Preview – Ahn Sook-Sun at the Cadogan Hall: the must-see event of K-Music 2013

by Colin Bartlett on 11 June, 2013

in K-music Festival, Music features, Pansori

Colin Bartlett explains why he’s definitely going to be at the Cadogan Hall on 21 June.

Ahn Sook-sun

To show it isn’t just me that considers Pansori is one of the truly great art forms of the world, I’ll start with a quote from Simon Broughton of Songlines:

“Often described as Korean opera, the description is misleading – it wasn’t an aristocratic creation, but mixes elements of folk music and shamanism. The intimacy, the translation, the audience and the ambience are just as important as the music. When all that comes together, pansori really is one of the worlds great musical art forms”

For the experience of Brian McMaster (a former director of the Edinburgh International Festival who programmed all five main Pansori in Edinburgh in 2003), this article in The Scotsman is well worth reading.

An extract on his first experience of Pansori: … “I was absolutely bowled over,” he says. “The theatre was packed – a smallish Paris place but still several hundred people. I looked at my watch once in five and a half hours. I was engrossed.”

What was it about the performance that convinced him, virtually on the spot, that this was something he must bring to Edinburgh? It is, he concedes, an acquired taste: “The first few minutes you’re adjusting yourself to something that is so totally different, but you just get sucked into it.”

What to expect on 21 June

I’m very strongly advocating this performance. I can’t guarantee it will be the “must go-to” event in London (and probably in England) of 2013, but as Damon Runyon wrote: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”.

Much of the performance at the Cadogan Hall will be Ahn Sook-sun performing Pansori in the traditional way, where the only performers are the singer/storyteller (with a fan) and a single drummer: and so this event is definitely a must for anyone interested in different ways of performing and/or in different vocal techniques. And I’m assuming that, as earlier this year, there will be surtitles to help Westerners (and Koreans) understand the story that is unfolding. For a first (but not subsequent) experience of Pansori it’s important to understand the moment to moment context of what the performer is doing.

The trailer for the whole K-music festival embedded above suggests that Ahn might also accompany herself on the kayagum for part of the performance – a different and maybe slightly less authentic style of performance, which will show her musical versatility but at the slight cost of reducing her ability to interact with the audience. But this will perhaps have the advantage of providing newcomers to Pansori with a more varied evening.

From my limited experience of seeing Pansori (Im Kwon-Taek’s films Chunhyang and Sopyonje, a three hour introduction to Pansori, a talk with illustrations, seeing all five traditional Pansori at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003, and seeing two or three performances combining Pansori with other art forms):

  1. Like a Shakespeare play, a Pansori performance can switch from high art to broad comedy in a few seconds, and make the switch work. And Pansori has the emotional range of a Shakespeare play.
  2. A good Pansori performer is a very very good performer.
  3. Ahn Sook-sun is a very good Pansori performer.

I saw Ahn perform Chunhyang in Edinburgh on a Sunday afternoon in 2003: it was listed as being in three parts with two intervals, with two drummers (one for parts 1 and 3, the other for part 2), from which you may correctly deduce that it was going to be a long afternoon, about three and a half to four hours. The actual performance was as listed up until the end of part 2, at which point Ahn Sook-sun had a short conversation in Korean with one of the organisers.

Ahn Sook-sun

I don’t understand Korean, but I have more than a suspicion that what Ahn Sook-sun was saying was something like: “Well, we were going to have a second interval now, but I don’t need an interval, and I don’t think the audience does either, so if you get the first drummer back onstage now, I’ll keep going to maintain the momentum of the performance”.

Whether or not that’s what she was saying, that’s what happened! (And I for one agreed with what I assume was her assessment.)

A nice touch: Pansori performers are singers/storytellers, switching between telling the story, playing one (or more!) characters in the story, even moving to a “meta-level” by commenting on the performance that is taking place. And interracting with the drummer. At one point in her performance of Chunhyang, Ahn Sook-sun took her interraction with the drummer to a new and unexpected level – in the character of Chunhyang’s mother (“with a daughter like Chunhyang, who needs sons”) she pretended to bite the arm of the drummer: I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but that was a great surprise to me, and I got the distinct impression that the drummer hadn’t expected it either.

In short, Ahn Sook-sun is a great performer and showman, and I am using both those words as very high compliments. (There is a very important distinction between a showman and a showoff.)

A note about the Pansori style

The vocal style of Pansori is very distinctive: perhaps think of Flamenco or Blues as *very* rough reference points for this vocal style.

I mention this because while the Edinburgh performances 2003 really convinced me of Pansori’s greatness, I feel I ought to say that the audience at the first (and shortest) Edinburgh performance was distinctly larger than at the subsequent performances. I don’t know the reason for that: if the performance lengths were a factor, then this Cadogan Hall event has the same Pansori that was the first (and shortest) at Edinburgh in 2003. But I suspect that some people might have been put off by the sound of the vocal style.

First, if that’s a possible concern, then the online trailer for the event in the above video gives a very good idea of Pansori’s vocal style, and second, Ahn Sook-sun is such a strong performer that I think it is likely that she will draw people in at a live event: that seemed to be the case for other Pansori performers at Cadogan Hall in January 2013 and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Summer 2012.

