts, enjoy the beauty of nature, and utilize leisure effectively for a joyful wholesome life.”

As a result of decades of economic development, the economic conditions necessary to develop a technological field were finally in place. Post-secondary educational institutions were growing stronger and greater in number. These factors, coupled with political stability, achieved in 1988 after decades of post-War political crises and repressive regimes, left one core issue — an exposure to a broader range of music æsthetics — necessary for the new field of electronic music to unfold.

New Musical Aesthetics and the Integration of Technology and Art

During the period following the Korean War, South Korea began to dramatically embrace Western Classical Music. The first Western musical institution to be founded was the Seoul Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in 1957, followed in the 1970s by national dance, ballet and opera companies. Korean musicians are also well-represented in Western conservatories and concert halls. However, interest in Western Classical music was not initially accompanied by a strong appreciation for avant-garde æsthetics, which was a key element in the development of European electronic music. For instance, 12-tone compositional techniques pioneered by Korean composer Na Un-yong in 1955 found limited acceptance. Not until the 1970s did more composers draw upon contemporary Western techniques, especially in chamber music. But at that point, a small number of Korean composers who studied in Europe, such as Seok Hee (sometimes transliterated: Sukhi) Kang, adopted Western avant-garde musical æsthetics and techniques into a body of work distinctly his own.

Seok Hee Kang studied in Berlin, won major prizes in Paris and Boston, and then served as Artistic Director of the Berlin Technical University’s Electronic Music Studio and as Vice-President of the International Society For Contemporary Music (ISCM, organizational sponsor of the World Music Days). Kang played a significant role in advancing the cause of contemporary music, including electronic music, in Korea. As an educator, he helped train the next generation of Korean composers. As an organizer, he founded the Pan Music Festival in 1969, which became a major vehicle for fostering new music in South Korea. David Babcock notes that it was “modelled on the Warsaw Autumn, [and] introduced the international avant-garde to Korea while tirelessly fostering the production of new Korean works” (Babcock 1995).

The nexus between art forms and technology in Korea dates to an earlier period in Modern Korean history. The first Korean film was created as early as 1919 and a fledgling industry took root in the 1920s, always struggling to compete with foreign imports. Korean film developed further in the 1960s and 70s. Works like The Deep Blue Night (1985) and Why Did Bodhi Dharma go to the East? (1989) won international awards. 1980s avant-garde sensibilities and techniques began to impact Korean film, especially in the genre of social commentary. On the other hand, the musical avant-garde had very limited impact. As Jaeho Chang observes, “there was not much cultural variety at that time in Korea.”

Ironically, one of the major international figures integrating art and technology, video pioneer and musical composer Nam June Paik was born in Korea, but had little impact on composers in the land of his birth. As a young man, Paik left Korea for Japan, Europe and the United States. His early explorations in electronic music in Germany and Japan during the late 1950s and early 1960s were noted in many parts of the world, but received little attention in Korea. In the 1980s, he became much celebrated as a video artist, but not composer, in the nation of his birth.

First Steps

It is possible to trace the early days of electronic music in Korea thanks to a brief history written by composer Doo Jin Ahn in 1986, “The Present State of Korean Electronic Music,” which includes a list of works. Doo Jin Ahn observes that only two electronic works were composed in Korea before the founding of the first electronic music studio in Korea at Seoul National University (SNU), in 1978. These included a work on tape, Seok Hee Kang’s Wonsaegui Hyangyeon (The Festival of Colors, 1966), composed at the Korean Broadcasting Station, and a live improvisation by Seok Hee Kang and Byeong Ki Hwang for daekum and tape, performed at the 1976 Pan Music Festival. A third work, Yong Na’s Sipjagaui Hwansang (The Illumination of the Cross, 1973), for flute, tape and slide projection, was composed at North Carolina University, and proved to be Doo Jin Ahn¹s introduction to the field, when it, like The Festival of Colors, was performed at The Myeong-dong National Theater.

Although a handful of works, by Kyu Young Jin, Young Man Huh, and Deok San Chang, were composed in the first year of the SNU studio (and performed at the National Theater during breaks between other works), the locus of compositional activity shifted in Europe. While this shift may have been necessitated by limited resources at SNU, Doo Jin Ahn believes that the effect was a lack of home-grown development. However, when composers, such as Young Sik Kim and Seok Hee Kang returned home, they presented in Korea the works they created in Germany, increasing exposure to the field in their home country.

