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From Local Monsters to BEAST: 1500 years of Korean music and dance at SOAS

Last weekend’s free seminar at SOAS ranged from Silla dynasty lion dances to last month’s tour of Taiwan by BEAST, and from ancient Confucian ceremonial music to Samulnori and hip-hop via Trot.

Juhae Gu introduced us to the dying musical form of Akkeuk (악극) – a form of stage musical using Trot music. It is sad that these are now rarely performed, with stagings usually confined to the period around the Lunar new year or Parent’s day in May. I’d pay good money to see one of these, and I’d pay good money not to see your conventional musicals such as The Last Empress and Another Sun.

Dorothea Suh examined pansori music, and focused on the transmission of their underlying stories along the Silk Road. Chan E Park delighted the audience with an impromptu performance of a mourning song from Jindo.

The Friday evening concert presented a range of traditional and contemporary music for kayageum and daegeum

Moving on to the more modern musical form of Samulnori, Nathan Hesselink shared with us the interviews he had conducted with some of the founding fathers of the form, while In Suk Kim introduced us to the dokkaebi used in children’s books to popularise the four samulnori instruments. Nami Morris reminisced about her upbringing in Germany, learning Korean drumming and traditional dance, and participating in protests on the comfort women issue, and then Simon Mills talked about the attempts to “reintroduce” samulnori into Ulleungdo. It sounded like a scenario for a film – well-meaning local government officials struggle to stimulate the local population to form a drumming troupe, sending them to the mainland to do some intensive studying. Meanwhile, in the heart of the countryside there’s an aged farmer who knows the old ways of drumming…

Robert Provine joined us via Skype for a presentation of the earliest recording of Korean folk songs, made in 1895 in Washington. The quality of the recording was not much of an improvement on the sound archive which caused Charlotte Green to corpse while reading the morning news on Radio 4 but the technology which linked Provine’s computer in Maryland to the lecture theatre in London worked flawlessly – and indeed this is probably the first workshop I’ve been to where the technology has been glitch-free throughout. Well done, SOAS.

Day 2 kicked off with Gugak Gayo from Hyun Seok Kwon and 1980s protest songs from Gyewon Byeon. Hyelim Kim presented a scholarly discussion of a modern daegeum piece by Yeong-dong Kim, and then Sung-hee Park examined the changes made by the colonial Japanese authorities in 1910 and 1911 which had a radical impact on Korea’s musical development.

The stately dances at the Jongmyo rituals - now documented using North Korean notation
The stately dances at the Jongmyo rituals – now documented using North Korean notation

The dance panel looked at Contemporary Korean dance (Chae-hyeon Kim) and ancient Silla dynasty lion dance (Jung Rock Seo). Seo argued that the distinctive feature of the Silla version of the lion dance was that the lion (presumed to represent an incoming Buddhist culture) overcomes a local monster as part of the performance. Keith Howard puzzled over why North Korean choreographic notation has been adopted in a recently published official South Korean record of the Jongmyo and Confucian rites. The three presenters are working on a book on Korean dance, which is much to be anticipated.

A book which has just come out is Joshua D Pilzer’s Hearts of Pine, examining music in the lives of some of the surviving “comfort women”. Pilzer’s keynote addressed introduced us to some of the women he interviewed and the songs they sang. Also interesting was a brief discussion of the well known documentary trilogy by Byeon Yeong-ju, for which the English subtitling has been bowdlerised to filter out some of the earthier banter by the women in the House of Sharing.

Finally, in a session on K-pop, Sung Woo Park poured a healthy dose of scepticism over the supposed K-pop boom in Europe, and Rowan Pease looked at popular music in the Korean autonomous region of Yanbian from the period of the Cultural Revolution through to its reinvention by the ethnic Korean Chinese boyband Arirang in the 21st Century. Hae-kyung Um presented a history of 20 years of Korean hip-hop, from Seo Taiji to Big Bang via JYP’s boy-wonder b-boy brothers Ryang-hyun and Ryang-ha. Sang-yeon Sung finished by taking us on a hair-raising ride in a taxi through the streets of Taipei chasing BEAST on a recent tour. Unlike in Europe, where K-pop fans tend to be teenagers with limited spending power, in Taiwan the K-pop fans are affluent 20- or 30- somethings who are prepared to pay top dollar for these organised taxi chases.

Beast taxis
A rank of Taipei taxis bearing BEAST’s pictures: official pursuit taxis. Photo: Sang-Yeon Sung

As Professor Keith Howard said in his closing remarks, there was not nearly enough time. Each presenter was only allotted 20 minutes plus Q&A. When some of the talk is taken up with musical or visual examples, vital for putting the talk in context, 20 minutes is not nearly enough, and many of the speakers had to slice chunks out of their talks. Thankfully, all the papers will soon be up on SOAS’s website for all to browse and read the bits that were missed out.

Thanks are due to Prof Howard, SOAS and the sponsors for putting on this free event. It always amazes me that anyone can just pitch up and get so much free information and elucidation from such experts.


4 thoughts on “From Local Monsters to BEAST: 1500 years of Korean music and dance at SOAS

  1. Good report!
    It was my great honour to be involved in the conference.
    Thanks Philip for your good report!


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