Sunday, March 9, 2008

Seoul music part two

Two other highlights of the Chongdong theatre show were showcases of the Pansori and Ogomu styles, both scaled-down, but hugely effective versions of quintessential Korean folk performances.

Pansori, described as 'the world's most beautiful monodrama', consists of mythical stories spoken and sung by a 'soriggon' performer, accompanied by a 'gosu' drummer. Beginning as an oral folk tradition in the 17th century, Pansori is a stylised, ritualistic theatrical form, which became popular in the late 19th century, but had almost disappeared by the 1960s, when it was rescued from obscurity by being designated as a 'National Intangible Cultural Property'.

Traditional Pansori performances could last for up to five hours, with the exact shape of the stories governed by the individual performer's improvised whims. A rasping voice was preferred, so a typical sorriggon training regime involved walking to a remote spot and shouting into the mountains. Unsurprisingly, this was a largely male pastime, but the Chongdong's female soriggon did a superb job of suggesting the richness and variety of the form, while also seeming to put her own mischievous stamp on it.

From and original cycle of 12 stories, only five survive today, and we were presented with snippets from four of these, in an intense 15 minute display of vocal dexterity and emotional range. With simple, expressive gestures, a paper fan and an incredible variety of rhythms and timbres, the performer delivered the monologues in a passionate, direct way, which allowed their essence to jump over the language barrier. The stories, of tragic love, greedy wives and deceptive animals, also have plenty of scope for strong characterisation, and the soriggon switched between protagonists with a light, assured touch.

An extra level of intimacy was provided by the gosu, who added sparse rhythms and acted as a kind of non-linguistic chorus, nodding in agreement and making sympathetic noises at particularly dramatic or humorous moments. The drummers' slightly stoned, wide-eyed appearance along with the inventive flow of the language, gave the lighter moments of the performance the feeling of a Daisy Age hip hop show. The overall effect was hugely engaging and a little dreamlike, with simple ingredients coming together to create something timeless and celebratory.

Often used as an emblem of Korean culture, Ogomu is an energetic mix of music and dance, performed by a line of drummers, beating out ever-changing rhythms on drums strung from wooden frames. With swirling arms, beaming faces and brilliant blue outfits, the performers move in perfect unison at dizzying speeds, creating a blur of precise but joyful movement, accompanied by infectious, clattering drum patterns.

The rhythms are rooted in Buddhist rituals, with different time signatures and drum noises carrying individual meanings in flow of the ceremony. Though ogomu has none of the space for improvisation of the other forms -the drummers/dancers are always completely synchronised - this section still felt fresh and vital. As with the rest of the programme, this vitality was partly down to the restless, inventive nature of the music, and partly the obvious enjoyment of the participants.

After the show, the performers lead a brief dance in the theatre's courtyard, and posed patiently for photos with the audience. The atmosphere here, as throughout the show, was accessible and inclusive, and the school kids in the audience seemed as enthused by the preceding spectacle as I was. Hopefully I'll be able to see plenty more traditional performance this year, but the Chongdong theatre provided a wonderful introduction, and a very entertaining experience in its own right.

Photo album:

Monday, March 3, 2008

Seoul music part one

After seeing the thrilling performance of the touring Dulsori group in London last summer, I've been itching to find some performances of traditional Korean since arriving in Changwon. Apart from big touring names, the programme at the city's main arts venue mainly focuses on family shows and western classical music. While piano recitals and flute ensemble concerts are all well and good - especially when they're free - they aren't exactly what I was hoping to find in Korea, and a trip to Seoul offered a good opportunity to broaden my cultural horizons.

On this visit, I didn't quite have time to visit the National Centre for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, which houses a museum of old-school instruments, puts on a variety of shows and even runs courses in the different musical styles (only open to foreigners, for some reason, which seems a real shame). I decided instead to see a show at the Chongdong Theatre, a small basement space under a peaceful courtyard in a secluded pedestrian area in central Seoul.

I was expecting something possibly a little cheesy, or a little reverent and staid, but a show that would hopefully prove a good starting point for further exploration. Sitting in the tastefully designed auditorium, packed with parties of school children and Japanese tourists, I was intrigued, but completely unprepared for the vibrant, playful and powerful performance that followed. Offering snippets of styles from the broad history of Korean music, dance and spoken word performance, the show may well have had a touristy sheen, but for someone with almost no knowledge of these traditions, it was an inspiring, ear and eye-opening 90 minutes.

The first section of the show focused around a number of instrumental pieces in the Shinawi style, which is based on the idea of flowing water and performed on a variety of stringed and wind instruments, with sparse percussive accompaniment. The young musicians, all seated in sparkling, flowing robes, at first gave off an air of studious calm, but soon seemed to get lost in the ebb and flow of the music.

Taking centre stage were the players of three related instruments, each with strings stretched over a concave wooden base, but in different configurations and played in contrasting styles. The six-stringed Geomungo is plucked with a small wooden baton/plectrum, which is also used to beat against the base; the Ajeang is a seven-stringed bowed instrument with a lower tone; and the Gayaguem, with 12 strings, is plucked by hand, usually carrying the weight of the melody.

These instruments create a lovely, layered riverbed of sound, and with an emphasis on string bends and dexterous flourishes, a loose, improvisational feel. Along with the subtle cross rhythms supplied by the Jangu (double headed drum) player and the harsher, occasionally dissonant sounds from the Haeguem (a two-stringed fiddle) and the flutes (Piri and Daegeum), the overall effect is dense, but with a lightness and real sense of momentum.

In classic jazz style, each player took a solo, which helped give the performance the feeling of an intimate jam-session between very accomplished people reacting naturally to each other and clearly enjoying making music. The music was accompanied by a version of the shamanic Salpuri dance (the Dance of Life), reflecting Shinawi's original role as the centrepiece of village rituals and celebrations. In this form, the music would continue for hours, with the players I suppose entering something approaching a transcendental state. Though the Chongdong version lasted for barely 15 minutes, it was certainly hypnotic and very alive, giving a hint at the music' trance-like qualities.