Although Sung Ho Hwang also subsequently studied in Europe (in The Netherlands), he took initiative to change this situation by translating Herbert Deutsch’s book Synthesis: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Electronic Music (1976) and composing a series of works, two of them for instruments and tape, with the assistance of technician Jung Sil Gong. Hinting at the expanded activity that was to come a few years later, a series of electronic works were performed publicly at three concerts in 1985. One of the concerts featured four compositions with live electronics by Doo Jin Ahn, including computer-controlled synthesizer and acoustical instruments. The second, presented by the research group Deon Nong Pae, included works by Sung Ho Hwang, Byung Eun Yoo, and Jung Ik Jang. The third included a multimedia work for voice, instruments, tape and video, by Yoon Sik Choi.

In his essay, Doo Jin Ahn documents the limited technical resources available to composers. Even as late as 1986, institutional studios were limited to a single synthesizer and an effects processor (at SNU), two synthesizers, an early Apple computer with sampling card and an effects processor (at Ewha Women’s and a single synthesizer (at University of Seoul). Several composers had single synthesizers at their private disposal (usually a Yamaha DX7 and in one case, a Mini-Moog). Only Sung Ho Hwang, Doo Jin Ahn and Young Gil Kim had more substantial equipment available, consisting of one or two computers, three or four synthesizers and a handful of effects processors. Greater institutional support and composer initiative was needed to remedy the situation.

Growth of Electronic Music in South Korea

By the late 1980s and especially in the early 1990s, conditions in the economy, politics, education, technology and to some degree, exposure to European electronic music æsthetic ideas, allowed the development of a new field integrating music and technology. The three most significant figures who furthered the development of electronic music in Korea include Sung Ho Hwang, followed by Donoung Lee and Jaeho Chang. All three pioneers of electronic music in Korea completed their undergraduate studies at Seoul National University, attended graduate school in Europe and subsequently returned to the land of their birth.

Sung Ho Hwang studied electronic music at Instituut voor Sonologie, Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. The focus of his music has been works for acoustical instruments and tape and for live electronic performance systems. He has composed for dance, television and radio, chorus, opera and the concert hall. Some of his works combine electronic sounds with elements as diverse as digital images, acoustical instruments and mime. The first solo recital of Hwang’s music took place in 1994.

Donoung Lee had only been vaguely aware of electronic music during his days as an undergraduate student at Seoul National University. There were no formal courses in the field at the time. He had planned to continue his studies in Korea, due to the influence of an experimental musical group in Korea, the Seoul Musician’s Academy (SMA), founded in 1970 and led by the influential composer Junil Kang. Lee recalls: “The spirit of SMA was trying to defy the establishments and experiment various genres.” When the director of the Goethe Institute in Korea witnessed the performance of one of his compositions, he recommended that Donoug Lee come to Freiburger Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany to study composition with Klaus Huber. It was there, during the mid-1980s, that he gained his first real exposure to the field, studying with Mesias Maiguashca. After completing his studies, Lee remained in Freiburg to run a computer music program at the Experimental Studio of the Heinrich-Strobel Foundation.

Donoug Lee has composed music for computer, instrumental ensembles and an integration of the two in live performance. He has also built live electronic performance systems, at times expanding traditional Korean instruments. He observes:

I specialized in conducting and so I prefer live works… I don’t always use classical instruments. I sometimes utilize sources like my own breath sound, water, wind, sounds around cities, environmental noises for live performance. Recently, I created a sound installation using speakers made of a Korean traditional paper called Chang Ho (used to make windows) . In this work, I produced sound by making the paper tremble. The purpose of that was to make the audience feel the sound that has been around us for more than a thousand years. (Gluck and Choi 1986)

Sung Ho Hwang and Donoung Lee share an interest in integrating digital technologies with traditional Korean instruments. Examples include Hwang’s Contrast (1993), for daekum and electronic sounds, Imagery Gagok (2000), for Korean traditional singer, electronic sounds and live electronics, and Lee’s Piri, for piri, and real time processing. Daekum and piri are two of the major traditional Korean wind instruments. About Piri Lee notes that he “wanted to show [the] many possibilities from traditional Korean instruments through this piece. In terms of the melody, the traditional Korean scales and characteristics were plainly used instead of making new scales and new usages of the instrument so that a performer may express the natural feeling from his heart.”

