All Eyes on Korea: consistent investment in the performing arts brings its rewards

The London 2012 Olympics was around a decade in the making: preparation of the bid, building the venue itself and putting in place the infrastructure required to run a successful games. And for the last couple of years of that preparation time, a separate team of hard-working organisers from the Korean Ministry of Culture Sports and Tourism were planning their own spectacle. Led from the Korean Cultural Centre in London (KCCUK), the plan was to showcase the best of Korean culture to the huge numbers of international visitors who would be in London for the Games.

Preparation and persistence builds relations with audiences and venues

Taking the theme of the five Olympic rings as a starting point, and linking in with the traditional Korean five directions, five elements and five colours, the event was branded in Korean 오색찬란!!, loosely translated as “Five Colours Shining Bright!”. For the consumption of Londoners the festival was branded All Eyes on Korea – a one hundred day festival of K-everything: music, art and literature, film, food and lectures. Posters with colourful Ks could be found across the Underground network publicising the initiative in a memorable way. One of London’s famous red Routemaster buses was even pressed into service to promote the initiative.

A London bus announced the start of the festival
A London bus announced the start of the festival (image courtesy KCCUK)

Planning for All Eyes on Korea had started at least two years beforehand, ambition fuelled by a good relationship with London’s City Hall. This had been getting stronger over the years with Korea’s participation in the Mayor’s Thames Festival, a two-day open air festival of culture held on the banks of the Thames to mark the end of summer (conveniently for Koreans, at Chuseok time), in which the Korean Village has become an anchor tenant. This status reflects the investment the KCCUK has consistently made in the Festival each year, building upon percussion group Dulsori’s initial private sector initiative in 2007, and introducing new ideas such as participation in the Rivers of the World project.

Similarly the KCCUK’s experience in dealing with London’s top artistic venues such as the Barbican and the South Bank Centre has undoubtedly been of assistance in pulling together such a demanding and varied programme of events. And the promotion of Korean cultural events over the years, especially for example with the high-profile appearance of three big-ticket Korean acts in the Edinburgh International Festival last year (the Seoul Philharmonic, Ahn Eun-mi’s dance company and Oh Tae-seok’s theatre company), has undoubtedly helped in building and educating an audience ready for more.

A careful selection of acts for an international audience

The decision to focus the music element of the festival on performers who try to bring traditional music up to date was probably sensible for a festival which was focused on the generalist, international audience. The dedicated domestic concert-goer can usually find a programme devoted to sanjo or other traditional Korean music at least once a year either in London University’s famous School of Oriental and African Studies, or at the KCCUK itself. But for an audience in London for the Olympic period a more contemporary and international flavour was definitely what was required.

The acts chosen were Be-Being, who perform contemporary music on traditional instruments to bring traditional Korean mask dances up to date; Gong Myoung, who are described as playing “traditional Korean music with a contemporary twist” – using thirty instruments rather than the four played by the conventional samulnori-style quartets; Baramgot who again perform modern compositions on traditional instruments and who have in the past appeared with an Indian musician, but who were to appear in London this time with well-known crossover haegeum player Lee Ccotbyel; and finally Lee Jaram’s Pansori Project Za, which aims to add to the official canon of five pansori tales with new compositions for the 21st century. Lee’s instrumentation uses an expanded percussion section to supplement the traditional buk drum, and also uses guitars to add to the sound palette.

Educating and preparing the domestic audience pays dividends

So much for the transient international audience; what about the domestic one? No matter the quality, simply bringing performers to London and expecting an audience to turn up is not a sensible strategy, particularly at a time when traditional London West End theatres are complaining that audience bookings are 40% down on a normal year. Fortunately, over the years there has been a range of Korean traditional and fusion music brought to the UK in both Ministry of Culture and private sector initiatives which has helped to educate the audience, and three of the four Korean music acts had in one way or another already been introduced to UK audiences.

Jang Young-gyu and Be-Being
Be-Being’s percussionists look on as two masked dancers perform a jultagi rope-walk entertainment – one of Korea’s latest UNESCO-listed items of intangible heritage (image courtesy KCCUK)

The music of Jang Young-gyu, Be-Being’s musical director, will have been familiar to those who went to see Ahn Eun-mi’s awe-inspiring Princess Bari at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2011. His music might also have been familiar to film fans, as he collaborated with Kim Ji-woon in A Bittersweet Life and The Good the Bad and the Weird. Korean mask dance is also not unknown in the London area, as Theatre 4 All, a private sector troupe based in the Korean community in the south west of London, is a regular performer of the lion dance and other traditional mask dances, and had been seen on the streets as the Olympic torch was carried through their neighbourhood in Kingston. The combination of mask dance with Jang’s music on the South Bank stage was therefore a happy extension of the domestic audience’s collective experience, and the variety of dances performed was extremely well-received. Ema Ho, an audience member who was highly literate in K-pop likened the costumes and chanting in the closing number to Super Junior’s Sorry Sorry. No-one in the audience had the remotest idea what the Surisuri Mahasuri of the Goseong Ohgwangdae was, but it spoke to people of all backgrounds.

Gong Myoung with a variety of unusual instruments
Gong Myoung with a variety of unusual instruments (image courtesy KCCUK)

Korean percussion is known in the UK through the appearances of Kim Duk-soo, Dulsori and the street-savvy group Noridan who stole the show at the Dano festival in Trafalgar Square in 2008, in performances which are often private sector initiatives. Gong Myoung themselves had also appeared in the UK before, and had got enthusiastic reviews for their performance at the Chichester Festival in 2009. All this helped prepare for Gong Myoung‘s appearance on the South Bank in 2012, which according to the Korean Class Massive was “absolutely fantastically epic.” The sheer energy of the performance and variety of sounds won many new fans.

