When I first heard pansori music I was struck by the raw emotion of the vocals, the intensity of the rhythm and I was determined to learn more. Pansori is traditional Korean folk music based around vocal storytelling and it has been included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. It is tradition that is centuries old with narrative texts that are often performed by shamans and which includes improvisation.
When I began my research and travelled to Seoul I sought out pansori performances at the National Gugak Center and in Jeonju at the Sori Festival. Here I discovered a rich tradition and a respect for musical culture that was both entertaining and very inspiring.
At the same time, always ready to engage in a game of mystic detective work, I led a psychic dreaming game with some of my dreaming friends worldwide. As I walked to the Han River and visited a defunct coal factory on a hot September day they woke to share imagery from their dreams that fit my walk. The energy of place was very strong.
I shared these uncanny results with my new friend from our mutual dreaming circles, Jeremy Seligson, author of Oriental Birth Dreams, a collection of sacred Korean pre-birth dreams called taemong. He discussed his work with a group of JJ’s friends who were studying at Yonsei University and afterwards we hiked together on on An-San aka Saddle Mountain and the nearby Buddhist temple, Bongwon .
During my many walks in Seoul and Jeonju I stepped around fresh gingko fruit that rose with a pungent aroma round me, like a mix of blue cheese and rotting fruit. Later in Montreal I noticed several gingko trees on streets nearby. It struck me as poignant that such symbols of peace and hope pop up along city streets in cities all over the world.
It has been fascinating to delve into research of this music and other folk genres. So much of the creative process in pansori strikes me as being universal, much like in free jazz, with an emphasis on conveying emotion and energy, call and response and making music in the moment. The themes of the storytelling appeal to me as well, with dramatic tales of family conflicts, filial piety, magical animals and nature.
Last year my friends at a music label in Japan suggested that I sing Canadian folk songs and I took this suggestion to heart, learning a new repertoire of iconic folk songs by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and the Band that they helped me to curate. I loved the Band as a child so it was an opportunity to sing those favourites but the others were new to me as I had been so devoted to jazz from an early age. Now I enjoy the fact that music fans in the East are directing me to discover music from here in the West and that we can straddle East and West musically this way. And this project also made me realize how often labelling music into genres keeps us restricted in our musical expression. It is my way to pay tribute to the country my family settled in.
I recorded these songs over Christmas in our backyard shed with Michel, Reg. JJ/van garden, Theo/beamer! and our friend Alan Vernec, a true Leonard Cohen fan, provided some essential backing vocals.
We aimed for spontaneity over polish, an homage to all the folk/jazz jam sessions of our youth at the Northern Lights Festival Boreal in Sudbury that provided the venue of Reg and my first public performances.
And now back again to the beautiful folk music of South Korea … delving more deeply into the ancient music making process I discovered something akin to free jazz rituals from Sun Ra, to vocal rituals from Sulawesi, that is: a long extended performance and all the discovery and emotion that comes from being committed to that. In the case of Sun Ra, I’ve heard stories of the musicians improvising together for days at a time. In this spirit Michel and I performed a 12 hour music session in the South of France with Barre Phillips at a music center he was leading there. In Toraja funeral rites include singing over three or more days.
This is how we have workshopped what I’ve been composing during my research, with a marathon of performing, a collection of new scores, instruments and sounds and a big block of time dedicated to musical expression.
We took over our whole house, turning it into a recording studio, discovered van garden’s deft skill at audio recording and created gingko-infused poetic portraits. The storytelling is of the moment, spinning tales from our everyday, our village, and punctuating this expression with rhythmic ideas and forward propelling motion. Stay tuned to find out when some of this music will be available for listening!
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec for the research and workshop component of this project.