Jaecho Chang’s first exposure to electronic music was through concerts by SNU students and at the Pan Music Festivals in Korea. He also took a course about analog synthesizers with Sung Ho Hwang. His undergraduate composition studies in Korea were with Byung Dong Baek, who was a student of Lee Sang Yoon, as were early electronic music composers Seok Hee Kang (discussed above) and Young Gil Kim. Byung Dong Baek taught a flexible approach to twelve-tone composition. Jaeho Chang notes that the current leading composers in Korea include their students and that his knowledge of Western avant-garde was limited to the work of his own teacher and that of John Zorn. His electronic music studies took place at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, The Netherlands, after having a positive experience visiting the country for the 1991 Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam.

Jaecho Chang’s work has included music for live electronics, sometimes including solo instruments or ensembles, tape music, music for film and interactive installations for image and sound. While he has incorporated traditional instruments within his music, they are used strictly as controllers: “Korean traditional instruments that appear in my works are not used to express the innate characteristics of the instruments. Instead, those instruments are used to adjust sound mixing algorithm. One of my works used the motion of the body with the help of camcorder or sensor.”

Educational Institutions

Three Korean academic institutions, two in Seoul offer course work in electronic and computer music: Korean National University of Arts, Hanyang College of Music at Hanyang University in Seoul, and Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST), in DaeJeon.

Thc first program was founded by Sung Ho Hwang at the Korean National University of Arts (KNUA). Before teaching at KNUA, Hwang taught at Seoul National University and at Chugye University for the Arts. The focus of KNUA’s Department of Musical Technology is musical composition and research, to “provide grounding in the software and hardware techniques required for the development of modern music synthesis and studio practice. It includes elements of electro-acoustic music composition and sound recording. By the time of their graduation, students will get rich theoretical and practical knowledge on the most rapidly developing and rewarding fields of music of our time.” KNUA offers Master of Arts degrees in Electroacoustic Music Composition, Music Technology, and Sound Recording. Courses are offered in the history and theory of the field, acoustics, computer programming for music, sound synthesis, digital signal processing and multimedia production. The faculty includes Hwang and Jaeho Chang, supplemented in 2003–04 by visiting professor Christopher Dobrian from the USA.

The course of study in electronic music at the Hanyang College of Music at Hanyang University was founded by Donoung Lee, Associate Professor in the Department of Composition. Study of music technologies is also offered in the University’s New Media Music program. Faculty includes Young Choi and Jongwoo Yim. In 2002–03, with support from the Korea Culture and Contents Agency (KOCCA), Lee directed a project at the University, the “Digital Culture and Contents Development Project” with the goal of “… creating imaginative musical pieces utilizing methods of synthesizing technology and Korean traditional music instruments” (Choi 2003).

The first electronic music studio at Seoul National University was founded by Sung Ho Hwang in 1981. No formal courses were offered during the 1980s. The studio now supports a program directed by Donoung Lee, which includes undergraduate courses in music software, electronic music theory and practice and a rotating graduate course called Electronic Music Research.

The academic program at KAIST features interactive multimedia performance and sound design. The faculty includes Seungyon-Seny Lee and Bonchol Koo. Jaecho Chang, from KNUA, also works at KIST, in its Imaging Media Research Center, designing music software for virtual environments.

Recent academic developments in related Sciences and Engineering can also be found in institutions like the Yonsei University Computer Science Department.

Organizational Life

The Korean Electro-Acoustic Music Society (KEAMS) was founded in 1993 by Sung Ho Hwang, who served as president until 1997. Its mission is to “provide a broad forum for new compositions and performance of electro-acoustic music, research about music technology and computer music, technical information sharing, and concerts of electro-acoustic music both in Korea and abroad.” KEAMS publishes the Korean-language journal “Emile” and sponsors concerts, a summer camp and seminars.

The second president of KEAMS was Donoung Lee, succeeded by Doo-jin Ahn. Ahn studied recording technology at Yonsei University at the University of Southern California. He is on the faculty of the film and multi-media music program at Hanseo University.