Win Il
Won Il’s mesmerising solo piri performance (image courtesy KCCUK)

This was Baramgot’s third appearance in London, and each time they bring something a little different. By a happy coincidence, a private sector musical entitled “Gumok”, dealing with the sensitive topic of Korea’s so-called Comfort Women, had used some music by Won Il, Baramgot’s director, at a performance at the end of June 2012, thus increasing the anticipation among audience members who had not seen Baramgot before. Matthew Jackson noted traces of flamenco in the kayageum playing. Baramgot is known for the improvisatory feel of some of its music, and also for its sometimes highly complex rhythms, reflecting Won Il’s long experience in expanding the horizons of Korean percussion. Jackson was also particularly impressed by Won Il’s solo piri playing, and would strongly recommend anyone to see Baramgot live.

Telling the story – the gwangdae and the byeonsa

Lee Jaram had not been to London before, and indeed it’s hard to recollect a pansori performance on a major London stage at all – though some have been heard at the Edinburgh Fringe in the past. The performance of Lee’s pansori version of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechwan was arguably the riskiest but also the most anticipated of the concerts in the series. Unfortunately, owing to some complex difficulties of Olympic scheduling, the performance clashed with another hot K-ticket: a showing of Lie Sang Bong’s dancheong-inspired Spring / Summer 2012 fashion collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Many potential audience members were torn between the two.

Lee Jaram (left) and Pansori Project Za
Lee Jaram (left) and Pansori Project Za perform Sacheon Ga, an adaptation of Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechwan (image courtesy KCCUK)

Those lucky enough to have chosen to attend the up-to-date pansori were well-rewarded. “I was blown away by it,” said Jason Verney (of miniminimovies)1. Colin Bartlett (of the Suliram blog, who one day it is to be hoped will do a full review for LKL) was similarly impressed: “Lee Jaram is an amazing performer. As a parallel, think of one person playing Leporello, Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira and Zerbinetta in Mozart’s Don Giovanni2. There were plenty of people who were new to pansori who were very much enjoying the experience, their enjoyment perhaps enhanced by the extra musicians and added actors / dancers which brought the performance into the twenty-first century. And there were many chuimsae exclamations of encouragement from audience members more familiar with the rich tradition of the art form.

Colin Bartlett’s observation about the many layers to Lee Jaram’s performance was apt, and indeed the KCCUK had prepared the way to help the audience understand the many roles of the pansori performer in a fascinating lecture a couple of weeks beforehand – of course, as part of the All Eyes on Korea festival. Dr Tara McAlister-Viel (Head of Voice East 15 School of Acting, part of the University of Essex) had explained the different levels on which a pansori performer, the gwangdae, had to operate: acting as narrator of the story, as actor of all the characters in the story, as commentator on the story, and, stepping outside of the narrative altogether, as an entertainer engaging with the audience and interplaying with the drummer.

Actor Jo Hee-bong narrating Crossroads of Youth
Actor Jo Hee-bong narrating Crossroads of Youth (image courtesy KCCUK)

Most of those performing roles were also displayed by a narrator in another fascinating event as part of the 100-day festival: the screening of Crossroads of Youth, Korea’s oldest surviving film, at the City of London’s premier arts venue, the Barbican Centre. The screening was accompanied by a small live band and, more importantly, a narrator known as a byeonsa. Again the byeonsa (Jo Hee-bong) combined the roles of storyteller, actor, and comedian. Andrew Jackson observed: “he did the voices of three onscreen women, then had one of them say, ‘isn’t it strange that we all have the same voice?’. I was laughing for about 20 minutes after that.” Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid commented on the warmth of the occasion thus: “the whole event was so genuinely charming!”

Bringing in a new audience

People who have attended and enjoyed Korean performances in the past are likely to recommend future performances to their friends, and that definitely contributed to the audience numbers for the All Eyes on Korea concerts. Thus a regular programme of events is key in building an audience.

The audience applauds Gong Myoung
The audience applauds at the end of Gong Myoung’s “Walkabout” performance (image courtesy KCCUK)

But, to use corporate-speak, cross-selling is also a way of bringing in a completely new audience. The regular series of film screenings at the KCCUK has been developing one avenue for precisely such cross-selling (and the concerts were actively promoted to the film audiences). A more imaginative initiative this year has been the KCCUK’s “K-pop Academy” programme in which young K-pop fans have been recruited into a course introducing them to a diverse diet of Korean culture, including traditional music, history and food. The fans have been busy promoting what they have learned on their personal blogs and many of them came along to the concerts and wrote enthusiastically about them.

How to gauge the response

Without conducting audience polls over a number of years it’s difficult to know how the reception of Korean music performances in the UK is changing in terms of popularity and understanding. My own subjective impression is that a combination of factors are working to build the size and quality of the audience: sustained investment from Korean government in respect of events directly promoted by the KCCUK and by cross-selling to enthusiasts for more mass-market aspects of Korean culture such as K-pop and K-film; the independent promotion of events by the private and academic sector in the UK; and the support for Korean musicians visiting British festivals.

All Eyes on Korea poster
An All Eyes on Korea poster at London Bridge station (photo: London Korean Links)

And to end with an anecdote which hopefully is one among many. The pianist in my local pub knows that I am interested in Korean culture (yes, I do my own bit of cross-selling). A few days after the final musical event of All Eyes on Korea he told me: “a friend came up to me yesterday and said he’d seen some absolutely brilliant Korean musicians at the South Bank a couple of days ago.” Frustratingly, he couldn’t tell me which performance, but I like to think that it was all of them.

This article was originally published on the TheApro website (operated by the Korea Arts Management Service) in a slightly different version, and is reposted here with their kind permission.

  1. Interviewed 17 August 2012 []
  2. Private email correspondence, 31 July 2012 []

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