Finding a home in madang
Moving to the United States from South Korea as a young child made a profound mark on my life. When my colleagues and I in the Chiara String Quartet started learning and memorizing the 6th string quartet of Bela Bartok a few years back, a work he wrote after the death of his mother and after leaving his native country due to World War II, I found myself connecting viscerally to the emotional content of the music. I heard in it an immense sadness due to loss and also a deep sense of beauty and vulnerability. Even though my experience as a seven year old girl leaving Korea and Bartok’s experience leaving Hungary as an older man are quite different, I found, especially in the last movement marked “mesto” or “sad,” that I could tap into this sense of loss and freely sing my deep sadness at losing a vital part of myself that was irretrievable.
When I was growing up in Queens, NY in the 90’s, there were a lot of kids with similar situation as me. I had a large group of Asian friends in my intermediate school who moved to the United States when they were in elementary school. We were old enough to remember our homeland vividly but also young enough to absorb experiences in the new country like sponges. They called us the 1.5 generation, and we lived sort of in a neither-here-nor-there-land of American culture married, often confusingly, with Asian traditions of the adults in our lives. Growing up in this environment made me wonder, where is my home? Is it in Korea or the U.S.? Where do I feel home and what does being home even mean?
I was recently watching a documentary of the Silk Road Ensemble called Music of Strangers (which I highly recommend) and in it, one of the members, having left Syria and living in New York City, talked about how home for him was a place where one can express his or her true being. That statement resonated so strongly with me, and I found myself asking, how do I create that space in my daily life? Also as a performer, how do I create that place for myself and the audience when performing?
My parents have a group of friends who gather once a month to discuss literature, music, and ideas. They founded this group about 10 years ago and named it “nuh-leun madang” which means wide open space. The meaning of madang is a place where varied activities such as Korean traditional performances, rituals, and gatherings can take place but could also mean a time and place where everyone is welcome to express. There is a book called Music in Korea beautifully-written by Donna Lee Kwon, and in it, there’s a passage about a certain madang performance she attended in South Korea at a place called Kosong Ogwangdae, an organization that promotes and teaches Korean traditional mask-dance theatre. Here’s an excerpt from the book.
"During one cold week in February 2002, I attended an especially lively series of open madangs at the Kosong Ogwangdae transmission center. This was due in part to several groups being in attendance that had significant training in Korean folk arts. Relishing the role of selecting his “victims” at random, Mr. Hwang, the center director, decided to call up one of the female p’ansori students....Sporting loose clothing and her hair in a casual ponytail, a petite young woman in glasses stood up and walked over to one side of the classroom. With only a simple fan as a prop, she sang one of the most well-known excerpts from The Song of Ch’unhyang, called “Sarangga” or simply “Love Song”, her husky voice booming out into the reverberant dance studio with ease."
After this, the next “victim” was one of the elder mask dance teachers who got up to sing a song that’s part of a genre popular with the older generation but generally frowned upon by the younger generation because of its association with the Japanese occupation of Korea and the continuing influence from that time period. In this madang space, however, the younger students joined the elders in their enjoyment of the performance and expressed their support by giving verbal encouragements to the performer.
"To wrap up the session, Mr. Hwang called on Mr. Yi Yun-sok, the president of the mask dance organization. Standing up to the occasion, Mr. Yi began by narrating and singing the famous p’ansori work The Song of the Underwater Palace, a tale about a how a rabbit outwits the King of the Underwater Palace and a turtle servant. In a clever play on genre and theme, Mr. Yi soon switched gears and transitioned into a popular children’s song called “San Tokki” or “Mountain Rabbit” all with his characteristic deadpan style. This move played on the audience’s expectations associated with a given genre. P’ansori normally commands a degree of respect given its high level of difficulty, so when Mr. Yi started to sing the first notes of “Mountain Rabbit,” it was all the more surprising to witness one of the most respected teachers of the organization sing an endearing children’s song in public."
In this particular madang performance, the boundaries between female and male, teacher and student, old and young were obscured, and the performers and audience felt equally at home to express.
I performed with the Chiara String Quartet for seventeen years, and we worked to break the boundary between us and the audience. We talked to the audience, we tried not talking so much to the audience, we remained on the stage during intermission to connect with audience members, we performed classical music in clubs and bars, we memorized our music and performed by heart so that there wouldn’t be stands in the way. There are so many other ways that we haven’t even considered yet. The journey of finding a true home in performance where boundaries are obscured is an exciting one, and I think there is something essential and beautiful that the Korean madang can contribute to the classical music world. I’m eager to share my ongoing search with you as I uncover more and more of what it could offer.