The 38th Parallel

A Contemporary Pansori

Music, video: Jean-Baptiste Barrière

Libretto, staging, video: Aleksi Barrière

Original concept & artistic direction: Jennifer Koh

Based on testimonies from: Sang Kyu Lee, Sonja Lee, Family archives

Violin: Jennifer Koh

Bass-baritone: Davóne Tines

Flutes: Camilla Hoitenga

Cameras: Isabelle Barrière

Computer music realization: Thomas Goepfer

Lighting: Étienne Exbrayat

Video presentation of the project             First teaser

The 38th Parallel is a work of multimedia music theatre born from the encounter between composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière and violinist Jennifer Koh, at the crossroads of artistic fields and the fates of two families.

When Japan surrendered to Allied forces in August 1945, its former colony Korea was confiscated and divided into two roughly equal halves by the new occupying forces: the USSR took over the North, and the US the South. An arbitrary separation line was chosen: the 38th parallel. As one of the first great conflicts of the Cold War, these two halves of a formerly unified and powerful country became two separate enemy nations, leaving families torn apart and exiled.

Jennifer Koh’s mother’s family members, who lived before the war precisely on what was to become the new border, had to escape at that fateful moment the land of their ancestors, and it’s in the US that the violinist-to-be was born and educated, and where she chose to devote her life to Western classical and contemporary music, far from her family’s cultural roots. Jean-Baptiste Barrière, for his part, grew up in Paris, fueled by the passion for Korean music of his grand-mother’s partner, a North Korean exile in France, and this experience played a crucial role in the birth of his own musical calling. Koh and Barrière found a shared territory in these family legacies which, originating from the same geographic starting point, tell each in their own way something about the uncertain trajectories of cultural transmission in the turmoil of migrations, exiles and assimilations, and of the invisible borders that people create between people. 

The 38th Parallel is a work that tells these family stories in the larger context of 20th century history and the movement of populations, rather than limiting them to personal stories, or the artists’ desire to reconnect with their origins. The artistic dialogue between Koh and Barrière, and the dialogue and blending of their arts, while dealing with the voices of three generations of two families plagued by the events in contemporary Korea, offers a metaphor and a fulfillment of dialogue between cultures and new cultures born from it.

The artistic foundation of the project is the aesthetic idiom shared by Barrière and Koh: contemporary electro-acoustic music, catalyzed by the research of the IRCAM in Paris, an institution devoted to the interactions between live music performance and electronics in which Barrière played a defining role over 15 years. However, for the formal structure of the project we have given ourselves a more ancient source: it is the classical Korean form of pansori, a sung narrative mixing vocal and instrumental techniques in the portrayal of emotions and past events. Through the on-stage dialogue of three performers (violin, flute, actor-singer) gathered, a staging set with splintered screens, we are working to create a contemporary and multimedia version of from the traditional form of pansori), a dialogue among words, music, gestures and video, based on archive material and texts from various sources assembled into a libretto by the show’s dramaturge and stage director Aleksi Barrière. 

The 38th Parallel is set as an investigation that takes us from a small Korean village to the kitchen of the first Asian restaurant in the fancy neighborhoods of Paris, to try and reconstruct a mosaic of mistreated identities, which find in the very act of making music, the long awaited opportunity of expressing and reinventing themselves, to offer a new way to coexist together that is at once sharply critical and engaged but also inviting, accessible and collaborative.

Production by Arco Collaborative (USA) & La Chambre aux échos (France) 

Coproduction and Premiere TBA

USA contact: Nick Schwartz-Hall /

France contact: Clémentine Marin /