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    Pansori, Han, and the Affective Powers of Korean Music

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    Through this paper, I analyze how affect, culture, and music are intertwined in pansori, a genre of Korean music, and han, a Korean sentiment of suffering and resentment. It would seem obvious that music and affect— an emotional response or connection to music— would be connected, but this connection is complex and varies greatly from culture to culture. Therefore, I explore the specific relationship between affect and pansori in Korean culture, and how the musical elements of pansori convey an intense range of emotions.

    Pansori is an exemplary style of music for exploring the connection between music and mood, emotion, and affect because it paints profoundly sorrowful stories. In fact, pansori is often aesthetically understood as drawing a narrative with sound. Pansori is a Korean vocal genre performed by a solo singer and accompanied by a percussionist on a barrel-shaped drum. However, viewing the drummer as a mere accompanist reduces their role in musicking and prescribes Western assumptions to a uniquely Korean style of music.

    The drummer completes the performance; the sounds they create with their mouth and hands represent their feelings and those of the audience members in response to the vocalist. The singer tells a story through song, depicting a long, dramatic narrative with specific gestures and speech. To convey the story’s dramatic and musical qualities, the singer must produce a number of distinctive tones, with a particular focus on coarse timbres. In 1964, pansori was designated as a Korean National Intangible Cultural Property. Through inclusion in the cultural and artistic heritage of Korea, pansori became an example of legitimizing the power of national and cultural identities.

    The distinctive characteristics of pansori can be defined by three main parameters: vocal timbre, rhythmic structure, and melodic mode. The gritty, rough edged sound of pansori may seem in opposition of Western classical technique, with its emphasis on pure tones. This explains why pansori may sound strange to some people accustomed to Western music. In actuality, [some aspects of] the vocal production of pansori resembles the Western technique, bel canto, in that singers breathe from the stomach and exert pressure on the diaphragm.

    However, pansori technique constricts the throat to create the indicative harsh timbres. Constricting the throat results in a rich spectrum of upper partials and a strong component of white noise that the ear then perceives by as huskiness. When the lyrics express a particularly painful experience, the dramatic vocal qualities intensify so that the timbre becomes more accentuated. This is the most noticeable at the ends of phrases that culminate with relatively high pitches, as in these moment’s the singer’s voice breaks and resembles crying. By increasing the use of vibrato, the singer indicates a type of ritualized lamentation.

    The deep raspiness expresses painful emotions as the hoarseness resembles a speaking voice affected by grief and weeping. Although the overarching timbral quality of pansori is harsh and gravelly, the sound is emphasized or accentuated to a greater extent during scenes that are especially heart-wrenching, or in moments where a character laments. Furthermore, dramatic performances of pansori are intended to conjure up many different emotions and sentiments. The ability of pansori to convey an intense sense of sorrow has often been linked to the Korean concept of han.

    There are numerous debates regarding the effect han has had Korean society, specifically the arts, in terms of its role, history, and importance. The word han has no direct translation and the definition itself is also contentious; it is usually understood as complex cultural trait involving an ingrained sense of sorrow, regret, grief, and resentment. Some scholars consider han central to the aesthetic experience of pansori; the emotional affect can function as a sort of catharsis for the painfulness of han. Indeed, many Korean academics believe that han underlies not only pansori but also many other forms of Korean performing folk art and literature.

    In pansori, han is closely linked to vocal production and certain voice qualities, such as the huskiness and sorrowfulness, which are deemed the best expressions of emotional depth. Some scholars believe that pansori exemplifies the ways that han is expressed; Marshall Pihl states “As the pansori performer strives to reflect everyday life and mirror the realities of his listeners’ lives, the suffering and lamentations of his characters are frequently less in service of the plot than of an audience’s need for catharsis. Although, in some pansori plots, distress and suffering lead eventually to a happy result, the process of suffering itself seems more important to the audience than the happy outcome …. Pansori distinguishes itself as a popular literature by eliciting sympathy through suffering: it gives its audience a means to endure sorrow.” As Pihl explains, pansori’s inherent structure allows the listeners to experience catharsis, a process that is strengthened through the aforementioned harsh, rough vocalizations, creating the “sound of han”.

    Other academics argue that han as a word was not used until the late 19th century and was manufactured by Japanese colonial rulers and historians as a means of justifying imperialism and the subjugation of Korean people. In other words, han is a social construct retroactively imposed upon Korean people rather than an idea stemming from ancient times. Japanese occupying forces conceived of han as a way to demonstrate that Korean people were unnecessarily burdened by sorrow and suffering, and thus were somehow inferior. In their position of authority, Japanese colonizers assigned the definition of “beautiful sorrow” to Korean ethos, and this characterization coincided with the depiction of Korean people as childish and primitive.

