This interview requires attention and time. Especially in these rapid times of instant content served via Instagram Stories or Tik Tok, it can be difficult to bring meaningful discussion about art (if even possible). I got to know about bela from Jess, brilliant PR manager from Goodchild PR. We were in touch previously, managing an interview with Endgame (producer and Precious Metal label owner). At least for me personally, discovering new fascinating artists through PR emails is quite rare and uncommon. But anyway, this is how I’ve got to listen to Guidelines, a 7-track EP by South Korean artist bela.
bela’s EP, coming out on June 22 via ÉDITIONS APPÆRENT, is a captivating mix of electronic music, traditional Korean folk music called nongak농악 with frequent tempo changes and complicated structure. Overall, you will be immersed in this beautifully unique and strange musical dream. Listen to the first single „반길군악/별달거리 Bangilgunak/Byeoldalgeori“ and find the in-depth interview below ⤵
The first thing that is very interesting and unique, is your investigation of nongak music. Is it something your parents would listen to? Were you close to this music during your childhood?
No, I wouldn’t say that nongak농악 is the type of music you would listen to daily if you’re not brought up in a family with members in traditional entertainment background. But you can learn the instruments used in a nongak ensemble, depending on your school’s curriculum, much like learning how to play a recorder in your elementary school music classes. Beats off, hands wrong, posture gone, some dozing. One of the instruments is janggu장구, which I got to learn in my preschool. At first, they usually teach some basic jangdans장단 (rhythm patterns) in small cut-up pieces here and there, for initial technical training purposes. So, what I learned was neither nongak nor samulnori사물놀이—chamber music using four types of selected rhythmic instruments of nongak—, it was more or less bits and pieces of the music. Also, I was lucky to have a friend that I met at a community center Korean Chinese character lesson for children who had a family member with a career in traditional music. Learning how to play janggu is like a fond memory from my childhood. It’s all hazy now. I hadn’t had a chance to revisit traditional music until a few years ago when I first thought of this new project.
I had had this vague idea to do something with Korean traditional music when I had this experience at the Incheon International Airport. There were traditional musicians dressed in traditional clothes all pretty, playing western classical music on Korean instruments as a form of entertainment. I remember wanting to change the relationship in that dichotomy.
So I first asked myself, what’s the quintessential western instrument now, and it was a computer. Why not play Korean traditional music but on a computer as a form of entertainment in the most western establishment, a club.
I decided to revisit nongak specifically because to me, it felt like such a strong immutable cultural code in Korean society, where it’s tied to the traditional values and some restricting and downright toxic conventions the apprentice system can impose on its trainees and students. Nongak actually has a rich modern history where it’s played at demos to fight the dictatorial government back in the days. I wanted to twist it, give it a parody, a revamp, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily hurt the tradition, and also fit for a big sound system. Because the essential beat of a jangdan can be so memorable, I began reimagining it in a different context, like the more adventurous sides of club music. I was asking myself if this specific jangdan could work in a similar way to, say, the iconic funk carioca [also known as baile funk, Ed.] rhythm, able to let itself change and mutate to a producer’s will to bend and break. Doing new things with them before totally breaking them. Making them over.
I believe you were uncovering sheet music from government archives and various ensemble performances from YouTube, that sounds like a long and difficult process. Can you tell us more about how did you research Nongak music and how you used it for the creation of your album?
Actually, the public archive was very accessible, it was easy to get little building blocks of what I wished to do. They made cute lesson videos for beginners and kept them public, along with some sheet music. Of course, for tracks like „Chilchae칠채“ I had to go back and forth between the sheets and the performances to actually figure out what’s going on. It’s easy when you learn it in person but it’s difficult on the sheet. A loop goes from two 5/8 bars and a 6/8 and then four 5/8 bars again. Very Stravinsky. And sometimes you realize that the sheets aren’t complete, so I had to cross-check with actual performances and transcribe some parts straight onto MIDI myself. The interesting part was learning how to reconstruct them in a manner that is not too loopy, rigid, and flat. Reading the sheet music for rhythm parts was easy because I know the properties of the instrument janggu—it gives jangdans their own signature patterns—, but nailing the little nuances, twists in swings and unspoken rules, and then arranging the basic sequence I can build on top of was quite difficult. I watched videos of people who were in the apprentice system under the Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties of different nongak styles.
