Three women bow in prayer before three ropes of suspended white cloth on a stage cast in mist. When the music begins, they shake and tug at the cloths to undo knots that symbolize a soul entangled by bitterness and regret. A fourth woman, crouched behind the others, is the shaman who leads the Ssitkim gut, a traditional Korean cleansing ritual for ensuring a soul’s passage to the afterlife by purging this bitter disquiet known as haan. Sue Yeon Park, who is President of The Korean Traditional Performing Arts Association of New York and a 2008 NEA Heritage Fellow, choreographed excerpts from the ritual and danced the role of the shaman. Ms. Park originally created the choreography in 2001 for a concert at Hunter College following September 11th.
Korean shamans traditionally performed the Ssitkim gut ceremony when a person or group perished in the hands of another or by the forces of nature rather than from old age. Off the southwest coast of Korea on Jindo Island, for instance, where the regional Ssitkim gut has been designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property by the government, it was not uncommon for fishermen to journey out to sea without completing the return voyage home. Jindo shamans believed that the souls of those who perished at sea first had to be released from the water in order to enter the afterlife. Once drawn out, the Ssitkim gut ceremonially cleansed the soul of unresolved burdens and desires, in part by providing the living an opportunity to communicate messages that would relieve the haan of the departed. Today in Korea, the ritual is regularly staged as a concert piece, but some still practice it on the eve of burial as a solemn rite that lasts until daybreak.
Ms. Park based her beautiful four-part choreography on the Jindo version of the ritual. The first tableau of undoing knots, Kopuri, was followed by Chijon chum, a dance of shredded paper to invite the ancestral spirits and sweep clean the path to the afterlife. The shaman wields sheaves of ornately cut paper streamers that elongate the arms like a winged creature, drawing attention to the principal movements from the shoulders. The third tableau, Kiltakkum, reveals the path to heaven, represented by a long white sheet held parallel to the stage by the dancers. The dramatic high point occurs when the shaman walks through the cloth and tears it in half with her body, symbolizing both the opening of the path to the afterlife and the destruction of the return path to the world.
At the conclusion of the ritual, ceremonial effigies are customarily burned, but Ms. Park closed her staging with Salpuri chum, a solo dance of exorcism that is not part of the Ssitkim gut but often performed at the end of shamanic rituals to cast out lingering spirits that cling to the soul. Although Ms. Park specializes in the Salpuri solo dance, she ceded the stage to seven women of different generations for the concluding dance. The Salpuri dancer moves in duet with a white silk scarf that is grasped close to the body, unfurled through the air in spirals, or spread across the arms like an offering. The scarf represents the soul, but it also accentuates the principles of Salpuri, the movements of which stem from interior impulses rather than outward poses and gestures. The fabric channels the twitches and shrugs of the arms that contrast the body’s overall grace of movement. The final eradication of spirits occurs when the music shifts to a faster rhythmic mode midway into the Salpuri — a temporal arc typical of much Korean ritual music and the genres derived from it. The recording that accompanied each tableau featured the shaman’s florid, guttural voice (the Jindo shaman is traditionally a hereditary female who sings and dances the ceremony), which was supported by a sinawi ensemble (the improvisational music of shaman rituals) that consisted of janggo (double-headed drum), buk (barrel drum), jing (handheld gong), piri (bamboo oboe), daegeum (bamboo membrane flute), gayageum (12-string plucked zither), ajaeng (bowed zither), and haegeum (bowed 2-string fiddle).
While the Ssitkim gut poetically distilled the nature of haan, the English language has no adequate translation for this bitterness that accrues from life’s hardships and injustices. In the Korean worldview, haan is a painful sentiment that one holds inside, not for avenging past wrongs but, ideally, for cultivating an inner strength that will enable a person to endure, understand, and even transcend worldly strife. The internalized sorrow of haan has been compared to its Sino-Korean ideograph, evocative of a tree with roots hidden from view but running deep into the earth, evolving, and fortifying the tree with support from below. Haan indeed runs deep in the blood of Koreans (for some, it constitutes the essence of Korean identity), but modern Korean society has also viewed it as an archaism associated with shamanistic belief thousands of years old. Ultimately, however, Korea’s long history of political subjugation to foreign imperialists has obviated the relegation of haan to the pre-modern past. Instead of signifying a pathos that prevents one from letting go of the past, haan has recently re-emerged in nationalistic discourse as a living cultural concept signifying Korean resilience, demonstrated especially by South Korea’s dynamic economic, political, and cultural recovery following the last century’s Japanese occupation.
Haan has always been fundamental to the expressive vocabulary of Korean traditional music and dance because of their derivations from shamanic ritual. Accessing this aesthetic world is part of the mission of KTPAA, which Ms. Park established in 1986 to preserve, disseminate, and cultivate Korea’s unique performing arts. The studio offers individual and ensemble instruction in dance, percussion, folk singing, haegeum, daegeum, and gayageum (the studio recently acquired over twenty new instruments of each of the latter three). Ji-Young Park, who danced in the Ssitkim gut, directs KTPAA’s dance program alongside Ms. Park and skillfully leads weekly ensemble rehearsals for students as young as six years old who travel from as far as Rutgers University. The annual concert at Symphony Space, now in its 16th year, best reflects KTPAA’s activities by bringing together students and instructors in performance. The organization strives to present Korea’s traditional forms to modern audiences without the compromises of the western concert stage, but a number of genres that were historically developed for the modern stage remain part of the organization’s training repertory. These were included in the night’s program — buchae chum (fan dance), samgo mu (standing drum dance), janggo chum (hourglass drum dance), and pansori — albeit alongside less popularized forms such as the Ssitkim gut and the haegeum repertory. Concerts of traditional Korean music and dance often shy away from solo instrumental works or ritual music in their long forms, and typically favor folk music (minsogak) over courtly music (chongak), but if this year’s audience of patrons, scholars, and family and friends was any indicator, the public comes more educated and receptive than ever to widening their knowledge of traditional forms from Korea. KTPAA recently moved to a sizable midtown studio in Koreatown that will allow for studio concerts in their new “Korean Performing Arts Center” as well as open workshops and group lessons. The alternate performance venue will surely offer the public opportunities to hear more works from specialized genres.
