Pansori for Baritone: Interview with Composer Texu Kim

Texu Kim
I met Texu Kim (김택수) three years ago, when he participated in the very first edition of Goethe-Institut Korea’s Asian Composers Showcase. He contributed the piece “Monastic Sceneries” (구도(求道)의 광경(光景)들, 2013), which is “based on various rituals and personal reminiscences about them” – a wonderful “15-minute prayer” dedicated to the memory of his grandmother. Apart from the Showcase-concert at the Tongyeong International Music Festival (통영국제음악제), I listened to Texu’s works online, mostly on his Soundcloud channel. The piece I listen to most frequently these days is probably the saxophone quartet “Treppab!!” (2015), but the whole playlist is great!

Naturally I got excited when Texu mentioned that he was thinking about a pansori-piece – for a singer and chamber ensemble! While there are many collaborations and cross-over experiments that combine pansori with jazz, flamenco, electronica, or rap, I can’t remember a single (convincing) attempt of approaching pansori with “classical” methods. Nevertheless, in many ways the aesthetics of pansori share aspects with pieces of New Music that explore new (or old?) vocal or rhyhmic techniques.

“Lotus Voice”, Texu Kim’s new work, is, according to the program notes, “a Pansori about Pansori”: Formally, it ressembles a lecture concert: Baritone Connor Lidell, accompanied by an ensemble of 14 musicians, sings excerpts from traditional pansori pieces and in-between explains and contextualizes them. Various features of pansori, including the peculiar vocal techniques and rhythmic patterns, are integrated on various levels. Both an educational hands-on presentation and a discourse about pansori tradition, the singer holds a much more powerful and at the same time ambivalent position than in a typical (?) work for solo voice. He is talking and singing “using a professorial voice and manner” (program notes), but at the same time provides “audio samples” of what he is talking about, thus serving himself as a showcase.

The title “Lotus Voice” is a reference to the “masochistic pursuit of artistry or beauty” pansori singers undergo in the process of learning to sing with the notoriously hoarse voice, which reminded the composer of the ancient Chinese custom of “foot binding”, also called “lotus feet”, with the sustained growth of the feet of women acting as symbols of beauty. The purity associated with the lotus flower – something beautiful rising from the mud of the lotus pond – relates to the painful process towards the mastery of arts in general.

I am very glad that Texu agreed to do an email interview. In the following, he offers some insights into his perspective on pansori, the composition process of “Lotus Voice”, and reactions to his work.

1. Inspirations

How and when was your first encounter with pansori?

It is interesting how small things in childhood could be related to the contemporary output. As I remember, the first pansori-related content I encountered was a comedy TV show, something equivalent to “Gag Concert” (개그 콘서트) back then, of which the title I do not recall [editor’s note: 쇼 비디오 쟈키]. There was a very popular section called “Sseurirang Couple” (쓰리랑 부부), featuring Kim Mi-hwa and Kim Han-guk (김미화 & 김한국). I also just found its remake has been programed as part of Gag Concert recently. Ms. Sin Yeong-hui (신영희) participated regularly as a narrator in pansori style back then [she’s a “Human Cultural Asset” (인간문화재) now].

The next thing I remember is the movie Seopyeonje (서편제, 1993) which I watched in my middle school. Well, it is hardly forgettable. Last year I watched it again online to just find how different I remembered about it from what it actually was… (I was somewhat disappointed, too!)

I do not really remember any particular live performance – I am sure I attended some pansori concerts as a kid, as a part of a “summer project”, one of those assignments we used to get every summer and winter vacation, which included writing journals.

What aspects of pansori are interesting from the perspective of a “classical” composer?

Firstly, the vocal technique and quality (or timbre) are fascinating and powerful. I have been wanting to write an opera (or more if possible) eventually and I believe I should have a good variety of compositional techniques and my own musical language first. One of the primary things should be “how to compose for voices”.

As you might remember, I have become (relatively recently) interested in using Korean sources in my music. For example, Monastic Sceneries(구도(求道)의 광경(光景)들, 2013, for ten players), through which we met, was my second attempt to do so after “[Tʃapsaltɔk\/” (찹쌀떡, 2012, for male voice and SATB choir). I have been stretching such idea to reach more traditional gugak (국악, traditional Korean music) including pansori (판소리).

Aside from my development as a composer, I am always into slight exotic intonation, microtonality included, which is abundant in gugak in general, as well as in pansori tradition. And again, I love the vocal timbre of pansori and want to imitate it in my music, whether vocal music or not.

The performer-accompanist-audience relationship is also very special. Meant to be performed outside and much closer to the audience, as you may know very well, there is a strong interaction between the performer and the audience in Korean traditional folk music. I tried it out for the first time in “[Tʃapsaltɔk\/” with the soloist wandering around the audience, pretending to sell the chapssaltteok [rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste] to them.

What was your motivation and what was the occasion for composing the piece “Lotus Voice”?

It is a combination of two different pieces I thought initially. Teaching as an Associate Instructor in music theory at Indiana University, I became interested in writing a ‘lecture-concert’ or more likely ‘classroom-like’ piece, originally about music theory. (I still want to try it out.)