They are people who study nongak their whole lives, and I had to find a way to keep the disrespect out of the way somehow. I tried to roughly translate the sequences played by the professionals into a single MIDI bar, and then cut them up, chose which sections I want for each track. It was nothing like just getting the blocks to hit the exact transient marks in the audio, to my surprise, it was closer to mimicking and ‘performing’ the ‘feel’ of a given sequence. Because they were performances, exact arrangement leads to feeling too volatile and didn’t work in a loop, or didn’t fit in a context of a certain buildup moment, and I had to make some arrangements by sticking to the momentary impressions of the microscopic rhythmic structures as I hear it. Because I worked on a grid system, it helped to flatten them into solid repeatable blocks I can add more onwards. I basically let everything get in the way.
When the MIDI rhythm part was done for the initial five tracks (점고, 반길군악/별달거리, 칠채, 짝쇠, 동살풀이), I started designing the sound on a virtual FM synth instrument. I knew what each MIDI block meant, but I directed myself away from what they mean. I was accustomed to the actual sample sounds of each instrument, but I didn’t want to make guidelines sound like a pastiche. I wanted to verge away from that because I needed the rhythm itself to live on, serve as a guideline to others as it did to me. I didn’t care for the actual instrument samples that can be lived better in real life as opposed to chopped-up one-shot sources stuck in places. So I did follow the guidelines but I intentionally fell into a weird place. Much like who I am as a person, in retrospect.
Are there some artists from Korea that are also trying to reinvent this traditional art form? Do you consult with these other artists about your music?
For me, it was all alone if you meant by the nongak and electronic genre in specific (+ I don’t even think I can place this EP in the legacy of nongak and samulnori genre. I’ll let others judge on that, I was just having fun). I did consult with my friends though. Most of them are DJs and producers and those not in the field of nongak. They weren’t very helpful because they are all so nice. Come to South Korea. They are all so nice 🙂 There are so many other amazing acts within and around the border of Korean traditional art these days. It couldn’t hurt to hear more!
What is Paju, South Korea like? Do you enjoy living there? What about the contemporary art scene or music scene there or in South Korea?
Much like all suburban towns, it’s full of grey boxes. The building law allowed more green spaces in between the boxes so it’s roomier, almost elevated, in a sense. It’s a bed town so it’s very quiet at night, which I can’t appreciate enough. There is nothing cultural about this part of the town except for the public parks and the “Book City” project nearby. The book city has some nice brutalist buildings and its characteristic unbothered, untrimmed sidewalks which will grow on you fast. Big mosquitos in summer. The music scene is about an hour and a half bus ride away from where I live. It suffered a lot from COVID-19.
I personally didn’t go out as often since the outbreak. I don’t like to talk a lot in person, I am that person who dances a lot but never really talks. Since I couldn’t dance, I just stopped going out. It made me work on more subdued, discreet outputs after finishing Guidelines. I make music in a similar sentiment to pondering on what to wear for the parties. Guidelines partly came from that experience, and I miss it so much. I met everyone I know at the club. The people are so nice.
You co-run Sorrow Club in Seoul. How do you differentiate between music dramaturgy – artists you invite to play, and your own personal music? Is there some difference? Also, is there a difference between your live set, DJ set and the music that you create in the studio?
Sorrow Club has some keywords I think, and when Wi and yuyungsik come up with ideas based on those, I am the one who chops the list based on guesses and illogical thought processes. It could be the other way around in their perspectives in some cases, I don’t know. It must be intensionally queer in its dramaturgy, for me at least. It’s based on your past, your future, and everything I judge about you based on my precious bias that keeps me alive. All in all, we try to run it as a safe space to play whatever you want; out of the box, out of the club, out of the white cube, out of your conscience, except for the ones you can’t play in front of audience ethics wise, in clothes of your choice, with background videos you want.
