Monday, September 1, 2014

P'ansori: Korea's Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music

This was another early favorite when world music was being explored back in the very early 1990s and one of the main reasons was the staggering vocal performance by Kim So-hee (born Kim Sun-Ok in 1917), who began, at seven years old, her studies in the ancient art of p'ansori

This is the theatrical performance of one of five epic tales from Korean folk history that involve using the voice for all elements of the performance, including every character, and without scenery, lights, costumes and other elements of Western theater, with the sole exception of a pook (barrel drum) accompanist. 

The performance of a p'ansori is not only extraordinarily demanding, but can take up to eight hours.  Kim So-hee was able to stage a dazzling one at the age of 19 and eventually was given the appellation of an "intangible national treasure," a status bestowed on two of the three instrumentalists, Kim, Yoon-duk on the pook and kuhmoongo, a large six-string zither similar to the Japanese koto, and Chi, Young-hee, who performs on the p'iri, an oboe-like bamboo reed, the haegeum, a violin with two strings of silk that is viewed as a wind instrument because of its range and timbre, and the changgo, a drum shaped like an hour-glass.

The album is bookended by portions of two p'ansori pieces and these are tour-de-forces for Kim's abilities and intensity in singing, recitation and other vocalizing.  This may sound strange, but, in the early 1990s, this blogger was listening to a lot of hip-hop and marveling at the rhythmic variety and invention of many a rapper, but, in her own way (perhaps!) Kim displays an array of vocal techniques and role-playing that was more astonishing.  Again, maybe the comparisons are totally unfounded, but that's what came to mind listening to this album earlier today.

As for the instrumentals, the two aforementioned players, along with Sung, Keum-yun, on changgo and kayageum, a smaller twelve-string zither, perform several pieces, highlighting the p'iri, kayageum, haegeum, and kuhmoongo with accompaniment on the changgo.  Some of these instruments date back nearly 1,500 years and the performances are dazzling, with a variety of emotive expressiveness, rhythms and technical sophistication that make for highly enjoyable listening.

The recording was made in 1972 for the amazing Nonesuch Explorer series when the quartet toured the United States and, with so many Koreans living in the country forty-plus years later, there must be occasional performances of this traditional music in some areas.  It would be a great treat to be able to see a concert--although Kim So-hee died in 1995.  So, hopefully, there are others carrying on these traditions and offering them to audiences here in the U.S.

Meantime, this is an album to savor over and over again and to enjoy ancient music that should appeal to adventurous modern listeners.

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