When I was commissioned this piece, I also became interested in a “pansori showcase”, which was the working title of “Lotus Voice”. My primary concern was “how non-Korean people would perceive pansori”. For example, I encountered many people who enjoyed (or who said they had enjoyed) pansori very much without a lot of knowledge about Korean language. I was glad to hear it but could not help questioning exactly what they heard and liked.

So a prototype of “Lotus Voice” was planned as an imitation of pansori not in Korean but in Korean-like gibberish. (I became wondering if this is what Unsuk Chin had thought when writing Akrotischon-Wortspiel, which I think is a much more sophisticated version of this.) That was to get rid of the language from pansori as an experiment. (I also still want to do this at some point.) But I was not able to make it as a serious quality piece with such an idea, especially once I realized the similarity to one of my teacher’s masterpieces which I did not think I could ever beat.

So I combined these separate ideas into one piece – a lecture concert about pansori somewhat also in the style of pansori.

Online Rehearsal

Online Rehearsal of “Lotus Voice”

2. Material

Why did you choose the story of Chunhyang as the main material?

My initial intention was to include four or five contrasting scenes with respect to key, tempo, and character. Choosing excerpts to include, I realized having all from one piece of pansori would allow me to have another layer. I was most familiar with the stories of Chunhyang and Shimcheong, between which I chose Chunhyang because I think it is more easily understandable to people from other countries. At the end, it is a love story with a happy ending.

Which sources – Western score? transcription? recording? – did you use for your composition?

For the music, I listened to different versions of pansori and transcribed them by myself (for example this one). Since this was written for western ensemble, I needed to find a way to transcribe it that is more familiar to western music performers.

Why did you choose a baritone as the singer? Did you ponder the possibility of a female singer? Would it be possible to re-arrange the piece for a soprano or alto?

When I write somewhat experimental vocal piece, I feel more comfortable with male voice since I can try singing my composition to imagine how it would be like more accurately. Among types of male voices, one of the vocal techniques I thought significant in pansori style is the extensive use of fal setto (가성). Baritones are known as the most efficient with fal setto – many countertenors are baritones as well.

I also had someone particular – Connor Lidell – in my mind for the premiere of “Lotus Voice”. For this piece, I really wanted to have someone who could securely pull it off. Connor has not only an expressive voice quality but also an impressive ability to interpret new music from his extensive experience.

"Lotus Voice"

Rehearsal of “Lotus Voice”

3. Singing

On a very basic level, it seems as if the singer in “Lotus Voice” imitates a pansori singer. But the instrumental music appears at some times like an accompaniment of the singer, at others like a background music or counterpoint to the singing. What was your approach when composing the piece?

You are absolutely correct about it. I want the ensemble to play the role of the drummer or “gosu” (고수), as well as a western orchestral accompaniment. I thought to focus on the gosu part firstly but then there would be no reason to have a western ensemble instead of having an actual gosu.

To achieve the gosu-like part, I made a chart of sound materials from individual instrument which would sound similar to a buk (북, a barrel-shaped drum) or would go along well with it. For example, actual drums and low prepared piano as ‘kung’ (‘쿵’, a low tone traditionally produced on the right side of the drum) and high wind/string sound with the cello’s and bass’ slapping sound as ‘tta’ (‘따’, an accented beat on the left rim of the drum).

For the Westernized parts, I also used some instrumentation that would sound similar to other Korean traditional music: something similar to piri (피리, a double-reed instrument comparable to an oboe) and haegeum (해금, a bowed string instrument that resembles a fiddle), etc.

What where the singer’s reactions to your demands of special vocal techniques?

He told me he would do his best – which he did!! I think he did an excellent job!!

Why did you decide to have the singer perform some parts in English, some others in Korean? How did he train the Korean parts?

Since this piece is also supposed to be a showcase of pansori, I thought it would be beneficial to have at least one excerpt in Korean. So, I chose one among the four I had – possibly the easiest one.

As to the training, I recorded myself reading the Korean text – syllable by syllable and sent him. Later when I saw him for the rehearsals, we worked a bit on the liaison and rhythm. I also shared with him the links to the online video excerpts I watched.

In the program notes, you suggest that the baritone should sing as if “giving a lecture, using a professorial voice and manner”. So it seems that Lotus Voice is an attempt of introducing pansori to an American audience. The projection included cues for the audience to applaud (which they did). Were there other forms of reactions, both during the performance and afterwards?

Their reactions during the performance were mostly as guided on the screen including cheering and clapping, except they laughed at several points. Yes, again, “Lotus Voice” has an educational (or introductory) purpose. And it would make the most sense to guide them when to add chuimsae (추임새, calls of encouragement typically shouted by the spectators), which is also an important aspect of pansori.

After the performance, many audience came to me to say they had much enjoyed it. I was very glad to be confirmed that this could work! (I was not sure at all and very concerned if it ended up with a silly show…)

The piece might also act as an introduction of pansori to the singer himself. What do you think (or what were you told by the baritone) is the charm of he rough and throaty pansori timbre for a “bel canto”-singer?

Good question. I have not really talked about it with the singer. I will ask him and let you know later! But he told me he struggled much to achieve the scratchy sound.

"Lotus Voice"

Performance of “Lotus Voice”

4. Instruments

Your piece features two percussionists who play a variety of instruments, such as a snare drum, a güiro, a triangle, cymbals, and a xylophone. What are your thoughts about the drummer in pansori (gosu) and classical music?

