Book Review: Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity by Haekyung Um

Haekyung Um: Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity.
SOAS Musicological Series. Farnham: Ashgate 2013. 254pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6276-1.


This volume explores how a variety of facets of modernity have produced today’s p’ansori, an art genre classified as ‘traditional’. Through considering its development, Um aims to illuminate the presence of tradition, overcoming the old dichotomy between tradition and modernity. Dr Um completed her PhD at Queen’s University of Belfast and is now a lecturer at the University of Liverpool. Based on Bauman’s definition of performance (1977), Chapter One first provides detailed description of p’ansori performance, one delivered through the complete singing of a repertory, the wanch’ang, in contemporary Korea. Um captures important scenes, constructed before and during the performance, in and out of the concert hall, with a detached but sensitive approach. She then selectively outlines musical and social elements of performance and facets of related genres that have been relatively less highlighted.

Chapter Two explores the historical context of p’ansori, broadly covering the period from before the eighteenth century to the post-preservation era. Based on rich resources, Um details a variety of noteworthy elements that have shaped the creative processes of p’ansori, including p’annorŭm as its original form, the practical learning of Shilhak as a school of thought, sponsorship of the middle class (the chungin), recording technology, Japan’s censorship, and the Korean preservation system. In doing this, she demonstrates how p’ansori has been (trans)formed, in terms of text, length, and repertory.

In Chapter Three, Um analyses textual and musical aspects, taking a comparative approach to different versions of the p’ansori piece, Ch’unhyangga. She reveals subtle differences in texts amongst schools, concentrating on the tense relationship between narrative and performance contexts. Then, she sheds light on a variety of rhetorical techniques, for instance, for creating an onomatopoeia and mimesis, through the word ‘padŭdŭdŭdŭk’(page 67). Concerning music, she scrutinizes the interrelationships between mode (cho), rhythmic cycle (changdan), a certain mood, vocal techniques, and influential overarching genres, be they folk or classical. Finally, she demonstrates how textual and musical devices are utilized to generate dramatic effect. However, she does not consider tautological words whose explanatory or rhythmic function, beyond pleonastic uselessness, could be important.

Chapter Four looks into the relevance of schools to textual and musical styles, paying attention to the inclusive features of the notion che, a notion that now encompasses both school and style. Based on Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (1980, 1984), Um specifies the p’ansori habitus as an imagined space where p’ansori is created through social interaction. She minutely examines how many songs are used in each scene, taking a comparative approach to six different versions of Ch’unhyangga. Further, she highlights the focus of schools for modes, interchanges amongst schools, and the combination or creation of styles. She explores performance contexts, gender, and audience expectation as the main motives for social interaction. As for context, she captures how, even in a situation in which text and music has been altered, performance has continued.

In Chapter Five, developing from Blacking’s ideas on transmission (1987), Um looks at how individual musicians contribute to the creation of p’ansori in their own ways. She explores the teaching methods and singing styles of two masters, Sŏng Uhyang and Cho Sanghyŏn, through detailed transcriptions. She provides a fresh illustration of their verbal instructions and voice colours, furthermore offering a useful comparison of their different versions. However, it would be possible to discuss the motives behind their individual styles further, particularly concerning Cho Sanghyon’s ‘unalterable’ part, tŏnŭm. This is because, within the Korean preservation system, musicians often transmit music with an emphasis on functional intention rather than external form. Thus, I wonder if such an emphasis may have existed when he was developing his versions.

Chapter Six provides discussion of the construction of aesthetics within the historical context of p’ansori, taking further perspectives of Blacking and Merriam (1971) on musical systems. Particularly, Um carefully observes how prominent patrons such as Shin Chaehyo establish Confucian values as central by revising texts, how these values influence the settlement of repertoires and the selection of texts by musicians, including Pak Yujŏn, how han is emphasized as a dominant sentiment framed by Japanese oppression and the people’s minjung cultural movement, how p’ansori pieces are shaped by the preferences of regions and their audiences, and how shouts of encouragement (ch’uimsae)evolve amongst the audience.

In Chapter Seven, Um shifts her focus to a cross-national level, in order to observe how p’ansori has been adapted and created within diasporic communities in the former Soviet Union and China. In her description of the historical context, Um explores how prominent theatres, new hybrid sub-genres, and aesthetics of voice quality evolved under political influence. Further, she provides discussions about the dual social function of p’ansori in the diasporas as a medium for invoking nostalgia and for confirming distance from the homeland. Extending Bakhtin’s discussions (1982), she offers the prospect of how hybrid identities of diasporas are able to harmonise within these.

Chapter Eight discusses how new p’ansori has evolved under the processes of colonization, modernization, and globalization. Dividing new p’ansori into the patriotic, religious, and socio-political, she explores how goals were formed within political and religious contexts. Then, she examines an aspect hitherto not illuminated—how new post-millennium p’ansori has been maintained and diversified with respect to textual and musical techniques, sources, themes, speech style, costumes, and intertextuality, based on her study of young artists. The young artists assume the title of small time entertainers, as ttorang kwangdae, with a view to realizing a revival of p’ansori against its fossilization. She explores their shared view on p’ansori’s authenticity ‘as a communicative performance’ (page 200).

In her Conclusion, Um proposes a theoretical model for understanding the dynamic creative process of p’ansori, pointing out the fallacy of the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. Her model seems appropriate. However, I would suggest that the comprehensive category ‘wider society’ needs more elaboration, for instance, into national and cross-national (diasporic) spheres, because, as suggested in Chapter Seven, these sometimes operate with different motives, namely, national and hybrid identities. In addition, it would have been useful had she clarified, in her own terms, what processes are involved. However, these are minor points. Showing great expertise in Korean music and a deep sensitivity as an ethnomusicologist, Um successfully presents the factors that influence the creation of p’ansori. Therefore, this book will be indispensable for anyone interested in p’ansori as living Korean traditional music drama.


HYUNSEOK KWON, SOAS, University of London



Bakhtin, Michael M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Bauman, Richard. Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1977.

Blacking, John. A Commonsense View of All Music: Reflections on Percy Grainger’s contribution to ethnomusicology and music education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critiue of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge, 1984.