P'ansori: Park's perfect match

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

As a middle school and high school student in Korea, in the 1960s, Dr. Chan E. Park and her classmates were taught the Western classical scale. Park could sing, but she was embarassed by her inability to hit falsetto notes.

"I was the only one in school who had that kind of very strange problem," Park said.

And so she silently stewed, but stil sang, performing in English-American musicals and accompanying her folkie friends during the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s. After college, in 1974, she "stumbled into" p'ansori - an ancient Korean narrative voice tradition separate from the Western classical tradition.

P'ansori was, and still is, nearly obsolete outside of academia. But the style of singing - raw, sometimes dissonant, an expression of the body and thus dependent on the performer - can be cathartic. Park knew it was a good match for her voice.

"It was something different, and something nobody with my background did," Park said. "It was kind of a very nice little secret, a venture that I could really enjoy and grow with. It was just that kind of luxurious curiosity that drew me to it."

Now living in Columbus, Ohio, where she's the associate professor of Korean language, literature and performance studies at Ohio State, Park will give three presentations in p'ansori singing and traditional Korean music during the Second Annual UAS and Juneau World Affairs Council Pacific Rim Forum, Tuesday, March 30-Saturday, April 3.

Park will demonstrate Korean music and song at noon Wednesday, March 31, at the State Office Building. She will give a lecture, "East Asia and the Korean Peninsula," from 1:30-4 p.m. Saturday, April 3, at the Egan Lecture Hall, room 112 on the UAS campus. And she will sing p'ansori and play traditional drum with accompaniment from Jocelyn Clark (kayagum zither) during a CrossSound concert, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 1, at Northern Light United Church. The state building show and the lecture are free. The concert costs $10 for students, $15 for seniors.

"Korean studies, in general in America, is severely under-represented in America," Park said. "It's put inside the context of East Asian studies, so there's Chinese and Japanese studies, and Korea is a poor cousin. It's there, but as a decoration. Of course, Korean studies is much more fortunate in comparison to some of the other studies, such as Vietnamese and Phillipine, that are totally silenced."

"Humanities as a whole tends to pick up the regions and cultures that are somehow tied to economic and political gains, which is really a pathetic situation," Park said. "I believe humanities is a discipline where we're supposed to teach how not to do that. We're suppoed to educate, so that individuals get a better balance."

Park came to America to work on her masters in theater after graduating from college in Seoul. She began studying Asian theater and realized that Korean theater was very rare in the United States. That brought her back to p'ansori, an art she feels "really represents Korea."

Korean society is known today for its hyper-modernization. Park's upbringing, too, was heavily Westernized. P'ansori is not popular as a practiced art form, but has come to vogue in preservation and educational circles.

"It's become kind of a cultural treasure preserved from extinction," Park said. "It's kind of a folk curiosity."

"Modern Koreans have been so out of touch with their cultural roots," she saids. "P'ansori kind of brings them back in touch with their cultural roots, how their ancestors lived, what Korea was like, the sights and sounds. It makes them laugh, makes them cry."

P'ansori used to be a mostly rural tradition, when "folklore was more of a living lore," Park said. P'ansori singers, and performing artists in general, were treated as outcasts in Confucian society, which came into being in the late-14th century. The social hierarchal arrangement placed performers a step below peasants, and two steps below farmers.

"It's not like the people in the aristocratic class didn't practice any art," Park said. "But they were more into high art, like calligraphy or writing poetry. Performance was considered a very low and vulgar activity."

Long before Confucianism became the standard, the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. -668 A.D.) and Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935 A.D.) celebrated performance. Aristocratic youth often sang and danced as part of their cultivation to become the leaders of society.

The p'ansori style of singing uses different muscles and parts of the face. In Western classical signing, the nasal chamber is used as a resonating chamber. In p'ansori, instead of elevating and enlarging the nasal chamber, you do the opposite. When she began singing as an apprentice, Park would often lose her voice. Now, she must sing consistently to maintain the strength of her chords.

"It's your real voice, that comes out of your gut," Park said. "It's the kind of voice when a baby is newly born. They don't cry with a falsetto voice. The cry is an expression of their existence in the whole body, and p'ansori is very often like that. It really reflects your whole body's strengths and your physical and mental strength. You push it out, and push it out, and see how much you have."

At the CrossSound show, Park will sing the traditional Korean tale of Shim Chong, a loyal daughter who sacrifices her life for her father and later resurrects. The story is still sung during shaman rituals in coastal villages. The tale begins as the blind father pledges a large sum of rice to a Buddhist temple to satisfy monks who promised to grant him sight. His family can not afford to give away so much rice, so the daughter sacrifices herself when sailors arrive in town looking for a virgin to buy.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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