A large part of the gosu’s role in pansori is actually equivalent to that of the conductor in western music, or at least in this piece. With regards to timbre, the gosu’s part would be limited as it is by only with buk, but it evoked me of various musical and sonoristic imagination in this piece as you can see and hear.

The woodwind and brass instruments use special playing techniques, for example what you call “fall” (improvised descending scale), “kiss” (strongly inhalation through the instrument to produce sharp squeaky noise), “double buzz” (a loud buzzy noise produced with humming a note). When hearing these effects, I was sometimes reminded of typical sounds produced by a pansori singer. Is the pansori voice “replicated” in “Lotus Voice” actually split up among the singer who tells the story and the instruments who provide sounds effects?

Yes, you are perfectly correct! “Lotus Voice” is a re-synthesis of decomposed pansori’s elements. (Remember I was a chemist – I do this all the time in my music!)

"Lotus Voice"

Performance of “Lotus Voice”

5. Outlooks

How do you think audiences in Korea will react to your piece? How about fans of pansori?

I am curious as well. Some friends of mine told me it was fun but they are… my friends. I think general audience would wonder why in English. Some might feel interesting and the other might feel awkward?

Are there any plans for a performance of “Lotus Voice” in Korea? Where would you like to have it performed, rather in a “classical” venue like the concert hall at Seoul Arts Center (예술의전당), or something more related to traditional music such as the National Gugak Center (국립국악원), or some other place?

At this point, I have no planned performance of “Lotus Voice” in Korea (or anywhere). In terms of place, honestly, I would simply appreciate to have it performed. ;) But maybe as to size, a chamber hall would be ideal!

Thank you very much for the interview.

Texu KimTexu Kim, born in 1980, studied chemistry and composition at Seoul National University and received a doctorate in music composition from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. His works have been performed around the world, among others by Ensemble Intercontemporain (France), Ensemble Modern (Germany), Ensemble Reconsil Vienna (Austria), Minnesota Orchestra, Alarm Will Sound (USA), National Orchestra of Korea, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (South Korea). He received numerous awards, including Ossia New Music Composition Prize, The American Prize, Georgina Joshi Composition Commission Award (USA), and Isang Yun International Composition Prize (South Korea). He currently teaches at Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Oregon) as a visiting professor in music theory and serves as Composer-in-Residence at Korean Symphony Orchestra since May 2014. (See Texu Kim’s homepage for more information on his works and upcoming performances. He also has a Soundcloud page, an official Facebook page, and a Youtube channel.)

Interview conducted by Jan Creutzenberg.

— 11 April 2016 (月)

  • “Lotus Voice” for baritone and sinfonietta (2015), composed by Texu Kim, Georgina Joshi Composition Commission Award, premiere at Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, Auer Hall, 4 Feb., 2016, 8pm, conducted by David Dzubay, baritone: Connor Lidell, flute/alto flute/piccolo: Robin Meiksins, English horn: Joe Wiegand, bass clarinet: Luke Ellard, trumpet: Jens Jacobsen, trombone: Dan Bendeck, percussion: Lauren Teel and Joel Castro-Lawicki, harp: Alexandra Mullins, piano: Noah Sonderling, violin: Eliot Heaton and Carlos Valbuena, viola: Mark Hatlestad, cello: Will Rowe, bass: Sam Loeck.
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Celebrating Shakespeare, on Stage and on Air

Last week, I had a short interview with Radio Bremen, on the occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th day of death. Via Skype, I chatted with host Katrin Krämer about problems of translation, creative adaptations, and the general importance of Will and his creations in Korea. You can hear the (German) interview online (click on “Livestream einschalten” on the right), as part of the program “Ein Tag für William Shakespeare”, probably after 2 pm.

skype interviewI knew the interview would be only five minutes long. Still, having focused mostly on other things during the last few years (I gave a presentation on Shakespeare in Korea in 2009 and revisited the topic only occasionally), I did some background research and read some newspaper articles on the plans to celebrate this anniversary in Korea.

Richard III (리차드 /세 / 理査三世) National Theater Company of Korea & National Theatre of China

Richard III (리차드 /세 / 理査三世) National Theater Company of Korea & National Theatre of China

To my (positive) surprise, the interview focused mostly on Taroo’s “Pansori Hamlet Project” (see my reviews of the first and second showcase, as well as the final production [coming soon]) that I had suggested as an example for an experimental approach towards Shakespeare. So there is some “leftover” information that I’d like to share, mostly trawled from newspaper articles, other announcements, and the ticket reservation site Interpark, using the search term “셰악스피어” (the nowadays common Korean spelling of “Shakespeare”). The interactive map of “Shakespeare around the Globe” did not prove very helpful, but maybe it will fill a bit more? You can find a (necessarily incomplete) list with basic information and links below, and I will try to put the most promising productions (as well as those with the most beautiful posters) with more details on my list of recommended performances. In any case, my search results were quite interesting…

First, relatively few events are announced for this year’s anniversary, especially compared to the 400th birthday anniversary in 1964, and the 450th birthday two years ago.

