Performing Arts Market in Seoul National Theater and selected venues Seoul, South Korea 1115 October, 2010
The number of festivals, theaters and performance groups in South Korea has grown dramatically in the last twenty years and the tremendous developments in the fields of traditional music, jazz, dance and theater is testament to the vitality of Korean performers. Just as South Korea is increasingly on the itinerary of many international artists, so too, many international festivals are discovering the depth and richness of Korean performance art.
Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) is an annual platform held in the capital for the international promotion of the Korean performing arts. At a time when funding for the arts is perhaps more difficult to obtain than ever, the hundreds of delegates and performers who gathered in Seoul were seeking new ways to collaborate , produce and distribute Korean artists, though in effect, PAMS is much more than a marketing event. As in every year since the first PAMS event in 2005, one region of the world is showcased, and in this edition of PAMS the Nordic region was given the spotlight, with an emphasis on dance.
For those delegates with a special interest in music, PAMS put together an enticing program which consisted in the main of Korean folk groups who have taken a modern approach to old traditions. However, the music on offer encompassed temple music, avant-garde jazz, indie rock, experimental pop, an outstanding music documentary film, and Korea's answer to world music fusion.
The first port of call on day one was to the Buddhist temple and seminary of Gilsanga, to observeas discreetly as possiblethe incantations of the monks. In spite of its impressively traditional appearance, the temple was opened as recently as 1997. Gilsanga is also a place for Zen meditation in the House of Silence, and a retreat from the hustle and bustle of a city crammed with ten million living souls. Fittingly, the grounds are extremely relaxing, with stone tables as cold as a mountain stream to rest at, little piles of prayer stones here and there, a bubbling brook, wind chimes, and carefully manicured trees and bushes providing shade.
Music is an important part of religious observance in Korean Buddhism. The music of Buddhist rituals in Korea is called beompae, and essentially it is monophonic singing without fixed rhythm or harmony. Its origins lie in Indian musical traditions of jitsori with its free rhythm and extended notes and it has influenced pretty much all Korean traditional music, right up to today's innovators.
Inside the main hall, twenty or so lay people kneel on mats and join in ritual chants and recital of sutras, some clutching prayer beads. They are led by several monks who use a number of instruments to initiate the ceremony, to conduct the ceremony and to end it; a metallic gong, and the striking of a wooden gourd with a stick punctuate the low chants, and the atmosphere of calmin spite of the chorus of so many voicesdiscourages photography, lingering or staring. The massive Brahma bell beside the main hall is struck repeatedly morning and evening to release those in hell from their suffering, though what it does for those suffering from hell on this earth is a matter of conjecture.
After the visit to the temple the group was led to a restaurant specializing in temple food; given the sumptuousness of the banquet is surprising that there are not more fat monks, though in fact there are a negligible number of fat people walking the streets of Seoul, which is something of a mystery given the profusion of Dunkin' Donuts.
After lunch there was a showing of an extraordinary documentary film with the intriguing title of Intangible Asset No. 82. Directed by Emma Franz, the film tells the story of jazz drummer Simon Barker and his quest to find a near-mythical Korean shaman and grandmaster musician, Kim Seok Chul. As a matter of background, Barker is well known in his native Australia where he has recorded and played with many of the country's finest jazz musicians. He has also lent his highly distinctive, energetic drumming to pianists Marilyn Crispell