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[Eye interview] Pansori stars needed to popularize the genre
Intangible Cultural Property title holder Ahn Sook-seon pushes the boundaries of the traditional epic narrative formBy Korea Herald
Published : March 10, 2017 - 16:40
She has a photographic memory when it comes to streets, but she can’t remember restaurant names, she confessed. “And all the lines I need to remember,” she said with a sigh, adding that with age it is getting increasingly difficult to remember all the words to the songs in her repertoire.
At 77, Ahn is cautious about straining her vocal cords and speaks softly. Her secret to maintaining her voice is covering her mouth and nose with a scarf when outside and speaking as little as possible, she said.
Pansori came to Ahn naturally. Several members on her mother’s side of the family were well-known Korean traditional music artists. At barely 10 years old, Ahn began lessons and she was soon known as a child prodigy and invited to perform at the homes of the wealthy and powerful, accompanied by much older musicians. “There were no stages or concert halls back then. So we sang at private homes,” she said.
Although she became a pansori star at a young age, it wasn’t until she joined the National Theater of Korea at the age of 30 that she began to really study pansori. “I studied by watching masters. It was then that it hit me that pansori was a great art form,” she said.
The narrative of five popular pansori pieces deal with duties, Ahn explained, “Chunghyangga” is concerned with love between men and women and chastity, “Heungboga” with brotherly love, “Shimcheongga” with filial piety and “Sugungga” with obedience to rules, while “Jeokbyeokga” is based on the Chinese classic “Records of the Three Kingdoms.”
“There is a lot of humor in pansori narratives but there is also a great storyline behind each pansori, making them also great literary pieces,” Ahn said.
Each pansori, sung in its entirety, is an epic piece. For Ahn, it takes six to seven hours to complete the entire “Chunhyangga.” “It will vary depending on whether the singer sings it fast or slow,” she said, explaining that there are no set rules on the pace of the music.
Pansori is sung by a lone singer accompanied by buk, a percussion instrument. The singer narrates in a dramatic fashion and sings in a dynamic range -- high, low, clear and husky -- and also performs physical movements. When singing and narrating at a furious pace, the pansori singer may even sound like a rapper. The audience are free to join in by vocally expressing their appreciation during the performance.
“Performances are never the same,” said Ahn, pointing out the improvisational nature of pansori. “Some days I focus on the drama, some days the music takes over, some days I focus on virtuosity,” she said.
Ahn has come a long way since the days in Namwon, South Jeolla Province, where she sang as a youngster. In her prolific career, she has performed not only in Korea but also at the Avignon Festival and the Edinburgh Festival as well as in numerous foreign cities. Her repertoire covers all of the five popular pansori pieces -- “Chunhyangga,” “Simcheongga,” “Heungboga,” ”Sugungga” and “Jeokbyeokga.” A total of 12 panasori pieces exist but today only these five pieces are performed regularly.
At an age when she can rest on her laurels, Ahn continues to push herself, expanding the boundaries of traditional pansori. Last month, Ahn performed “Three Sarangga for Pansori, Cello, Piano and Buk,” a modern reinterpretation of “Sarangga” from “Chunghyangga,” at the PyeongChang Winter Music Festival. Joining her on stage were cellist Chung Myung-hwa, pianist Son Yeol-eum and buk player Jun Kye-youl.
It was her third time performing the piece and Ahn said she learned something new each time. She has come to realize that Western music and traditional Korean music have very different norms of performance. For example, when the score calls for her to sing, she started singing without paying much heed to the other performers on the stage. After a couple of performances Ahn realized that she must wait for a few seconds after the musician who preceded her has completed his or her part. “I now know that musicians playing together share the same breath,” she said.
She remains open to collaboration with other art forms and is deeply involved in changgeuk, a performance form that combines the theater of opera and music of pansori.
In 1988 after the Seoul Olympics, Ahn toured Europe for the first time, performing “Chunhyangga” in 12 cities in seven countries. Before her first performance in Sweden, all kinds of thoughts crossed her mind. “I worried that people would walk out because they didn’t understand. I worried that people might not show up as it was very cold,” she said.
All that worrying was for nothing. She recalled a TV interview in which a man in the audience, sitting in a wheelchair, said that he could understand what was being expressed just by listening to her voice.
While Ahn supports attempts that are being made to modernize pansori, she thinks that pansori in its original form should be maintained and promoted. For this to happen, a dedicated space is crucial. “There should be a small theater for regular pansori concerts catering to pansori fans,” she said. House concerts are also a possibility -- something she has tried in her own home but abandoned after neighbors complained about the “noise.”
Ahn would like to see more people enjoy pansori, a genre which is today almost exclusively appreciated by the cognoscenti. “We need stars too,” she said, noting that young people have “idols” and there is no reason why there can’t be a pansori idol. “We need to see many high-caliber pansori singers who enjoy a popular following,” she said.
By Kim Hoo-ran (email@example.com)
Articles by Korea Herald
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