Much Ado About Nothing (헛소동), Seoul Shakespeare Company

Much Ado About Nothing (헛소동), Seoul Shakespeare Company

On the occasion of Shakespeare’s 400 birthday, two different editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works (셰익스피어 전집) in Korean were published, one translated by anglicist Kim Jae-nam alone (김재남, 휘문 1964), another by a collective of scholars (정음사 1963). The many performances that hear also included a landmark festival, which, according to Jong-hwan Kim (“Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context”, Asian Theatre Journal 12.1, 1995, at JStor), “established a new record on the Korean stage: six different acting groups staged plays every day for one month; nearly two hundred actors took part.” He also notes, quoting Yeo Seok-gi (여석기), a scholar and critic heavily involved in the event, that “audiences during the month far exceeded the total number who attended theatres in the previous two years.” (44) In a news interview from 2014, Yeo himself vividly remembers the festival fifty years earlier, “maybe the very first performance festival [공연 축제, theatre] in Korea”, and confesses that “in retrospect, I am not sure whether our main intention was really to celebrate Shakespeare’s birth – or whether we were just using him as an excuse for a big party.” (interview by Song Hwa-seon 송화선 in Weekly Dong-a 926, 2014)

Ham-ick (함익), Seoul Metropolitan Theatre

Ham-ick (함익), Seoul Metropolitan Theatre

This interview took place in 2014, when the 450th anniversary was also heavily celebrated. While the 1964 festival focused on classic works, together with the double-publication of the Collected Works a kind of inventory cleanig, fifty years later guest performances and collaborations were more central, for example the production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), by the Ensemble Georipae (연희단거리패) directed by Alexis Bug from Germany (see my interview.

This year, some Shakespeare performances have already taken place, most notably A Winter’s Tale and Richard III by the National Drama Company (국립극단), both directed by non-Korean directors. So the trend of diversifying continues…

Romeo and Juliet (로미오와 줄리엣), Universal Ballet

Romeo and Juliet (로미오와 줄리엣), Universal Ballet

Other ensembles have announced their plans. For example, the Seoul Metropolitan Theatre (서울시극단) will dedicate its entire season to Shakespeare-related projects. I suspect, that the number of productions will rise, though, probably many ensembles simply haven’t announced their plans yet. What seems clear from this list, however, is the focus on cross-genre works, free adaptations, or “hybrid” formats, opera or ballet, rather than “classical” productions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is nothing new, but rather indicative of general trends in theatre.

For anyone in Seoul, there might be something interesting among the various choices… and for those more interested in talking than in seeing – the Shakespeare Association of Korea (한국셰익스피어학회) is planning a colloquium later this year…

– 10 May 2016 (火)

The list is in chronological order, beginning with productions that have been shown earlier this year.

  • A Winter’s Tale (겨울이야기), directed by Robert Alfoldi, National Theater Company, National Theater, Dal-Oreum Theater, Jan. 10–24, 2016. Link
  • Henry IV: Prince and Fallstaff (헨리 4세 – 왕자와 폴스타프), directed by Kim Gwang-bo, Seoul Metropolitan Theatre, Sejong M Theater, March 20–April 14, 2016, 20–50,000 ₩. Link
  • Richard III (리차드 3세 / 理査三世), directed by Wang Xiaoying (王曉鷹), National Theater Company of Korea & National Theatre of China (中国国家话剧院), Myeongdong Theater, Chinese with Korean subtitles, April 1–3, 2016. Link
  • Father Hamlet (햄릿아비), directed by Lee Seong-yeol, Ensemble Baeksukwangbu, Daehangno SH Art Hall, April 8–17, 2016.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (헛소동), in English with Korean subtitles, Seoul Shakespeare Company, directed by Michael Downey, artistic director/producer/costume designer: Lauren Ash-Morgan, Theater Egg and Nucleus, May 21–June 5, 2016, 20,000 ₩. Link
  • Hamlet (햄릿), directed by Nam Yuk-hyeon, Eurasia Shakespeare Company, Geumnarae Art Hall, June 3–4, 2016, 30,000 ₩. Link
  • [ballet] The Taming of the Shrew (말괄량이 길들이기), Seoul Arts Center, Opera House, Korean National Ballet, June 23–26, 2016, 5–80,000 ₩. Link
  • Ham-ick (함익), written by Kim Eun-seong, directed by Kim Gwang-bo, Seoul Metropolitan Theatre, Sejong M Theater, Sept. 30–Oct. 16, 2016, 20–50,000 ₩. Link
  • [ballet] Romeo and Juliet (로미오와 줄리엣), Universal Ballet, choreography: Kenneth MacMillan, music: Sergei S. Prokofiev, Oct. 22–29, 2016. Link, Link2
  • Shakespeare in Ballet (Special Gala), program: highlights from Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, written by Kim Eun-seong, directed by Kim Gwang-bo, cooperation of various ballet ensembles, Sejong M Theater, Oct. 28–30, 2016, 20–50,000 ₩. Link
  • Shakespeare in Ballet 2 (Midsummer Night’s Dream), artistic director: Kim In-hui, choreography: James John, directed by Yeo Hun, cooperation of various ballet ensembles, Sejong M Theater, Nov. 11–13, 2016, 30–70,000 ₩. Link
  • Pericles (페리클레스), directed by Yang Jeong-ung, adapted by Yang Jeong-ung and Kim Se-han, Seoul Arts Center, CJ Towol Theater (revival from 2015), Nov. 15–Dec. 4, 2016, 30–60,000 ₩. Link
  • [opera] Macbeth (맥베드), opera by Verdi, artistic director: Gun-yong Lee, director and conductor: n/a, Seoul Metropolitan Opera, Sejong Grand Theater, Nov. 24–27, 2016, 20–120,000 ₩. Link
  • [opera] Roméo et Juliette (로미오와 줄리엣), opera by Charles Gounod, artistic director: Kim Hak-min, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, conducted by Kim Deok-gi, Korea National Opera, Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, Seoul Arts Center, Opera House, Dec. 8–11, 2016, 10–150,000 ₩. Link
  • Twelve’s Night (십이야), Myeongdong Theater, directed by: Im Hyeong-taek, National Theater Company, Dec. 12–28, 2016. Link
  • Twelfth Night (십이야), family play with music, artistic director: Kim Gwang-bo, directed by Kim Han-nae, Seoul Metropolitan Theatre, Sejong M Theater, Jan. 13–30, 2017, 20–40,000 ₩. Link
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The Fourth Insa-dong Street Soripan (인사동 거리소리판4)

