Pansori – Ahn Sook-Sun at the Cadogan Hall in London on Friday 21 June 2013

Based on my current understanding of the format of this event, I’d be saying this is a “must see” event for anyone interested in different ways of performing and/or in different vocal techniques even if the artist wasn’t Ahn Sook-sun:
* In my experience good Pansori performers are very very good performers.
* Ahn Sook-sun is a very good Pansori performer, in fact one of the greatest performers today in any art form.

It isn’t just me that considers Pansori is one of the truly great art forms of the world: 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”

And 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 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.”

From the K-music brochure:
Heungboga, which will be performed at the Cadogan Hall, is largely comic in character, and will be surtitled live for English audiences. This concert also includes instrumental sanjo pieces for solo instrument and percussion.

My current understanding is that this event will have extracts from the Pansori story Heungboga performed in the traditional style with just the storyteller/singer (with a fan) and a drummer, which should give people an excellent introduction to traditional Pansori.

The UK audience which appreciates Pansori seems to have quite a wide demographic: last Friday I recommended this event to an improvising singer, and she said she was going to it because she’d had an email from a well known experimental musician!


The “Main text” below is based on my current understanding set out just above. However it is not entirely clear from the information on these websites
whether a substantial part of the event will be traditional Pansori (although that is implied), or whether traditional Pansori will only be a small part of this event.

If the latter then I am a bit reluctant to say it will be the “must goto” event in London of 2013 (because I think that a “traditional” Pansori performance is the best to get a really good appreciation of Pansori), but I would still very strongly recommend this event because Ahn Sook-sun is a very very very good performer, and I think it unlikely that anyone attuned to Pansori’s vocal style (perhaps think of Flamenco or Blues as *very* rough reference points for the vocal style) would regret going.

My current undertanding of the format of this event is as set out at the start of this post, but if there are any changes to that I will post updates here and on

Surtitles: According to the brochure there will be live English surtitles. This is good because I think that 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.

Pansori Vocal Style: If you’re not sure if you could appreciate Pansori’s vocal style (some people can’t) then perhaps *very* rough reference points are Flamenco or Blues (or maybe Captain Beefheart on his Safe as Milk album or Tom Waits!). The online trailer for the event here gives a very good (in all meanings!) illustration:
If you have some doubts but the style isn’t totally alien to you, then 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.

***Main text of post***

I’m very strongly advocating this – I can’t guarantee it will be the “must goto” 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.”.

This event is a *must* for anyone interested in different ways of performing and/or in different vocal techniques. (See the *Preface* just above for the context of that *must*.)

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 her 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.

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 here
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 on that webpage 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 Chunyang 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.

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 wasn’t anticipating that I’d dislike it, but I was prepared for the possibility) I would still have been at the final part of the last performance in Edinburgh in case that finally changed my mind.

My actual experience was better than my worst case scenario: 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 the 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: you’ll have your own “usual suspects” for those. [Here is a link to a nice story about Laurel and Hardy behaving like Im Kwon-taek ]

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 add 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) had been at a film festival in America (maybe San Francisco?) and an American experimental film-maker had been talking with Im Kwon-taek and 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.


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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One Response to Pansori – Ahn Sook-Sun at the Cadogan Hall in London on Friday 21 June 2013

  1. Pingback: Preview – Ahn Sook-Sun at the Cadogan Hall: the must-see event of K-Music 2013 | London Korean Links

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