The concert this year was entitled “Voice of Korea.” The theme was metaphoric since five of the seven selections on the ninety-minute program featured percussion and dance, leaving one’s ears ringing with the pulsating rhythmic patterns of Korea. All the more reason why the brief vocal selection by Junghee Oh made a lasting impression, however. Accompanied by the buk barrel drum, Ms. Oh, who teaches gayageum and voice at KTPAA, performed the “Sarang-ga” (“Love Song”) aria from the pansori narrative Chunhyang, which tells the story of two socially incompatible lovers. Pansori is sometimes described as one-person opera because the soloist undertakes all character roles with only a fan or handkerchief for dramatic effect. When pansori emerged in the 18th century, at least a dozen oral narratives existed, but today only five are performed based on 19th-century transcriptions. Ms. Oh fully inhabited the role of storyteller (kwangdae) with the charisma required to engage her audience, but the five-minute selection was all too brief and one wished for more of this bold, soulful, and virtuosic voice of Korea. At the end of the concert, Ms. Oh led the performers in singing Jindo’s regional version of the popular “Arirang” folksong as they took their bows. It has been nearly two decades since Im Kwon-taek’s 1993 film sensation Sopyonje, which introduced the world to the musical voice of Korea with the story of a young girl in 1960s Korea who suffers great pains to achieve the haan required for pansori, based on the 1978 novel Namdo saram (Southerners) set in the southwestern Jeolla province where pansori and other traditional music and dance originated. That voice, even in the night’s brief excerpt, remains a powerful sound.
The preservation and revival of Korea’s traditional art forms, especially those transmitted by oral tradition, is largely the result of Korea’s 1962 Cultural Properties Protection Act, which officially recognized and protected the country’s art forms and their master practitioners. Korea was one of the first countries among United Nations member states to install such a system, and since that time has identified approximately 120 cultural properties, of which several are internationally recognized by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity proclamations, including pansori and the annual Confucian ancestor ritual at Jongmyo shrine. Korea also recognizes “Living National Treasures” who are master practitioners of these properties, as well as “holders” who are successors to Living National Treasures. Ms. Park, for example, is a yisuja, which designates her mastery at the highest level for both Intangible Cultural Property No. 27: Seungmu (Buddhist ritual dance) and Intangible Cultural Property No. 97: Salpuri chum (Shaman ritual dance of exorcism), a title reflecting her complete command of the repertory and requisite duration of study with a master, which in her case was Living National Treasure Yi Mae-bang. Similarly, Ms. Oh is yisuja for Intangible Cultural Property No. 23: Gayageum sanjo-Gayageum byeongchang (solo zither performance-zither with song), having studied with Living National Treasure of pansori and gayageum An Suk Son, whose voice is heard at the end of Sopyonje when the protagonist attains the voice of pansori.
In this context, KTPAA is an extension of Korea’s postwar efforts toward preserving artistic traditions and educating future generations. KTPAA’s activities indeed reach far beyond the stage. For the last five years, it has led an annual summer workshop at The National Center for Korean Namdo Performing Arts on Jindo Island to foster intercultural dialogue between native Koreans and Korean-Americans, especially those adopted into non-Korean families. In August, over 25 Korean-Americans learned music and dance shoulder to shoulder with their peers in Korea, and reciprocated the cultural exchange by teaching them English for a portion of each day. At the end of the two-week program, students performed Udo pan gut, a ritual harvest dance with percussion akin to the popular pungmulnori (farmer’s band music). The work was reprised for the Symphony Space finale. Before the ensemble took the stage with handheld and shoulder-slung drums and gongs led by the piercing double-reed taepyeongso, the audience was shown Korean television coverage of the workshop, and the testimonies voiced by American students and parents poignantly conveyed the community impact of KTPAA locally and internationally.
We await next year’s annual concert to hear more such voices of Korea, and while past KTPAA programs have featured instrumental genres such as sanjo (improvisational music for solo instrument) as well as fusion-style renditions of traditional works, perhaps this year’s concert can be seen in its larger context, for October was a remarkable month for Korean music. CUNY Graduate Center held its second annual New York Sanjo Festival and Symposium with masters from Korea performing sanjo and rarely heard sinawi in a conference that resident KTPAA ethnomusicologist-composer Dr. Ju-Yong Ha co-organized with Professor Stephen Blum; and Haverford College hosted the Korean Music Then and Now festival featuring pansori and gayageum as well as a new work for gayageum ensemble by American composer Christopher Shultis. These are auspicious signs for forthcoming seasons of Korean music.