The Linguistics of Daeun Jung’s byoul

Daeun Jung, Byoul - presented at the REDCAT Studio Series, Los Angeles, CA (November 13-14, 2016)

Dear reader, please entertain the following technical descriptions.  Surely, I’ve borrowed heavily from a text book.  Perhaps you may consider this rhetorical strategy as an experimental form of aesthetic analysis.  

“Star” is translated as “별”in Korean, and Romanized as /pyel/.  In a more legibile form, it can also be written as “Byoul.”  

If English words are constructed linearly with a series of morphemes, Korean is distinct for its verticality within syllabic blocks.  In its most minimal form, a Korean word can be created by joining a single consonant and vowel, like the word for “rain”:

 비= (ㅂ- consonant) + (ㅣ- vowel)

The Korean alphabet has the ability to produce a range of combinatorial possibilities by adding a second consonant to the existing linear pair, as was illustrated by the first linguistic reference: 

 별= (ㅂ- consonant) + (ㅕvowel) + (ㄹ– consonant)

And by adding additional syllabic blocks, something like the adjective “bug” can be produced:

벌레= [ (ㅂ- consonant) + (ㅓ- vowel) + (ㄹ– consonant) ] + [ (ㄹ– consonant) + (ㅔ- vowel) ]

A writer or speaker may add numerous syllabic blocks to create a vast lexicon.  Thus, presenting just one more example for this technical introduction, the Korean translation of the phrase “to change over time” can be constructed by the following three syllabic blocks: 

 변하다= [ (ㅂ- consonant) + (ㅕvowel) + (ㄴ- consonant) ] + [ (ㅎ- consonant) + (ㅏ- vowel) ] + [ (ㄷ- consonant) + (ㅏ- vowel) ]   

Such an explanation of Korean’s morphemic properties serves to foreground an entry into the creatively representational potential of this structure.  Equally fascinating is the agglutinative aspect of the Korean language, which allows the writer or speaker to preserve the semblance of a word, while modifying its meaning or syntactic function with the addition of particular affixes.  In some ways, this linguistic typology can be considered symbolically as an autonomy and interdependence of forms, and it is through this particular entry that we enter into a discussion of DaEun Jung’s Byoul(별, 2016). 

A three-part choreographed piece, Byoulsynthesizes the artist’s professional training in a form of traditional Korean dance known as Jangguchum (장구춤), with her incorporation of chance operations. Her project mediates the spatio-temporal-philosophical influence of Merce Cunningham through the structure of the Korean alphabet.   In this innovative project, Jung has transposed her muscle memory of culturally specific dance phrases into a set of standardized movements.  By abstracting the human frame into a series of modular entities, Cunningham himself liberated the conventional movements informed by the modernism of his teacher Martha Graham.  In the same way, Jung has abstracted the most ubiquitous movements of her learned tradition by compartmentalizing the physiology of the human body into three parts – specifically three, of course, to correspond to the three components of the Korean morpho-syllabic block. 

In a top-down consideration of her anatomy, Jung has corresponded the place of the initial consonant with 19 arm movements, the adjoining vowel with 11 varieties of directional orientations, and the final consonant with 19 leg movements.  Whether coincidentally or intentionally, the logical relationship of the syllabic block to the upright-body mirrors the iconicity of the Korean alphabet.  If the visual appearance of the Korean alphabet is illustrative of its own articulatory and acoustic phonetics -- in other words, if the consonants and vowels mimic the organs of speech in the articulation of these very phonemes – then Jung preserves this efficient aspect of the Korean language in her own translation. 

Celebrated for his innovative consideration of non-hierarchical space and the way in which he applied chance operations to an existing formal training in classical ballet and modern dance, Merce Cunningham is a formidable figure within contemporary aesthetics.   His collaborations with composer John Cage, and his participation at Black Mountain College are most often referenced by the 1952 Untitled Event (also known as the first happening). This historical moment is continuously invoked in current discussions of art, music, theatre, and dance because of its landmark contributions to each of these disciplines; it encapsulates the crucial moment in which painter Robert Rauschenberg enacted the potentiality of his famous White Paintings, where John Cage realized his anarchic consideration of sound by coordinating the participation of M.C. Richard’s poetry readings, David Tudor’s piano performance, and Rauschenberg’s phonograph as equal instruments of “music,” and most relevant to our current discussion, when Cunningham performed within and amongst the audience to disrupt the classical tradition of spatial representation within theatre and dance.  In other words, the event did not require a proscenium, for the reception of the performance itself -- and in turn, the audience’s participation -- replaced the proverbial stage. 