We even prepare sofa beds for people who come to sleep. I once DJed while eating a bag of chips playing all the beautiful things in my library and I loved it.
My music is very much similar to that as well, I let everything get in the way of my decision-making. Some could say it’s transparent, some could say it’s discrete, some could say it’s revealing. As I said before, I make music like I’m choosing my outfit for the night. I bring music to the dancefloor like I’m choosing my outfit for the night. It’s all about the people who make the space. I can be variant in that way. I never limit anything to a certain gig or a storyline. I like to take the music out of its context. When it’s a hardcore party I want to hear some bossa nova in the mix. When it’s an ambient event I want some footwork tracks in the middle. Passive-aggressive maybe?
The difference is an understatement. I never want to wear the same outfit again even though I know that’s not possible 99% of the time. I always want to turn it differently. I don’t want to bore myself. I want to be there as who I am, giving some ideas of what I dream or think specifically for that event. It doesn’t help with branding my DJing or producing at all. Honestly, I never lived long enough to see the downfall of all that. I do worry about the downfall of all that. I try to catch up with what’s ‘now’ for me but I always slip because of all the previous diggings and the lack of expectation that I internalized, and mostly the lack of monetary support. At this point, I guess I want to embody the name bela as a person rather than an identity or a project. As a queer person who’s a house-poor dependent on a broken-and-healing family in an unaccepting society, who I am is exactly what I am as a DJ and a producer. I almost feel like I’m representing someone. I am comfortable in my skin as long as you don’t see me sideways.
I love the cover by Jesse Osborne-Lanthier. Can you tell me how it came to life and can you tell us about the process of creation of the artwork?
At first, the label and I disagreed on some designs, but then one day an idea came up in my mind. Because no one abroad would actually know what the sounds signify, they would have no idea what the instruments are. And I do not have to explain them at all because I did not intend for you to know about the music first, I want you to listen to what’s there first, what I changed. Also partly because even the people who studied Korean traditional music failed to recognize the jangdans from my music. My fault 🙂
But this gap of information bears the signifiers purposeless, the MIDI notes and sheet music and the shapes of instruments and the sounds they make and the performance it takes to execute them and the clothes the performers wear while performing them are all on their separate ways. Only mixed-up signifiers live onto being in a certain realm. They are like strays. I feel like I am the one who set them free by derailing them from their original musical imagery. I wanted to put the stray shapes on the cover, offer them a chance to be worn. Club music is never about practicality. It is all about decoration to me. So why not let the strays decorate the cover? So I sent to Jesse some images that I want him to break up and redistribute. I said:
“I think I want line drawings of Korean traditional instruments but destroyed and stacked in a visually pleasing way, destroyed but put together nicely, abstractify them.”
The golden circles used to be kkwaengwaris; the X shapes used to be the membrane tightening straps on a janggu; the lines used to be the sticks; the mini flowers are apricot flowers painted on the instruments’ bodies—also a nod to the cute flower drawing from the previous release that I got tattooed on my forearm; the flowy lines are from the uniforms the pungmul performers wear—also part of the flora feels; the broken up signs are from Korean music writing system정간보; time as metric of music; music as evidence of time; music to guarantee the time with which we mend the discontinuation in time-field; signifier on the screen; evidence of time printed by a set of speakers; external score; organized fallacy; invented evidence.
We talked about all these objects, I waited and Jesse turned up with his art. The packaging changed once so there was a changeup in the middle. But I was so satisfied with the version after the revision, that I didn’t have much feedback about it. We actually didn’t talk much about how it turned out so amazing, so there’s a chance he has some different ideas for what I just said there. He did everything the way I didn’t expect to land so well. I am so lucky to be able to work with the label!
bela – Guidelines will be out on June 22 via ÉDITIONS APPÆRENT
1. 점고 Jeomgo
2. 칠채 Chilchae
3. 반길군악/별달거리 Bangilgunak/Byeoldalgeori
4. 변주 1 Variation 1
5. 동살풀이 Dongsalpuri
6. 변주 2 Variation 2
7. 짝쇠 Jjaksoe
Interview: Krištof Budke / Special thanks: Jess Goodchild from Goodchild PR