Emerging during the mid Chosŏn era (1392-1910), p’ansori is a style of epic story singing performed by a vocalist and drummer (kosu). The vocalist narrates long dramatic tales through speech, song, and action, while the drummer accompanies the singer and gives calls of encouragement (ch’ŭimsae) such as ŏlssigu (right-on!) at the end of vocal phrases.

Bae Il Dong is highly regarded as one of Korea’s finest p'ansori singers. His renowned interpretation of the epic song Shimch’ŏngga (The Song of the Filial Daughter) has recently been documented in a unique outdoor performance setting and (featuring Kim Dong Won) released as a Super Audio CD in late 2010. His work as a contemporary improvisor can be heard in his performances with the collaborative ensemble Daorum, and more recently in the work of Chiri.

Traditionally, in order to master the various elements of p’ansori, singers would spend long periods (100 days) in isolation, singing into waterfalls in order to “break” the voice and reveal the “true” tone. Bae Il Dong, a performer steeped in the eastern school (tongp'yŏnje) of p’ansori, is one of the few contemporary singers to follow this harsh tradition. While still a student, he traveled to Mount Chiri on the southern end of the Sobaek Mountain Range and spent seven years living by a waterfall, practicing up to 18 hours a day in order to reveal his voices.

In Emma Franz’s feature film Intangible Asset Number 82, Bae Il Dong recalls his time spent practicing on the waterfall at Mount Chiri:

"In Korea, we say that energy is very important. Yin is the valley, yang is the mountain, the waterfall is where they meet. Being here one can draw on that energy. The first couple of years I would sleep only one or two hours a day and I still can’t understand how I did it. The best season for study was the winter because it is so cold your body becomes more tense and the environment demonstrates clearly that you are alone.

I burst my eardrum because the waterfall is so loud, and because I was singing so hard. Traditionally, singers would practice in nature, in a wild and open place. They sang with a speaking voice. It is a very simple, soulful and inartistic way of singing, but it is also very difficult to sing like that. The notes and sounds are not refined, but have rough edges, and are even torn into pieces. P’ansori reveals the natural voice, naked and unpolished."

AuthorGregory Oh