Cunningham established his dance company just one year after this event, and though it is a bit hackneyed to continuously draw upon its aura, it provides a clear representation of the principles that characterize the choreographer’s singular approach.  In a text entitled “Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries,” (1994) Cunningham articulates the primary discovery as one that led him to separate music from dance.  His creative and life partner, John Cage, was famously inspired by the teachings of Zen Buddhist Daisetz T. Suzuki, theories of the electronic age as advanced by Marshall McLuhan, and an understanding of silence informed by his experience in Harvard’s anechoic chamber.  This led him to consider music as a durational container of experience, and his close collaborations with Cunningham inevitably informed his understanding of the alliance between music and dance as one hinged on the structure of time.  Cunningham and Cage collaborated frequently, travelling together in the Volkswagen van that Cage funded after winning an Italian game show, in which he was able to name all the species of poisonous mushrooms.  Their life long partnership pervaded Cunningham’s consideration of the temporal aspects of dance performance, and as Zen would have it, music and dance could exist in a paradoxically autonomous interrelation.  Both were equally important, yet could operate independently of the other.  It was emblematic of the way in which the two collaborators conceived of space and time in the technological era, in accordance with eastern philosophy and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The second discovery was closely related to the first: the application of chance operations to the creative process. Rather than relying on traditional harmony in music or classical poses in dance, in his early works, Cage adopted the I-Ching as a way to compose music, while Cunningham used dice to dictate his choreography.  The third and fourth discoveries, too, equally relinquished authorial intent, by allowing the means of video and film to determine audio and spatial limitations, by relying on computer programs like “Dance-Forms” to preserve a memory of movements in an almost algorithmic fashion that can be closely aligned with the way speakers retain vocabulary. 

DaEun Jung’s Byoul preserves and elaborates on the tenants of Cunningham’s creative process.  The piece is composed of three distinct parts that draw upon a poem of the same name to demonstrate her translation of language to movement.   In the first part, Jung and singer Melody Shim perform parts of the poem verbatim.  While Shim sings each syllabic block of the poem in a melody based on the Korean pentatonic scale, Jung performs each corresponding block of movements in unison with the articulation.  The rhythm of the melody and the movements are defined as six evenly measured beats, and due to the repetitive phrasing of the poem, the music and the movements take on a recognizable pattern.  For instance, the articulation of the main phrase, “별하나에”(“to one star”) allows for a clear demarcation of Jung’s choreographic system.  The audience is able to glean the regularity and specificity of how she has corresponded the syllabic structure to vaguely familiar dance movements.  In addition to the titular phrase, the regular appearance of inflectional suffixes (genitive, possessive, and plural endings) in the original poem, similarly punctuate the progression of this first act.   Though both Shim and Jung have detached themselves from any narrative intent by articulating each syllable as a unique occurrence in a neutral rhythm, the familiarity of the morphemes inevitably produce recognizable words that native Korean speakers are able to follow.  The melodic phrasing also loosely follows the morphemic phrasing of words, but essentially, the aim of the first piece is coherently realized as a bare articulation of technique.  

The interlude of the performance presents an experimental video projection that zooms in on Jung’s foundational movement chart, and the process by which she was able to make her translation. However, rather than assuming a clear informational discourse, she alternates every other word in English and Korean.   The bilingual speaker is able to discern that at times this hybrid-speech produces a double signification that does not perform a signifying function; for instance, the repetition of simple words like  “and 그리고(and),” as well as “dance 춤(dance)” merely double the word in two distinct languages.  They pepper the more expository statement that alternates in bilingual fashion, to the degree that they point towards the fact that language does not always carry meaning.    Jung also stylistically performs the act of sitting at a desk and throwing her dice, as well as demonstrating the isolated articulation of certain body parts as she explains the distinct determiners that will dictate the movement of her hips and arms.  

