Korean Musical Theatre

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This blog is mostly about western music and western theatre, but I think it provides an interesting viewpoint to look at the theatrical and musical traditions of another culture. This weeks history focus revolves around an article by ethnomusicologist Andrew Killick. He examines the various genres of traditional Korean Theatre with music, and provides an interesting perspective on a performance genre which many of us are not familiar with.

The Changguek play titled "Leaving Ship" performed by the National Changguk Compoany Of Korea (wikimedia commons)


Andrew Killick, in Road Test for a New Model: Korean Musical Narrative and Theater in Comparative Context, explores the different metaphors that can be applied to his musical subject. Killick argues that any method of approaching a non-western musics such as this one is only useful “in proportion in its applicability to different cases, its ability to identify recurring patterns”. His exploration of the ethnomusicological method balances geographic, historic, and cultural context with a detailed description of the music tropes and techniques found in traditional Korean musical theatre.

His chosen subject is relevant to the subjects of this blog due to the fact that, despite existing outside the western tradition, music “forms only a part of each genre, alongside verbal and visual elements”. Killick asks whether a musicological model “should be applied only to the strictly ‘musical’ components”, or whether each other component should be examined separately using a literary (or dramatic) analogue for the musical theory. He concludes that examining each of these elements in isolation “would seem counterproductive as well as cumbersome, since the ethnographic model seeks to understand musical experience in all its complex interconnections and not in isolation.” Despite the professed desire to integrate the study of the various component disciplines of a musical theatre, Killick explores each facet separately, discussing it in commendable detail but not linking each element together with the strength he calls for in his introduction. He discusses the traditional narrative components (such as vice and virtue) and the performance environment (both historical and physical), but does not seem to link these to the musical output of the performers. This output is described in detail, analysing techniques in true positivistic style: “rhythmic cycles (changdan) … based on compound meters with triple subdivision of the main beats” coupled with “performance techniques that include a broad palette of vocal timbres” based on “versions of the anhemitonic pentatonic scale”. He then goes on to talk about the impact of geographical and cultural space in the development of the genre. What is lacking is an explanation of how these detailed and specific musical idiosyncrasies developed in relation to this history and environment. Without these relationships we are left with a complete but incoherent understanding of the key elements of this genre. Although he introduces his article by arguing that the non-musical factors must be incorporated into an understanding of these genres, he avoids discussing the impact of the various factors upon each other, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the musical environment and the musical product.

Concluding Remarks

Killick argues that any analysis, viewing, or interpretation of a musical score to a theatrical genre should not be divorced from the other elements that make up the theatrical whole. This is applicable to our whole subject area: rather than obsessing over the minutia of the music for a play, we should instead explore the links between the sound or music and every other element of the performance being studied. Any mechanism can impact the score, from the script, the direction, the costumes or the staging, and so we should try to examine the music in the contexts of these interactions.

Killick, Andrew. “Road Test for a New Model: Korean Musical Narrative and Theater in Comparative Context.” Ethnomusicology 47, no. 2 (January 2003): 180. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3113917.

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