This is the fourth part in a series that documents the 2016 Sunday-afternoon street performances in Insa-dong by Park Tae-o and other “Ttorang Gwangdae” (또랑광대). See also part1, part2, and part3).

IMG_0961Today, the performance started two hours later and took place, at the request of an adjacent store owner, a little bit more towards the middle of the high construction fence. Today, it featured a beautiful image of Gyeongbok-gung that served as a fitting backdrop to the singers.
I arrived shortly after five while the set up was still going on. Jo Sang-min (조상민) stood solely next to the fence, playing on his daegeum bamboo flute. The singers came, one by one, from the basement café Sigayeon where they had dressed up in hanbok. Some people gathered already, and even more came as Son Jong-hwan (손종환) played a driving rhythm on the drum. As usual, Park Tae-o (박태오) opened the Street Soripan with a few words and then started right away with a danga.

IMG_0964Park’s performance was short, though, as the line-up was quite large today. The next singer, Gang Eung-min (강응민), was a newcomer, but he gasped the audience’s attention with an episode from Chunhyang-ga (춘향가) that included the famous “Love Song” (사랑가). He moved around and acted out the scene quite a bit, to much applause.

Next came Im Sang-rae (임상래), performing what is maybe the most hilarious part of Simcheong-ga (심청가), the arrival of Ppaengdeok, Blindman Shim’s new lover. Im drew the audience closer in and received a lot of laughter and applause. As the warm sun had cooled down a bit, listening to the street performance was much more comfortable than the last times. I think it is a good idea to start a little bit later!


Jo Sang-min now gave a short interlude on the daegeum. Then, Kim Jeongeun sung, like last week, a scene from Heungbo-ga (흥보가), including the audience favorite “Money Song” (돈타령). This time, she was wearing a casual, still brightly colored hanbok and once again, her voice, regularly on the edge of breaking, was very moving. The drummer had changed, too, with Jo Sang-min taking the stick from Son Jong-hwan. A banner standing next to the ad-hoc stage also announced today’s performers.

P1090545The last singer was Kim Hyungog, again starting with the danga “Song of the Four Seasons” (사철가), then turning to the end of Simcheong-ga (심청가). He was the only singer who would occasionally take a seat, and his voice and the expressions on his face were clearly showing the efforts he made bringing the dramatic finale to life.

Finally, all together now, “Jindo Arirang” (진도 아리랑) made many sing and almost everyone clap along. As the future schedule of the Street Soripan is open to change – the singers will first attempt a weekly rhythm, with the next performance on June 12 (5pm) –, some spectators left their contacts for updates. It seems that this event has found some regulars.

The structure of the Insa-dong Street Soripan, with a duration of (a little bit over) one hour, has stabilized, with everyone performing for 10–15 minutes. Now that there are enough participants, some of them being unavailable on a given day does not cripple the whole event. We discussed some of those points over makkeolli and some snacks at Sigayeon I am looking forward how this format will develop in the following months!

If you’re looking for casual, playful, easy-going pansori, come along and join the Soripan next time!

– 9 May 2016 (日)

  • 인사동 거리소리판, 출연: 박태오 (소리), 김형옥 (소리), 조상민 (북, 대금), 손종환 (북), 강응민 (소리), 임상래 (소리), 김정은 (소리), 인사동길, 2016년 4월 24일 (일), 오후 5–6.10시.
  • Insa-dong Street Soripan, with Park Tae-o (sori), Kim Hyungog (sori), Jo Sang-min (buk, daegeum), Son Jong-hwan (buk) Gang Eung-min (sori) Im Sang-rae (sori), Kim Jeongeun (sori), Insadong-gil, 2016–04–24 (Sun.), 5–6.10 pm.
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The Third Insa-dong Street Soripan (인사동 거리소리판3)

This is the third part in a series that documents the 2016 Sunday-afternoon street performances in Insa-dong by Park Tae-o and other Ttorang Gwangdae (see part1 and part2)

from afar

This time, the Street Soripan almost did not take place. The owner of a souvenir store right next to the place where Park Tae-o and his friends had performed the last two times (and where they were setting up the mat and the drum now) was complaining that the pansori performance was too loud and would make it difficult for her to talk to customers. In fact, it is always pretty loud around the main street of Insa-dong, especially on a sunny Sunday. Chatting people and music blasting from various stores make it difficult to concentrate on the sori, too.

