On Thursday I spent an hour attempting to learn three phrases that take exactly 29 seconds to sing.
Two weeks into my residency, it was my fifth pansori lesson with Oh Minah. In my first week I learned a new folk song, 강강술래 (Gang Gang Sullae), and started more detailed work on the funeral song from 심청가 (Shimcheongga) which I had started learning in 2009. This is the piece that featured in early developments of Deluge, with a greatly deconstructed version currently incorporated in that work’s final scene.
Minah speaks very little English, and even though my Korean comprehension is pretty good, my spoken Korean is woeful. We had, in our first week together, coerced my older sister (and collaborator) Park Younghee to join us at the end of one of my lessons so that we could have a bit of a discussion about what it was I was trying to get out of my time at The National Changgeuk Company, and explain the work that Younghee and I have been doing over the four or so years since I had last seen Minah.
In this second week, my schedule has settled into arriving 90 minutes early to my class to practice by myself in Oh Minah’s personal rehearsal studio, wedged among about 30 other studios nestled between the National Theater and Namsan Park. Then, after my lesson I eat with Minah in the cafeteria before she goes to rehearsal and I sit for a few more hours in the studio singing my heart out and trying not to be too self conscious (the rehearsal rooms are soundproofed, but I can still hear the other actors singing, and at the end of the hall, musicians practicing a range of Korean instruments).
Being self conscious has been one of the reasons that I haven’t practiced a whole lot over the last few years. Because pansori is loud. Like, heavy metal screamo loud. And there are so many complexities of tone and ornamentation that I often fail to hear, let alone reproduce. But there is actually no opportunity or reason for me to not practice while I am here. I have the use of the rehearsal room, and although Minah is lovely, there is nothing quite like the exquisite feeling of shame induced by her palpable disappointment that I can never seem to get on top of that one four note phrase. Or is it six notes? Two with a set of microtonal scoops?
In my first week here, Minah had a middle school student from Daegu (a city in the south) staying with her for two weeks. My lessons came directly after hers and one day Minah made her perform the piece she had been working on for me. The noise that came out of this shy little 12-year-old girl was incredible, but a few well placed criticisms from Minah afterward was enough for her to burst into tears and promise to sing the piece 100 times in a row (I am sure this was not to be taken literally).
But, back to this week. On Thursday I had come armed with my laptop so that I could show Minah videos of Deluge. She was very quick to tell me that she had been one of Younghee’s teachers and that she was very proud of her. Then she asked me if I knew of Pina Bausch. I assured her that I did and that she was one of my influences. She went on to tell me that she hoped that I could become a second Pina, and that one of the members of the Tanzteater Wuppertal is a good friend of hers – they have together created an interpretation of 아리랑 (Arirang – the ubiquitous Korean folk song). This obviously got me rather exited. Then, Mina told me that although she liked my video, that she felt it is all a bit too slow.
I was given the choice between two new pieces of Shimcheongga repertoire to learn – both set at a terrifyingly lightening pace. The peice I chose is set in the Jajinmori rhythm, one of the fastest in pansori. It describes Shimcheong’s blind father looking for her (you can hear the “dodum dodum dodum” tapping of his cane) and realising that she has jumped into Indangsu. You also hear Shimcheong yelling for help “Aigo, Saram sallyeo!” as she is sucked under the water.
And this is how I came to spend a lot of time on a very short piece. It is now Monday, and I have made it to the 50 second mark. I think that I at least have the timing, the lyrics, and the melody down pat. But there is so much more to pansori than that. A lifetime of training, learning, memorising, breaking, and rebuilding the voice.
I’ll have to be happy with just scratching the surface.
Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowships are an initiative of Brisbane City Council. This project is supported by Asialink and Arts Queensland.