Cholla Province

A Composer's Travel Journal (6)

- Cholla Province -

I arrived at Incheon Airport yesterday morning at about 5:30 and, needing a few adaptors for my laptop computer, I hung around in Seoul for a few hours, waiting for the shops to open. Even though things in the city are so westernized, I noticed how small and individual everything still looked to me. Not only man-made things, but also nature, seems to exist on a smaller scale here: rounded, not very spectacular-looking hills, narrow, winding streams filled with small pebbles. I found a tiny corner shop run by a young couple. They sell and repair anything electronic. When I paid for the things I'd bought, the woman began to nag me about carrying my wallet in the inside pocket of my purse. She couldn't believe that I just casually dropped it into the outer pocket. Even if you've just met for the first time, a Korean gets down to business with personal matters!

I took the bus to Chonju in Cholla province and found my Pansori teacher's house in one of the city's residential neighborhoods. I was frankly a little disappointed that she was staying at this place rather than at her house in the countryside. As I entered her livingroom, I noticed that the TV was on, and was surprised to see that the woman singing on the show was the mother of an ajaeng player that I'd studied with a few years ago. We exchanged very brief, matter-of-fact greetings, and sat down to watch TV in silence.

It was a broadcast of a nationwide puk contest taking place in Chonju. Another student joined us and, after a while, the teacher abruptly told this student that it was time for a lesson. I sat, watching and listening, my mind wandering to the shower I'd love to take and to the bed I imagined collapsing into. One more student. I was really exhausted from the long ride, the bus trips and the walk to her house. Then the teacher began to sing a melody I recognized, "Sarangga", from the Pansori repertoire "Chunhyangga". I was shocked when she addressed me, asking me to sing it after her. She offered no explanation, and then yelled at me when I couldn't copy her exactly enough. Without giving me time to think or analyze what I needed to do, she told me to sing again. So I kept on singing wrong notes, over and over until, suddenly, it came out correctly. She said nothing. We continued.

Early this morning, in a light rain, she asked me to take a walk with her. For a long time we walked in silence. Then, as we rounded a corner, she sang the beginning of yesterday's song, and told me to sing after herů

I've been at my teacher's house for about 24 hours. I've had three lessons myself, and sat through the lessons of six of her other students. I've heard her singing by herself after returning from the funeral of a friend, unsure whether this was her mourning or her practicing. Between my lessons, I practiced what she'd taught me. I'm sure that this month filled with Namdo music (traditional music from the south) will change my own music.

The first half of my life was spent in Korea, the second half (to this point) in the States. When I lived in Korea, I was curious about American culture, and I'm glad now that I've had a taste of it. It's good to know something of Americans like John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow and Agnes Martin. I began to discover Asian music while living in America, and developed an ability to appreciate European culture in a personal and critical way, rather than just accepting it as something "universal" and superior.

Recently, I've traveled quite a bit and seen a side of these cultures that has nothing to do with art. In America, the cities and towns, small or large, east or west, all look much like each other - the same supermarkets, the same fast food joints and coffee shops. It's almost as if, with few exceptions, they'd all been built by the same person, at the same time. On the other hand, in Korea, there's such diversity among people who appear, on surface, to be so similar! Each region has its own dialect (I don't quite understand everything my Pansori teacher says to me...), its own cuisine, its own unique music. I'm frustrated that so much of the music written today in Korea seems to have been swallowed up by the big river of mainstream western culture. It's difficult to escape the flood.

In the last twenty years, I've returned many times to Korea. At first, I came, wanting to remind myself of Korean life and culture. Recently, I've returned, feeling a more focused need to study and learn, in order to pull myself away from the culture. Each time, I return to immerse myself in a different stream of Korean traditional music. A big river will take you, quite clearly, to the big city that you want to reach. I prefer to follow a small winding stream that takes you to a little-known town, a forgotten village.

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