Today, the line-up had been extended. After Park Tae-o (박태오), the initiator of this year’s street pansori performances, had opened with a short introductory song (or “danga” 단가), a young singer continued with an episode from Heungbo-ga (흥보가).

Kim Jeongeun (김정은), wearing casual jeans and sneakers, began midway into the story of the two very different brothers, good Heungbo and bad Nolbo. Soon she was singing on the top of her voice to the growing crowd. After about twenty minutes, Park Tae-o continued the story, which culminated in a scene where Heungbo cut open the giant pumpkin that he had received for his good deeds (박타는 대목).

김형옥 - 심청가 B
The next singer was Kim Hyungog (김형옥), who took of with a very emotional performance of the danga “Song of Four Seasons” (사철가), and then continued with the finale of Simcheong-ga (심청가), until the end where Simcheong’s blind father opens his eyes to see his daughter – whom he believed dead – again (심봉사 눈뜨는 대목). Kim’s performance was highly moving and people gathered closely around him.

During the first half of the event, the strong sunshine had kind of separated the audience, as spectators would stand in the shadow, both on the left and the right of the ad-hoc stage. Now the sun had lowered a bit and people began to form a closer half circle around the singers.

As the final number, No Eun-ju (노은주, who had performed pansori last time, too) and Im Sang-rae (임상래) sang a medley of folk songs, leading to the familiar “Jindo Arirang” (진도 아리랑), with many spectators singing along. After some group pictures, the crowd dissolved into the bustling street of Insa-dong.


On this third Street Soripan, even more spectators seemed to have momentarily gathered to listen to the songs. Again, many were taking pictures and I even spotted an old-school camcorder! In the second half, people drew closer and took less pictures.

Although Park Tae-o at one point “practised” chuimsae (추임새), calls of encouragement for the singer, people were (again), relatively passive in this regard. Park and the others also invited the audience to engage in other forms of interaction, such as applause, and clapping and singing along – suggestions which the audience abundantly took on!

The Insa-dong Street Soripan continues on May 8, this time a bit later, at 5pm, same place!

– 24 Apr. 2016 (日)

  • 인사동 거리소리판, 출연: 박태오 (소리), 김형옥 (소리), 손종환 (북), 노은주 (소리), 임상래 (소리), 김정은 (소리), 인사동길, 2016년 4월 24일 (일), 오후 3–4시.
  • Insa-dong Street Soripan, with Park Tae-o (sori), Hyungog Kim (sori) Son Jong-hwan (buk) No Eun-ju (sori) Im Sang-rae (sori), Kim Jeongeun (sori), Insadong-gil, 2016–04–24 (Sun.), 3–4 pm.
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The Second Insa-dong Street Soripan (인사동 거리소리판2)

It seemed as if even more people than last time listened to the second Street Soripan in Insa-dong! The program was diverse as usual, with regulars Park Tae-o (박태요) and Jo Sang-min (조상민) providing pansori songs, drum beats, and some solo daegeum in-between. Today’s guest was a pansori singer from Suwon, No Eun-ju (노은주), who performed an episode from Chunhyang-ga (춘향가), including the famous “Love Song” (사랑가). The owner of the basement cafe Sigayeon (시가연 / 詩哥演 / meaning “poetry-song-performance”) brought a stand-up banner and a microphone-soundsystem and later read a poem.

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The pansori singers, however, did not need the mic. As Park noted, it is more important to be directly in touch with the audience than singing as loud as possible. There were some great chuimsae-callers, too, sitting on the side and providing support for the performers. The atmosphere was great, once again, and someone had even donated a 50,000 won-bill, which Park picked up and used as a pretext to sing the “Money Song” (돈타령) from Heungbo-ga (흥보가). This time, I could join the Ttorang Gwangdae for a cup of makkeolli, but I managed to shoot a short video with my mobile, which might give an idea of the atmosphere that afternoon in Insa-dong.

— 10 Apr. 2016 (日)

  • 인사동 거리소리판, 출연: 박태오 (소리, 북), 조상민 (대금, 북), 이봄비 (시), 노은주 (소리), 인사동길, 2016-04-10 (일), 오후 3–4시.
  • Insa-dong Street Soripan, with Bak Tae-o (sori, drum), Jo Sang-min (daegeum, drum), Yi Bom-bi (poetry), No Eun-ju (sori), Insadong-gil, 2016-04-10 (Sun.), 3–4 pm.
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They’re Alive! First Insa-dong Street Soripan after Ten Years (인사동 거리소리판1)

Perfect timing! On Easter Sunday, a small street performance in bustling Insa-dong (인사동 거리 소리판) gave hope that the Ttorang Gwangdae (또랑광대) are not (yet) history. Well, they are already pansori history, after ten years. But this first step might re-ignite what has been one of the most notorious artistic movements in the Korean world of traditional music.

P1090446In the early 2000s, a lose group of young singers found institutionalized pansori in a dead end. With humour and flexibility, they attempted to make pansori more accessible and relevant for today’s audiences. Their outspoken critique, made public in an online manifesto, is implicitly directed at state-funded preservation policies that in their eyes lead way to a “fossilization” of the “living pan”, fundamental to the art they cherish.

