Voices from the Jazz Stage

When I arrived at Sangsangmadang (상상마당) in Hongdae, supposedly to see a jazz concert—way late, I have to admit—, I was struck by a voice that I had not heard in its power and touching vulnerability for a while. It was the voice of a pansori-singer, accompanying herself on the barrel-shaped buk, singing songs of love and pain.

Chan E. PARK, joining the jazz musicians after her solo performance of pansori (center, dressed in white, blurred face)

That it was a pansori-singer, a very good one, indeed, was obvious the moment I stepped into the basement concert hall. The rather small black-box-style room with a slightly raised stage—a venue you would expect for a jazzy event—was crammed with people, some of them sitting on chairs, some more standing in the back, and the rest squeezing on the floor. People seemed to be in a relaxed mood, concentrating on the vocal acrobatics and at the same time engaging in the rhythm of the song, some even shouting phrases like “jota” or “eolssigu”, cries of encouragement (chuimsae, 추임새) a pansori singer craves for.

What I did not know: The singer was no one else than PARK Chan E. (박찬응),  cross-cultural singer of tales and at the same time one of the most renowned scholars of pansori (see e.g. her essay on pansori as an oral tradition). On this night, she presented “A Few Minutes of Everyday Chunhyang”, connecting some sample songs from the most famous pansori song, the story of the “faithful girl” Chunhyang with colloquial English summaries of the plot line.

Structurally, this mash-up of “original” pansori singing and didactic explanations for an audience not well acquainted with the story and the art, kind of mirrored the very first pansori performance I witnessed back in 2006. It was at the University of Arts in Berlin, in the course of an event entitled “Was wäre die Welt ohne Erzähler?” (“what would a world without storytellers be like?”). After a British comedian, a French teller of fairy tales and one guy I do not remember, Soogi KANG (강수기) compressed the story of Chunhyang in a very similar manner to a potpourri of songs and some intermediary passages, this time, of course, told in German.

However, the result was very different. Maybe it was the large, arena-like auditorium, maybe it was the general context of telling rather than singing—although I enjoyed the performance, the proverbial spark would not jump over to the audience. I remember much more vividly what Kang sang about then in which ways she sang and how that made me feel.

Here in Hongdae everybody seemed much more involved. Park engaged the audience (mainly composed of exchange students, as this event was the wrap-up of a summer school at Sogang University) with witty comments in English and after her performance joined the jazzers in a jam of “Arirang”.

In her seminal book Voices from the Straw Mat (Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2003) Park discusses the theoretical preliminaries of pansori that have to be taken into account when staging a cross-cultural performance:

“As much as p’ansori is poetic communication by the virtue of its voice, it is a verbal conveyor of information, and the two, the art and the message, should be inseparable and mutually empowering.” (246)

While I would question the underlying thesis that an effective pansori necessarily needs an understanding audience in a rather narrow sense—in my opinion the community-creating power of pansori is likewise nurtured by its provocation of active interaction on part of the spectators beyond the retracing of the story told—, this performance nevertheless showed how a single person can captivate a room of “strangers” only with some words and the beats of a drum.

Furthermore, Park captures the inherent dilemma of the cross-cultural performer of so-called traditional arts:

“It is the historical responsibility of the performer to transmit to the audience a tradition in its essential form [thus: activating the audience] while perpetuating tradition as a creative process by breaking that very tradition [by speaking English in-between songs].” (250)

From a spectator’s perspective, I do not care very much if a tradition is presented in its “essential form”—in fact, as Park argues, in the case of pansori the constant adaptation to the performative situation is part of the tradition—if the result is interesting enough to allow insights on the parameters of a successful performance. Whether and to which extend the unusual place, the audience’s mellow mood after some jazz (which I missed), or my surprise at this unexpected pleasure were responsible for my latest pansori experience remains to be determined. For example, the absence of a separate drummer certainly focalised my perception on the vocal expression itself rather than its interaction with the seemingly spontaneous beats.

In any case, after reading about her performances at Hawai’i and elsewhere, it was a pleasure to finally hear, see, and feel Park Chan E. in person, live on stage. That was not changed by the fact that it was only later, over dinner with friends and friends-to-be, that I learned about the identity of the singer.

— 25 July 2010 (日)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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