    Consequently, this construction of han allowed Japanese powers to justify their colonial rule which then paved the way for Korean people to enter modernity and achieve democracy. This argument seems ironic when juxtaposed with the idea that han arose from suffering inflicted by Japanese colonization amongst other oppressive forces, and also when contrasted with the dominant nationalist assumption that Japanese imperialism merely uprooted and suppressed any Korean aspiration toward progress. Within this view of colonial history, productive Japanese influence has been understandably unthinkable. Furthermore, han as a colonialist idea has supposedly permeated Korean society following the Korean war to supplement an ethno-nationalistic identity. This faction asserts that Korean people have held onto this imperialist construct as it gave them some sense of distinct unification. In this way, some claim that the idea of han is colonialist and racialized.

    Others contend that the use of han has changed considerably since the 1970s. This understanding of han is intertwined with the rise of the minjung movement— a resistance to the authoritarian regime of President Park Chung Hee. Coinciding with Korea’s “economic miracle” and emergence from third-world poverty in the 1960s and 1970s, the minjung movement represented the growing self-respect from economic prosperity and a shift from emulating elite and foreign models towards asserting the culture of ordinary Koreans. Until the 1970s, han was understood as an emotional state that individuals might experience when they felt thwarted, but not it did not represent a Korean characteristic or an expressive culture.

    This belief is reflected in Chong Nosik’s writing of the pansori singer Kim Songnok; while Kim bore han because he died from illness before learning an intricate rhythm cycle, he did not express han in his performance, nor was han expressed in pansori as a genre. The minjung movement caused a shift away from the older understanding of han toward the modern concept many Koreans hold today. Han “acquired additional connotations…. [to become] the underlying concept for an overall reframing of cultural values”. Thus, thinking that all Koreans possess han has become part of the everyday understanding of Korean people today and has also become an aesthetic principle in traditional music.

    There are eerie parallels in the portrayal of han between the Japanese occupation and the Park regime. Viewing han as a Korean characteristic may have served the interests of dictator Park in that it worked as an ideological state apparatus. The work force suffering under the harsh demands of a rapid industrialization while being largely excluded from its economic rewards would be less likely to resist if they viewed their suffering and resentment as part of their national identity. Much like how the Japanese colonizers used han to justify their authority to the Korean people by painting their pain as something authentically Korean, the Park regime used han to justify the abusive conditions laborers faced on the path to the nation’s economic prosperity.

    This condition is outlined by Bergen Evans in The Natural History of Nonsense: “It is very convenient for anyone who profits by the docility of the masses to have them believe that they are not the masters of their fate and that the evils they must endure are beyond human control”. Thus, some scholars point towards Park’s dictatorship as a pivotal point in the effect of han on Korean society and culture. Since his regime, the ideology of han and of its prevalence in pansori and other forms of traditional art has persisted as a locus for the construction of a homogenous and distinct Korean identity. This explains how some Korean audiences believe that han is part of a unique Korean character and that pansori expresses han.

    Regardless of the origins and exact definitions of han, the sentiment of pain, suffering, and resentment is found in much of traditional Korean art. In particular, it is widely understood that numerous passages in pansori are expressions of han. Indeed, these narratives relate back to han as a unifying factor for all Korean people, as the stories reflect the lives of the common folk, from daily pain and tribulations to triumphs and joy. Emotions are ascribed to the other aspects of pansori as well. For example, in traditional Korean music, especially pansori, rhythmic patterns are combined with certain melodic modes to stress a sound quality and the sound’s respective emotional connotation.

    The arrangement and selection of notes in a melody suggest affective distinctions, often expressed in impressionistic terms like “harmonious”, “brave”, or “poignant”. A certain type of sorrow is conveyed through a mode with particular appogiature. There is nothing intrinsic in these modes that depicts these affects; these succession of notes refer to a musical signifying system that has already been naturalized through decades of use. Therefore, melodic modes, along with timbre, rhythm pattern, text, and gestures all contribute to the articulation of emotions expressed in pansori. Additionally, the harshness of the vocal timbre in pansori is accentuated to portray the sentiment of han with greater intensity, reflecting how certain sound qualities become a symbolic vehicle to express personal experiences, especially emotion.

    Although han as a concept is not necessarily unique to Korea (certainly, other cultures have experienced a profound suffering as a result of a history of subjugation), it is crucial to understanding Korean identity and existence. Music often acts as a catharsis for this intensely painful sentiment. To both convey the concept of han and relieve listeners of han, pansori performers combine particular harsh sound qualities, specific rhythmic patterns, and melodic modes. The correlation between sound quality and the sentiment of han are essential in examining Korean culture.

    Korean traditional music has long been understood to express specific emotions through particular sound qualities, such as timbre and melodic modes. This parallels how the Romantic notion of music and affect— that musicians communicate their own affective experiences to audiences who can relate to to that experience— has become the dominant understanding in the West.

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    Pansori, Han, and the Affective Powers of Korean Music. (2022, Mar 09). Retrieved from

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