"Insa-dong, Street of Traditonal Culture"

“Insa-dong, Street of Traditonal Culture”

There are various academic papers on newly-created works of pansori and the Ttorang Gwangdae (see the bibliography I made a while ago). Korean language and literature scholar Kim Kee Hyung (김기형) in particular proved an early chronist and (supportive) critic of the Ttorang Gwangdae. In one of his texts, written in the heydays (2003), he deals specifically with “The Character and the Cultural Meaning of ‘Insadong Street Soripan’”. In his conclusion, he praises the “experimental spirit” of the singers but also expresses the hope that pansori might become more common, not only on the streets of the “traditional” neighborhood Insa-dong (where shop signs in hangeul are obligatory), but also in other parts of Seoul. Ten years later, it seems that his hopes might have been a bit too ambitious.

The protagonists of the Ttorang Gwangdae-movement have mostly dispersed, some have founded new ensembles (like Badak Sori [바닥소리], Taroo [타루], Pansori Mandeul-gi ‘Ja’ [판소리 만들기 ‘자’]) and established themselves on the fringe of the gugak world or in the theatre scene, even internationally, as in the case of Lee Jaram (이자람) who tours the world with her new works of pansori. Just some weeks ago, I had seen Kim Myeong-ja (김명자) on TV performing her modern classic “Super Wrestling”. The only time I have seen someone performing pansori literally “on the street”, however, was at the Jeonju Intl. Sori Festival (전주세계소리축제).

P1090441But now the Ttorang Gwangdae might be back for another round of free-for-all street performance. A few days before the performance was supposed to take place, I received a mail from Park Tae-o (박태오), famous for his “StarCraft”-piece Seuta-Daejeon (스타대전), who had sent out invitations to all subscribers of the original Ttorang Gwangdae Daum-café (an online forum). With the manifesto from 2004 as an attachment, he suggested a revival of the “Insa-dong Street Soripan”, next Sunday, “in Insa-dong, at that place from back then” (인사동 그때그곳).

P1090432I arrived in Insa-dong some time before 3pm and walked up the pedestrian road from Jongno (종로) towards Anguk station (안국역). I had forgotten how busy and full with tourists, vendors, musicians this pedestrian road can be on a sunny weekend. On a side-walk stage, there was a drum-and-dance (풍물) performance going on (see a video shot on that day on Youtube) and I wondered if the Ttorang Gwangdae would perform here. All along the street, there were several musicians, for example a classical violinist (This video of another street band was posted the following day).

P1090438 After strolling a bit through the side alleys, I suddenly heard the sound of a drum and followed it to place I was looking for. Concealed by crowded bystanders, a drummer was sitting on a mat on the floor, children were playing and checking the donation box, and a man in a light orange hanbok was singing. (To my delight, the performance took place right in front of a wall where more of the Red Peter-posters that had caught my attention a few days ago where affixed.)

Bak Tae-o (박태오) singing pansori

Park Tae-o (박태오) singing pansori

People were constantly coming and going, passing by, staying for a few minutes, much applause after a song, Park would ask them to draw closer together, some left a money bill. Many people took pictures, some videos – unfortunately, I could not find anything online, maybe for lack of a clear label that might serve as a tag (please leave any related links in the comments!). Most spectators seemed to be Koreans, with a few foreigners here and there, but still relatively few in comparison to Insa-dong in general.

Jo Sang-min (조상민) playing a daegeum-sanjo

Jo Sang-min (조상민) playing a daegeum-sanjo

Today’s program was about one hour, mostly pansori by Park Tae-o (박태오), with a daegeum-piece performed by Jo Sang-min (조상민) who had played the drum. Towards the end, a spontaneous mask dance (탈놀이) intermezzo by Kim Kyung-Eu (김경의), trained in Bukcheong Lion Play (북청사자놀음), made us all laugh and play along. The show ended with much applause and a photo session. I outed myself as a fan of the Ttorang Gwangdae and joined the performers for an early dwipuri in a nearby restaurant. We had a good talk, I learned more about the plans they had first-hand, and the makkeolli was refreshing, too.

Kim Kyung-Eu (깅경의) performing mask dance

Kim Kyung-Eu (깅경의) performing mask dance

I am looking forward to the next “Insa-dong Street Soripan” and am excited what the future will bring. I will attempt to chronicle the current attempts of Park Tae-o, Jo Sang-min, and their fellow Ttorang Gwangdae here with pictures, videos, and short performance reports. As of now, it is planned to have a street performance every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month in Insa-dong. As Park Tae-o had written in the invitation: “Same time, same place”!

– 27 March 2016 (日)

  • 인사동 거리소리판, 출연: 박태오 (소리, 북), 조상민 (대금, 퉁소, 북), 김경의 (춤), 인사동길, 2016-03-27 (일), 오후 3–4시.
  • Insa-dong Street Soripan, with Park Tae-o (sori, drum), Jo Sang-min (daegeum, tungso, drum), Kim Kyung-Eu (dance), Insadong-gil, 2016-03-27 (Sun.), 3–4 pm.
  • 김기형, “’인사동 거리소리판’의 성격과 문화적 의의”, 우리어문연구 20 (2003), 175–194.
  • Kim Kee Hyung [Kim Gi-hyeong], “‘Insa-dong Geori Sori-pan’-ui Seonggyeok-gwa Munhwa-jeok Uiui” (The Character and the Cultural Meaning of ‘Insadong Street Soripan’), Uri Eomun Yeongu 20 (2003), 175–194.
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Lines of Grass 풀줄: Two Poems on the Roots Far Away?

