An Education in P’ansori – a report from last week’s All Eyes on Korea lecture

Annie Cole from Kimchi Soul gives her impressions.

As the KCC hall packed out for the latest All Eyes on Korea lecture, it was clear that the concept of P’ansori had caught the imagination of Londoners. The audience were a mixed bunch of professionals, academics, writers and students with varied knowledge of the art form (some like myself, who knew little more than that it was a type of traditional performance, some who’d had first-hand experience of a live P’ansori display, and others who were already practised in studying it). There was no one better to deliver the lecture than Dr Tara McAlister-Viel, who has not only taught vocal training in Korea, but has also learnt P’ansori through traditional methods herself. Her passion, interest and desire to gain as deep an understanding as possible were clear from the outset, as she began the lecture that would take us on a journey of education in P’ansori.

Dr McAlister-Viel at the KCC

Those hoping to leave the lecture with a concrete definition of “P’ansori” may have been disappointed, as it transcends Western understandings of music and voice and is usually explained in Korean terms that are notoriously difficult to translate. Hence, Dr McAlister-Viel provided us with a range of definitions from different perspectives. Firstly, P’ansori translates as: “playing area” (“pan”) / “voice” (“sori”), so it is often understood as “the voice’s playing area”. It is also said to represent “han” (which apparently there is no English word for, but “grief” is perhaps the closest). It is performed by a solo performer (kwangdae), and accompanied by a percussionist (gosu) who beats on a traditional drum. There are three elements that make up every P’ansori: chang (the sung), ariri (the spoken) and pallim (the gesture). The audience always plays a large role as the fourth wall is continually broken, and interaction and reaction are demanded by the kwangdae. In western terms, P’ansori has been pigeonholed as “one-man opera” due to its position as a solo, dramatic performance of musical verse. It’s also been compared to “the blues” for its use of the minor key and emotional connections.

Traditionally, there are five main stories that P’ansori covers, each casting light on one of the five relationships in Confucianism:

  • Sugung-ga (수궁가 – Song of the Underwater Palace, an adaptation of the Tale of the Rabbit and the Turtle – the relationship between king and subject),
  • Chunhyang-ga (춘향가 – a concubine story that has been compared to Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet – the relationship between husband and wife),
  • Heungbo-ga (흥보가 – a tale of two brothers: one kind and one unkind),
  • Simcheong-ga (심청가 – the Sacrifice to the Dragon King, a tale of filial piety) and
  • Jeokbyeok-ga (적벽가 – the Story of the Red Cliff, all about the relationship between friends).

I recognise these from my time as a teacher in Korea: they are well-loved, traditional and moralistic folk-tales, much like the Grimm fairytales that we in the west have a life-long relationship with. The themes and emotions that they bring are thought to be relevant to modern day issues and, some would argue, are timeless.

Nowadays, P’ansori holds a place as a “high art” form in Korea, and can be found in theatres and concert halls. It has even been given status as Korea’s “Intangible Cultural Asset #5”. In the 19th Century, though, P’ansori was a less high-brow form, and could be seen performed on streets and in other open-air areas. There are many modern variations of P’ansori, including collaborative group recitals as opposed to a solo performance. Equally, though, there are P’ansori purists who seek to restore and retain its roots and original form, and to “preserve P’ansori on the mat”.

After explaining all of this, Dr McAlister-Viel felt it would be best for us to experience an example of P’ansori, so showed us some clips of both street and theatre performances. I couldn’t find the exact clips used, but did find loads of other examples which really capture the mode and concept:

We then took a more analytical look at P’ansori. Dr McAlister-Viel’s analysis focused on how the voice tells a story of its own, independently of the text it is reciting. The vocal rhythms, pitch, tone and timbre of each word and phrase is considered with detailed precision to inspire the audience’s imagination. This “vocal text” enhances the written text to evoke and connote images and associations. For example, short, staccato notes increasing in volume represent the footsteps of a character as he gets closer and closer. The aural quality of words is also subverted, so even if the words themselves are not onomatopoeic, they are delivered in an onomatopoeic way. For example, an extension of a vowel sound combined with a low pitch aurally reflects a lion’s roar. Furthermore, the performer’s emotional connection with the written word comes through the means of voice. A lamentation (or cho) is achieved with a minor key and vocal expression of deep emotions (or han). Yet the overtones of the performance change throughout: P’ansori is said to be comical and darkly humorous, as well as touching and melancholy. Evidently, a P’ansori kwangdae’s role is an excruciatingly demanding one. Rather than using one voice as a Western performer often would, a full range of voices to portray different characters, moods and tones is utilised.

