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.

About Jan Creutzenberg

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