Standing in the subway this morning, I came across an interesting poem, on the screen of my phone.

grass at sungshin uni copyIt was the title that made me read it twice: “Das Gras” (The Grass, 풀) is almost similar* to Korean “participant” poet Kim Su-yeong‘s (김수영, 1921–68) last, and probably most famous poem 풀 (Grass) from May 29 1968, less than three weeks before his death in a traffic accident. (Find out more about Kim Su-yeong, or Kim Su-yŏng in McCune-Reischauer-spelling, on Brother Anthony’s homepage.) “Grass” is also referenced abundantly in our 2015 pink factory year book, it is from artists like Hwang Sejun (황세준), Park Chan-Kyong (박찬경), and Kim Yong-ik (김용익) that I learned about this poem.

While Kim’s hymn on the roots of the ruled class offers a straight-on political allegory, with the grass as a resistant subject, in the German poem (presented anonymously, but the file name yields the author: Hans Thill) the grass is passive, something you stand in, take with you, don’t walk through twice, at one point a bit reminiscent of Piplotti Rist’s floral club, still a dead, yet carnal weapon in a striking hand. (There is an allusion, though, to the collective ‘we’ – a “growing grass-we” – in the last verse, as a comment notes.) Kim pits the grass against the wind – the striking blows of authority? – and, by chance?, another poem in the “Hundertvierzehn Gedichte”-webproject by the S. Fischer publishing house (where first I stumbled upon Thill’s “The Grass”) is on wind – the title needs no English translation: “Wind (Tehran)” (바람 (테헤란) by Ilma Rakusa. Here, it is more a wind of change – unexpected, chaotic, ruthless – that “turns the leaves”.

art space poolCoincidentally, I read these poems on the day when minjung painting-veteran Kim Jung Heun’s (김정헌) first solo exhibition in years opened, not coincidentally at Alternative Art Space Pool (대안공간 풀), that is – of course – named after Kim Su-yeong’s poem. I always thought of it as a swimming pool for rising artists.

Instead of offering more superfluous interpretations, I rather compiled two translations of a few lines from Kim Su-yeong’s poem (the iconic middle part), by Brother Anthony and the late Kim Young-Moo as well as Young-Jun Lee. I also translated a few lines from the German texts myself.

김수영, 풀 Kim Su-yeong, Grass Kim Su-yeong, Grasses

풀이 눕는다
바람보다도 더 빨리 눕는다
바람보다도 더 빨리 울고
바람보다 먼저 일어난다

The grass is lying flat.
It lies flat more quickly than the wind.
It weeps more quickly than the wind.
It rises more quickly than the wind.

Grasses lie
Faster than the wind they lie
Faster than the wind they cry
Earlier than the wind they rise
transl. Brother Anthony & Kim Young-Moo transl. Young-Jun Lee

* see below for detailed credits of the translations

Hans Thill, Das Gras

Ich trage das Gras bei mir wie einen Namen, der fleischlich ist
und somit Wort von meinem Wort. Ich gehe über die Straße
weil ich drüben ein Anderer bin, der mit seinen Halmen
die Autos dekoriert. Die Ideen

liegen in der Vergangenheit. …


Hans Thill, The Grass

I carry the grass with me like a name turned into flesh
and thus word of my word. I walk across the street
because over there I’m someone else who with his blades
decorates the car. The ideas

lie in the past. …


한스 틸, 풀

나는 풀을 살의 이름처럼 가지고 간다,
내가 한 말의 말인 풀. 나는 길을 건너 간다
저쪽에서 타자티까, 나의 풀잎으로
자동차들을 장식한다. 사상들은

과거에 누워 있다. …


Ilma Rakusa, Wind (Tehran) Ilma Rakusa, Wind (Tehran) 일마 라쿠사, 바람 (테헤란)

du weinst
du weinst nicht aus Trauer
du weinst Wind
er hat keinen Namen
er tut was er will

you weep
you weep not for grief
you weep wind
that has no name
but its own mind

너는 운다
너는 비통으로 울지 않는다
너는 바람을 운다
이름없는 바람
마음대로 부르는 바람


— 17 March 2016 (木)

* Credits of the two English translations of 풀:

“Grass” (middle): Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Kim Young-Moo, “Ten Poems of Kim Su-yŏng”, in Korea Journal 37.1 (Spring 1997), p. 141. [Link] Reprinted in Variations: Three Korean Poets by Kim Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim and Lee Si-Young, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Kim Young-Moo, Cornell East Asia Series, 110. Ithaca: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 2001 (bilingual edition). 328 pp. (ISBN 1-885445-10-5, paper, $19.00). [Link]

“Grasses” (right): Translated by Young-Jun Lee, quoted in “Korea, Poetry of”, in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics (4th Edition), edited by Roland Greene et al., Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 778. [Link], [Google Books]


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