This segue sets the scene for the second part of her piece, which emphasizes the articulation of style and contour. Drawing from the same poem, Jung has extracted an excerpt that she has corresponded to her movement chart. However, in this case, she has added additional elements of duration (1-2-3-4-5-6 counts to correspond to the sides of the dice), a level and quality of emphasis (low-middle-high / released-suspended-compressed-exaggerated-staccato-angular), pathways for her directed movements, and finally, additional body parts for stylistic flourish (head-shoulder-wrist-hips-toes).  The end result is something that more closely resembles the hallmarks of traditional Jangguchum.  The singer reinforces this aesthetic quality by alternating between quietly singing isolated syllables, to transitioning into dramatic crescendos that capture the bluesy quality of traditional Korean folk singing (known as P’ansori).  Similarly, the syncopated rhythm in this section is more culturally identifiable, which is a direct testament to the unification of dancing, singing, and drumming, in the emotionally charged performance of Jangguchum.  In this way, the innate connection between emotion, rhythm, and quality of articulation is a direct parallel to the expression of linguistic mood and tonal contours.  The phonemic emphasis on the intonation and accentual phrases determine the semantics of the speaker, not unlike the way that the quality or duration of a movement can inform the emotional weight of the dancer. 

Even though Byoul is ultimately a precise performance of the mechanical intricacies of a movement system, Jung is still able to isolate a clear artistic style through this process.  The economy of her form and the variations between the minimal pairs existent in the morphemes and corresponding movements, produce a repetition that allows the viewer to discern subtle flairs and stylistic features that identify her creative influences.   The rigor of her repetitive movements calls to mind the work of choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, a parallel which is only more apparent in consideration of the dimly lit scenario that Jung has designed for her interlude.  Ultimately, work of this nature serves as powerful reminder of the ways in which subjectivity can be expressed through unintentional mediations with structure.  We are able to read and perceive this aesthetic endeavor clearly as a systematized language, and the potential for this approach in fostering inter-disciplinarity and cultural hybridity is boundless.   

SAI / IN BETWEEN presented by the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/dance MFA (April 27-28, 2018)

Just as every city necessitates its own sense of design, just as every language produces its own rules for narrating the progression of time, every musical and choreographic tradition carries its own rhythmic patterns and its specific lexicon of movements.  It’s a realization that may be obvious to many, but one that is still worth restating: the singularity of each of these structural organizations is so radically localized that its by-product -- culture -- innately defies representation.  Instead, what we identify as the visual and performing arts is not so much the material representation of this culture, but rather an experiment in form, an activation of a political and social space, an entry into investigating theoretical questions that perhaps cannot be solely resolved within the limited purview of words.  

The nuance of this perspective is precisely where DaEun Jung’s practice as a dance maker, dancer, and teacher resides.  Her choreographic investigations are informed by her professional training in classical Korean dance, ballet, as well as modern and contemporary dance.  She also draws from her rich collaborations with artists and colleagues, such as Wilfried Souly, Chantal Cherry, as well as pansori singer Melody Shim.  Her recent work is informed by her ongoing experimentation with chance operations, as she works to transpose her muscle memory of culturally specific dance phrases into a set of standardized movements.  In a project (Byoul) presented at the REDCAT Studio in fall of 2016, Jung abstracted the most ubiquitous movements of her learned tradition, to correspond to the three morpho-syllabic blocks of the Korean alphabet. 

Jung continues this structural logic in both Invitation and 43152.  The former is proposed as a playful yet empathetic projection for how her contemporary body can respond to the polemics of our cultural climate today.  She invites and listens to a variety of vegetables, in a symbolic action that not only showcases her artistic mediation of learned tradition, but also inverts the power dynamics inherent in binary considerations of the subject and object.  Likewise, in 43152, Jung extends her sense of play to engage in a rhythmic dialogue with choreographer Wilfried Souly.  The title corresponds to a rhythmic pattern that was determined with the throw of a dice, so as to neutralize the dominance of one culturally informed rhythmic pattern over the other.   Within a contained space, marked by spatial and instructive parameters, the two dancers are able to explore their own traditions by improvising with the direction of a random operator. 

Invitation and 43152 will be debuted at the Glorya Kaufman Theatre on April 27 and 28 at 8pm, as part of the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance MFA showcase.  The evening program is entitled Sai (In Between), and will also include a presentation of Chantal Cherry’s Head Above Water and Our Bodies at Night.


Carolyn Park