In 1994, KEAMS, under the leadership of Donoung Lee, founded the Seoul International Computer Music Festival (SICMF), with support from the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation. KEAMS has sponsored the festival annually ever since directed by Sung Ho Hwang. It is held at the Seoul Arts Center, Seoul National University and The Korean National University of Arts and includes concerts, lectures and demonstrations, featuring composers and developers from around the world. The festival has also been an important forum for music by numerous young up and coming Korean composers.

Some Other Representative Composers of Note

Seungyon-Seny Lee is a composer of music for live electronics, interactivity, and multimedia installation. She studied at Chugye University for the Arts in Seoul and abroad at Boston University, Stanford University, IRCAM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lee has taught at Stanford University’s CCRMA, Korean National University of Arts and at the University of Seoul.

Jin Hi Kim is a Korean-born composer and performer, living in the United States. She performs on acoustic and electric versions of the komungo, a fourth-century traditional Korean fretted board zither, in both cases using digital signal processing. Her goal is to “fuse old Korean and new Western concepts into a multi-cultural collaboration for my compositions,” drawing upon a concept she calls Living Tones.

Tae Hong Park is a composer of electronic music for tape and live performance, as well as a research engineer, programmer and bassist. He studied engineering in Korea, after being raised throughout the world, the child of Korean diplomats. Park became interested in electronic music while working at LG Central Research Lab in Seoul and trying to merge his technical skills with his musical interests. At that time he also learned about Sung Ho Hwang, who proved influential, through the Electronic Music Foundation web site. He pursued graduate studies at Dartmouth College and Princeton University and now teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans.

I try to compose EA works where the machine — synthesis algorithm or platform or software — is transparent. I try to incorporate Korean values and materials for the lack of a better word in my music. This includes the use of Korean titles like Aboji (father), Omoni (mother), Gamyeon (mask), and the use of Korean rhythmic structures and melodic contours in note-based music.


Electronic music in Korea is growing rapidly and in positive directions. Like any young field, especially one developing in a relatively small country, not all resources are abundant. Facilities and technologies are strong, but there is a shortage of teachers. As more young composers complete advanced degrees at home and abroad (both of which are now the case), the institutional base will strengthen. The senior generation of pioneers is also quite young, but in time, the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience will grow. New traditions also take time to take hold and gain popular support. For its age, size and stage of institutional development, the growth of electronic and computer music in Korea has been impressive, thanks to the hard work of its founders.


Many thanks to Donoung Lee, Jaeho Chang, Tae-Hong Park, Jin Hi Kim and Christopher Dobrian for their contributions and kind assistance. Special thanks to Namjoo Choi for assisting with interviews and translations.


Ahn, Doo-In. “The Present State of Korean Electronic Music.” Unpublished manuscript, 1986.

Babcock, David. “Korean Composers in Profile.” Tempo 192 (April 1995), pp. 15–21.

Choi, Soo-Jung. “The Digital Culture and Contents Development Project: Hanyang’s opportunity to lead the domestic computer music education field.” Weekly Hanyang (Hanyang University news report). January 2003.

Gluck, Bob. Correspondence with Donoung Lee. August 2003.

_____. Correspondence with Jaeho Chang. October–November 2006 and April 2007.

_____. Correspondence with Tae Hong Park. July 2006 (several dates).

_____. Interview with Donoung Lee, assisted by Namjoo Choi. October–November 2006.

_____. Interview with Doo-In Ahn, assisted by Namjoo Choi. November–December 2006.

_____. Interview with Jaeho Chang, assisted by Namjoo Choi. January 2005.

_____. Interview with Jin Hi Kim via email. 10 November 2005.

Kac, Eduardo. Interview with Nam June Paik.

Korea Electro-Acoustic Music Society. Institution website.

Korean Overseas Information Service. A Handbook of Korea. 9th edition. Seoul, Korea, 1993.

Medien Kunst Net / Media Art Net. “Nam June Paik: « Exposition of Music — Electronic Television ». Nam June Paik pages.

Museum of Broadcast Communications. Nam June Paik pages.

Nahm, Andrew C. Introduction to Korean History and Culture. 5th edition. Elizabeth NJ: Hollym International Corp., 1993.

Nam June Paik Studios. Official Nam June Paik website.

Samsung Corporation. “Samsung’s History.” Corporation website. 1995–2009.

Note: Websites dedicated to the music of Jaeho Chang, and of Sung Ho Hwang are no longer accessible.

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