The first part of that online trailer reminds me (if no-one else!) that Korean traditional music (especially that for Pansori with just a singer/storyteller and a drummer) has an immense momentum and forward drive, even at quite slow tempos.

The quote from Simon Broughton of Songlines reproduced at the top of this page shows that it isn’t just me and an American experimental film director (see the “Im Kwon-taek” section below) that are convinced of Pansori’s greatness.

The Heungboga Pansori

Anh Soo-sun won’t be performing Chunhyang at the Cadogan Hall in June 2013 (maybe at a return performance in 2014? – we should start a petition now), but Heungboga, which happens to be the first Pansori I experienced live, in Edinburgh in 2003.

Ahn Sook-Sun

In 2003 I was very committed to seeing Pansori after seeing Im Kwon-taek’s film Chunhyang in Edinburgh in 2002: I’d bought advance tickets for all five performances, and even if I’d really disliked everything I’d heard up to the final interval of the last performance I was still intending to listen to the final part of the last performance in Edinburgh.

My actual experience was rather different: there were very good surtitles so we non-Korean speakers could follow the story, and by the interval of the first Pansori in Edinburgh I was enjoying it, but I wasn’t thinking this was a truly great art form. (I should add I was feeling quite tired and a bit worried that it might end after the start of another event I already had a ticket for: in short, my personal circumstances were not auspicious.)

But just after the interval there was a wonderfully poetic sung description of the migration flight of a swallow: this was incredible and very high art, both in content and in actual performance – I was enthralled, and this was when I became convinced that Pansori was a really great art form.

At the end of this description the performer switched from singing, and instead spoke. I don’t know what the literal translation of the Korean should be, but the surtitle was that “the swallow then reported to the Chief Swallow Migration Officer” (I assume to explain why she was late). I thought that was a brilliantly funny switch from high art to broad comedy, and that’s when I first thought of my comparison with Shakespeare.

Im Kwon-taek

Earlier in this post I made a comparison between Shakespeare and Pansori: my personal experence of live Pansori peformances is that Pansori has the same emotional effect on me as, for example, Shakespeare’s As You Like It or King Lear, or the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin.

In late 2012 the Korean film director Im Kwon-taek came to London for a short season of his films. One of the screenings was of Chunhyang at the ICA. After the film he gave a short-ish Q&A (well, to be precise, my recollection is that his answers were quite long – and interesting and pertinent – so that there was only time for one question, or maybe two).

After the Q&A he was just outside the cinema sitting at a desk cheerfully signing autographs for members of the audience. He doesn’t have anything to prove: he has now made over one hundred films (of which one – Sopyonje – is in my personal top five films of all time), and I’m sure he has a very good sense of what he has achieved. What I’m trying to say is that he was behaving as a very modest person, when he has achieved very much more than some others who behave as if they were deities: fill in your own suggestions here. [Here is a link to a nice story about Laurel and Hardy behaving in a similar way]

Anyway, I queued up to get an autograph (something I don’t normally do), and after he had signed a season booklet for me I mentioned that the first film of his that I’d seen was Chunhyang and that seeing it had made me very interested in Pansori. (I hope I also said that Sopyonje was one of my all-time favourite films, but I don’t recall doing so.) This was translated by an assistant to Im Kwon-taek, at which point Im Kwon-taek stood up and shook my hand, which I hadn’t been expecting.

I was a bit uncomfortable about taking up his time, but for some reason I decided to say in addition that my experience of live Pansori was that it was equivalent to Shakespeare in its emotional range. This got translated, at which point Im Kwon-taek shook my hand again (I really wasn’t expecting that) and said something in Korean. The assistant translated this, and my recollection is that it was to the effect that some years ago he (Im Kwon-taek) and been at a film festival in America (maybe San Francisco?) and that an American experimental film-maker had been talking with Im Kwon-taek and that the American had made a very similar comparison between Pansori and Shakespeare.

So an American experimental film-maker (I wish I knew who) and an English non-film-maker (! – one of many things I don’t do!) have quite independently come to a very similar opinion about Pansori.

This article first appeared on Colin Bartlett’s blog, Suliram, and is reproduced here with permission


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Colin Bartlett June 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I’m not sure it’s etiquette to comment on one’s own article, especially if there aren’t any other comments, but anyway:

1. The two or three typos in the article are in my original, so are my fault not LKL’s!

2. There’s a fairly wide demographic of people interested in Pansori: I recommended this to an improvising singer two weeks ago, and she said she was already intending to go because a musician specializing in experimental music had recommended it to her.

3. It would be nice if people new to Pansori (and those not new to it!) could submit thoughts (good, bad,or indifferent) on their experience of this performance to to give some impressions of how people reacted to it. I’d be particularly interested in the reactions of musicians (especially singers and “accompanists”) and actors and storytellers and poets.

Philip Gowman June 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

I’m still struggling to spot those typos 😉
Hope you enjoyed tonight’s concert. Just a shame there wasn’t more pansori!

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