Londoners have been spoilt by Korean music and performance this year, and it wasn’t just about K-pop. A definite highlight was the enchanting and unique masque music performance from Be-Being (비빙) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Traditional and modern methods fused across nine eclectic sections, each a reinterpretation of a traditional mask play with its own twist distinct style.
The use of masks and traditional instruments instantly references the ancient Korean art form of mask dances. This was one of the first ever modes of entertainment in Korea’s long history, and also served a more spiritual purpose in ritualistic ceremonies. The title “Yi-myun-gong-jak” refers to the workings of theatre and performance, and implies a more modern, meta-textual element.
Be-Being consisted of Seung-hee Lee on vocals using ancient p’ansori methods, Soon-A Park on the gayageum (long zither), Won-Il Na on the piri (cylindrical bamboo oboe), Joon-il Choi on the janggu (double-headed drum), Ji-Yoon Chun on the haegeum (vertical fiddle with two strings) and Hyun-Ho Yun and Dong-Su Kim as physical performers and mask artists. The piece was composed and directed by Young-gyu Jang.
Unlike many traditional Korean productions performed in a western context, there were no subtitles or translations provided. However, the piece evoked extremely vivid feelings, associations and messages. Here’s my act-by-act account:
1: Aniri of the Bongsan Talchum The first section was a charming, melodic and sprightly instrumental motif that set the tone for the whole performance. The music somehow had a film-like quality of being transported to another world. Indeed, the rhythmic chimes would have fit perfectly onto a movie soundtrack (it was only after observing this did I realise that composer Young-gyu Jang had actually provided the soundtracks for Kim Ji-woon films Bittersweet Life and The Good the Bad and the Weird).
2: Saja Chum of the Bongsan Talchum The second act added a visual layer to the performance, with the striking image of Be Being’s lion dance. The lion, which resembled a shaggy dog or sheep, was expertly manoeuvred by two performers much like a pantomime horse. Each movement was precise enough to create a loveable and cute character that interacted with its audience. The music livened to fit with the jovial, fun and jaunty act.
3: Pijori Chum of the Namsadang In direct contrast came another movement piece, this time with a haunting and mysterious tone. As the music mellowed to a melancholic hum, a very different form of visual imagery came into play. Two large screens projected video images of two masked figures performing slow, systematic movement patterns that reminded me of taekwondo. The use of video added a gritty, detached and voyeuristic edge, and posed questions of whether the video was pre-recorded or live feed. Were these unusual actions being performed in the building I was in, as I was watching them? It was chilling to wonder.
4: Pijori 2 This section was magical and fairytale-like. The gayageum, haegeum and percussion created an angelic, pealing sound. It was the most quiet and peaceful part of the performance.
5: Jultagi of the Jain Palgwangdae Visual themes developed as the two performers returned to the stage wearing bold red and blue traditional costumes, with contrasting yellow hats and masks. The bright colours mirrored the slapstick, clowning atmosphere that encompassed this section. Props including a tightrope, a tall hat adorned with flowers and large fans brought colourful decoration and another level of visual delight.
6: Sooyoungyaryu Again, contrast magnified emotion with this simple yet affecting piece. The singing was the focal point as gorgeous, grief-stricken and deep p’ansori verse touched the hearts of the audience, a majority of whom won’t have been able to understand the meaning of the lyrics. The heartbreak and sorrow in the singer’s voice and expressions were more than enough to grip and move us, though.
7: Beodeureun A minor key, prevalence of the piri and a steady pace resulted in an extremely calm and reflective feeling. The absence of the dancers encouraged a further closeness between audience and musicians. This section certainly felt prayer- like, and in ancient times, musical ceremonies as well as mask dances were used in prayer and healing.
8: Geosa Chum of the Bukcheong Saja-nori As the music took a folky tone, the dancing duo returned to the stage. This time they were dressed in grey business suits and white masks. They performed a jolly dance with coordinated and mirroring actions that reminded me of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Despite the liveliness, the performers’ long white masks added a sinister and scary feel to the dance.
9: Surisuri Mahasuri of the Goseong Ohgwandae The finale provided the show’s climax. The familiar, quaint and repetitive musical phrase called the performers to return to the stage one last time. They were wearing their cute, friendly- looking yellow masks. As the music developed, the dance became more involved, with hat spinning movements reminiscent of the traditional pungmul nori dance. The hat swirling grew increasingly violent, the sounds became chaotic, and the masks suddenly appeared freakish and unnerving rather than cute. We found ourselves in a chaotic, nightmarish world. The ritualistic element was evident, and I wondered if this was one of the dances used for exorcisms in ancient times. The piece reached its crescendo, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall was left buzzing with energy and spirit.
Throughout the performance, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Brecht in terms of theatre, Mike Oldfield and Steve Reich in terms of music, and morris dancing and circus in terms of movement. Yet I found it impossible to compare other aspects such as the singer’s tone of voice, and relationship between musicians, performers and audience, to anything I knew. This in itself demonstrates the eclectic nature of the performance, and how it combined numerous influences from ancient to modern, from Korea and beyond, to create something completely fresh. It may also explain why it wasn’t for everyone.
When speaking to other audience members after the performance, it was obvious that many were impressed and blown away by what they had just experienced. Others were confused or disappointed. One criticism was that the performance was too small-scale for the concept, with just two performers on quite a small stage. Someone else suggested that there should have been subtitles or audio guides to explain the stories. Finally, someone wished that there had been less of the musicians performing without accompaniment from the physical performers.
These criticisms could be a simple matter of taste, or could have something to do with where each audience member was sitting. I was relatively close to the front, and found the musicians to be as visually engaging as the dancers. The fact that they were on stage the whole time broke down barriers. I am also pleased that the piece was presented without subtitles or an audio guide as I was able to enjoy it in its entirety without distraction, and could take away my own personal interpretations.
Overall, Be-Being’s Yi-myun-gong-jak transported its audience into a magical world, explored performance methodologies and presented an eye-opening, educational, creative and fun piece of multi-media art suitable for historians and modernists alike.
Thanks to KCC UK for use of their beautiful photographs.