Spirit Fire

A Composer's Travel Journal (7)

- Spirit Fire -

Tomorrow I'm leaving Chonju, returning to Seoul for a few days to hear an 8-hour-long concert of pansori. For nine days now I've been so immersed in the world of pansori that I even hear pansori coming from the silence. However, I'm under no illusion that I'll ever become a pansori singer and I'm not here hoping to preserve and protect traditional music by learning to sing. But, I'm thinking even more now about court music and folk music, traditional music and new music, even about "educated" and "uneducated" people, and life and death.

I've been re-reading Myung-hee Choi's 10 volume novel "Spirit Fire", preparing to write an opera based on this novel that will be performed in Seoul during the 2003 - 2004 season. The ensemble of musicians will be made up of a mixed choir of 12 singers, 1 pansori singer, and 7 instrumentalists - taegeum/tanso/harmonica, piri/saenghwang/harmonica, haegeum, sanjo ajaeng/court ajaeng, sanjo kayageum/court kayageum, sanjo komungo/court komungo, and percussion. These 7 instrumentalists will also sing.

My first task is to write a libretto. As the opera will be only 80 minutes long, it's not easy for me, at this point, to imagine how I will arrange the events I've chosen from the novel as a coherent whole. I'm thinking of writing music for 12 scenes from the book. These scenes will not be connected by any of the traditional theatrical devices, such as the use of a narration. So I'm looking for a new kind of continuity, and will have to depend, at least partly, on the listener's imagination. I don't want to simply present a series of chronologically arranged events but, at the same time, I don't want to resort to any kind of symbolism. I'm also interested in the possibility of presenting these scenes with a minimal setup of scenery and lighting.

Choi's novel, which took her 17 years to write, follow the lives of 3 jongbu (the oldest daughter-in-law) of successive generations of a yangban family. Yangban were accorded the highest status at the time of the Yi Dynasty, and these three women make every effort to preserve the traditional of such a family through the years of Japanese occupation (1910 - 1945) and the introduction of western culture and values. Choi writes not only about the yangban, but also about the choenmin, who occupied the lowest place in society. The resentment, frustration and hatred resulting from the often secret and forbidden interactions between these two parts of society and the changing ambitions of different generations are the subject of the novel. Many members of the younger generation are strongly attracted to things western and Japanese. The yangban struggle to maintain their dignity and position in society despite their human frailty and the turbulence of historical events, while the choenmin appear less sophisticated and detached, but able to act more freely as humans.

When I read this novel for the first time, I found myself inadvertently singing parts of it in a quasi-pansori style. The rhythmic patterns, stresses and intonation of pansori are closely linked with the dialect of Cholla province and pansori speaks with particular directness to the people of this region. Yesterday, I sat through a day-long national pansori competition that takes annually. No one in the audience remained quietly and politely in their seat. Instead, everyone walked around the hall, talked loudly, drummed the traditional rhythms in their lap or on the armrests of their seat. There was a lot of shouting directed at the performers, in hopes of encouraging and exciting them, and some people even smoked in the hall! It couldn't have been more different from western concerts, or even from concerts in Seoul or Kyoto.

What is tradition? What is status in society? What is the artist's place within society? What is common between society's different groups? When, and how, is it possible to move toward these common areas? It's clear that I can never really be a part of the world of these eminent traditional musicians. And I'm not worried that I find myself a great distance from the world of the "Korean" composer. In fact, through my contact with this traditional music, I feel more and more liberated from it.

A few days ago, I returned from the funeral of a good friend's mother. Traveling through this world, we invent and play music, and find silence at the end of the journey.

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