The Q & A session that followed the lecture reflected the audience’s engagement and captivation. Questions of culture and identity were quick to be asked, however Dr McAlister-Viel explained that although often thought of as synonymous with “Koreanness”, P’ansori is as abstract and foreign to many modern-day Koreans as it is to someone from the west. Indeed, when tweeting about this lecture, I received the following response from a native Korean: “To be honest, it’s a very unique genre, even to South Koreans like me.” When asked to elaborate, she continued “I’m no expert in Pansori… but if I may tell you my humble opinions about this musical genre: It has, of course, pitch contour, rhythm, and a very long story (lyrics). I think the unique expressive power Pansori has comes from its lengthening, accentuating words in such dramatic and artistic ways. Thus it often leads South Koreans to emphatic emotions”. I felt that this accurately mirrored my feelings about P’ansori, despite being a “westerner” myself.

The next question asked was “What makes a good P’ansori artist?” This led to the rather gory explanation of “mountain training”, where wannabe P’ansori performers go on a three-month retreat to train their voices using the acoustics of the mountain landscape. They aim to rip their vocal chords in a way that would be defined by Western vocal coaches as “vocal damage”. Dr McAlister-Viel made the very valid point that modern-day students in Korea would not have the time to partake in this kind of intense training even if they wanted to, due to the straining demands of the education system. In turn, this sadly contributes to the gradual fading out of P’ansori.

Pumpkin pancakes at the KCC

To round off the evening, a food reception hosted by the KCC followed the lecture, with pumpkin being the spotlighted ingredient (in Korean pancake, rice ball and courgette side dish form). As random as this may sound, the pumpkin represents the “gourd” in Hungbo-ga, so made for a relevant and delicious backdrop for lecture-goers to muse and mingle to. This really diversified the evening, allowing our taste buds to be as tantalised as our minds (it’s always wonderful to pick up new Korean recipes, too!) It was also an opportunity for networking, chatting, catching up with friends and just relaxing; as well as continuing the discussion on P’ansori and sharing personal responses.

I found myself wondering about the kwangdae: would she be able to hold my attention and keep me (and an entire audience) deeply involved for such a long time? Would I be able to connect to the story and emotions despite a language barrier? Would there be noticeable vocal differences between a P’ansori voice, and a western voice? As these questions still circulate my mind, I realise that there is only one way to answer them, and that my P’ansori journey and education definitely didn’t end at the KCC that night.

“Pansori Project ‘Za’ Presents Sacheon-Ga” is to be performed at the Southbank Centre on Monday 30th July as part of the All Eyes on Korea festival. Tickets are available here. The KCC continues to host a series of free lectures on different areas of Korean culture. To see a full schedule and book tickets, please visit their website.

All photos courtesy of the KCCUK.

3 thoughts on “An Education in P’ansori – a report from last week’s All Eyes on Korea lecture

    • Han Eui-jong: I am educated here via LKL and happy to read about this article but no further than that. I am glad to know the definition of P’ansori for the first time. When I heard/saw a performance many years ago, it put me off for life!

      It seemed somewhat shamanically spiritual and self-indulgent in their expression of bitterness [한 (恨)] (which I could understand) but did not want to sit through all the screeching, pointing, and unplesant vocal sounds and incomprehensible lyrics. Thank you for the article.

    • Anne-Maria Cole: Han Eui-jong, that’s so interesting to hear. I’ve never seen a live performance, and have only heard positive reviews. I never considered that it could be an uncomfortable and / or intrusive thing to sit through. Thanks for this perspective!

      I’ll get back to you after I’ve seen some live…

    • Han Eui-jong: There are traditional musics which one can enjoy without understanding or knowing much about it, but in my opinion, P’ansori is not one of them though I adore gayagum, piri, daegum, drums etc.

      However, I could guess if one is academically researching it or musically interested in Korean traditional music then it could be interesting as one knows about it. Would like to know what makes people enjoy P’ansori via educative articles in LKL.

    • Philip Gowman: I really appreciated the chance to hear Pansori with subtitles. It was so involving, I could listen to it for hours. But without the subtitles, maybe only half an hour.

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