Elwood 5566

Lineage of the Voice – Pansori (판소리)

Posted in Art, customs, Entertainment by 노강호 on February 5, 2012

Having been a life long musician, both as a player and listener, I love Korean music. I don’t mean K-pop which though at times tuneful, is as much cultural chewing-gum as any western ‘fast-food’ pop music, but examples which are uniquely Korean such as pansori (판소리), pungmulnori (풍물노리) and even trot (트로트). I am not ashamed to admit owning the collected works of the Korean Daddy of trot, Nahuna which in a western context would be the equivalent of owning the works of Des O’Connor.

In the West, as well as in Korea with K-pop, tonality is usually diatonic, only a small number of chords are used and their sequence is always predictable, tunes seldom modulate and if they do it is most likely to the dominant, the time structure is nearly always 2 or 4 beats per bar and perhaps ocassionally, three. As for the lyrics, they best described as repetitive and vacuous.  However, I’m not a total snob, after all, I have Nahuna’s life works and I do listen to and enjoy ‘pop’ as much as I can enjoy eating a ‘Mcburger’ or chewing a stick of gum. If there is one quality that pop has, it’s the ability to represent, to surmise periods of time not in large spans like classical music, but in much smaller chunks such as the 6o’s or 80’s.  Pop can rekindle specific periods of your life, evoking emotions and memories with far greater intensity and emotional accuracy than grander music which is quite amazing given the paltry array of tools it utilizes. Naturally, there have been pop musicians with great insight and innovation, though they are often overlooked or marginalised.

The music of Captain Beefheart, (when he was with his Magic Band,’circa 1968) has examples of intricate rhythmic patterns and shifts in modality which would confuse less capable performers. And who remembers the 1976 ‘hit of the year,’  Music, by John Miles with the driving 4/4-3/4, (or is it 7/4?), time pattern. With most pop rigidly confined to the same old formula, such exotic innovation is rare. As a boy, Steeleye Span’s use of modes captivated me, an interest that hasn’t diminished as I now find myself mesmerized by medieval rock groups such as In Extremo and of course, Korean traditional music is modal.  And there are many other phenomenal popular song writers/performers who have shaped the sound of history, though our choices in this matter are personal: Abba, Queen, the Beatles, Meatloaf to name of few of my favourites.




My interest in traditional Korean music (국악) derives from my attraction to difference, and specifically to the different world of sound created by tonality, timbre, rhythm,  instrument as well as visual differences. l would like to include my interest in lyrics but unfortunately my Korean is not good enough to appreciate them without the aid of a translation. This situation is not much different faced with opera and as I write I am listening to Verdi’s, Rigoletto; having no idea what the plot is about the singers become instruments and I gleam a sense of an emotion without knowing the specifics. This is not an ideal situation but I don’t think too different to how we sometimes listen to a great deal of pop music where the lyrics aren’t really that important or are vacuous and aren’t really needed to convey a sense of meaning.

Korean pansori contains all the elements to engage my interest and whenever I hear performances I am compelled to stop and listen. What’s it about? I haven’t a clue and it’s even difficult to sense the emotional content! Nevertheless, it’s captivating and as alien to my ear and its cultural conditioning, as it could possibly get.

Pansori is basically a vocal line accompanied by a single drum and performances are epic in proportion, usually taking several hours or more, to perform. The texts are satires and love stories, known as madang (마당) which alternate between spoken dialogue and song.  Popular in the 18th century, only five of the original 12 now survive: Heungbuga, Shimcheongga, Chunhyangga, Jyeokbyeoga and Sugunga. The singer carries a fan which is used to emphasize emotions and when opened, to mark changes of scene.

I recently came across an excellent Korean documentary, with translation following the lives of two boy pansori singers as they trained for an important competition. The program unveils many of the mysteries of this strange form of Korean art and better, provides snippets of song with accompanying translation – this has subsequently deepened my interest in pansori. Like many things Korean, it has only been in the last few years that reliable information has appeared on the internet but I still have not been able to find examples of madang with English translations. The documentary is disturbing in places as one of the boys has a well-meaning, but drunken father who frequently beats the boy.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the series of 10 clips I originally linked to here have been removed from Youtube but different clips have been added and are provided below. These new clips provide a deeper insight into madang in translation than did the previous clips.

The DVD of the documentary is also available for purchase.

Lineage of the Voice

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.
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3 Responses

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  1. wetcasements said, on February 10, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Reblogged this on Wet Casements and commented:
    A true musician expounding on the true beauty of Korean music, and the nature of “atonality” to boot.

  2. wetcasements said, on February 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Incredible post.

    I’ve spent more time trying to grok Korean literature than I have its music, but pansori tends to be very cool stuff indeed.

    Looking forward to checking out this documentary when I get a chance but also, Captain Beefheart. RIP Don van Vliet. I love how he started out as a potential “pop star” and pretty much mind-fucked the British and American music scenes forever, amen.

    I mean c’mon, “Safe As Milk” is one of the best jokes in the English language ever.

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on February 11, 2012 at 2:07 am

      I spent almost 45 minutes responding to a post on your site, not just as part of the obligatory ‘circle jerk’ but because the post was interesting. I’ve visited your site several times and others but can’t seem to leave comments. It’s been a constant problem for several years. Thanks for yet another visit.


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