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Interview: bela on the nongak music that inspired 'Guidelines'

On their most recent EP Guidelines, the South Korean producer and performer bela has found a mesmerising way to transpose traditional nongak sheet music to frantic electronic music that borders on radical club music and power electronics. “I embraced the contemporary club culture because the aux cord is shared now.”

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The past gets warped into grotesque and overwhelming club music on Guidelines, the most recent EP by the South Korean producer bela. The main inspiration for their rhythmically agile and stylistically bold music has been South Korean nongak music. In a correspondence over mail, the producer — set to make their European Premiere during Rewire — dives deeper into the historic roots of their forward-thinking electronic music.

Could you explain what nongak music is and how it has inspired your work?

“nongak is a traditional music that connects to the rich history of Sadangpae, vagabond groups of musicians and entertainers that travelled and performed the art of ‘pungmul’ all over the Korean peninsula. It incorporates choreography and traditional beliefs, customs and rituals that would inhabit ancient agricultural fields to accompany life, death, and celebration of common people. Luckily, during the post-war reconstruction of South Korea, some pioneers and researchers archived and gathered the old ways to introduce it to a new audience under government support. It made it into the modern classrooms thanks to their huge effort and I got the chance to learn it within the public education system. You can even see nongak in the Korean media when there’s something to celebrate, like on national holidays. It’s a part of being a Korean person.

Growing up queer, I sensed how pungmul and its little cultural aspects are deeply rooted in the patriarchy of Confucianism and its troubles. Questions about identity formed and lingered in my mind, until I decided to tackle those ideas in a musical form.”

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What aspects of nongak initially attracted you to studying it?

“One year at school, I had to perform something at a talent show. Everybody else played boring recorders, but I was different. I had a close friend who offered to teach me how to play janggu and I did it! That was 17 years ago. I didn’t pursue music professionally then — I’m a media major. I even forgot everything about janggu before I dipped back into nongak. It was through the scope of club music that I saw big potential in its beats, because some phrases are very suitable for a nightclub frenzy. It’s so fast and energetic, yet so simple! I hope that more musicians will actually bring these beats to their music, and not just the traditional instrument samples as they often do in these orientalism-tinged productions.”

What was the process like of familiarizing yourself and gaining mastery over this form of music?

“Oh… my music is the farthest from mastery! I may be dabbing into its shallow waters, making small ripples. Anyway, watching YouTube videos of ensemble performances in samulnori and nongak gives you such energy, and then when you hit the jeongganbo —music notation invented by none other than Sejong the Great himself —, you flinch because it just has this cut pieces of phrases in pictures and says ‘repeat.’ It’s kind of like jazz sheet music. So, I’m lost…but I’m also happy at the same time, because I have the know-how to put it the music into MIDI blocks. I knew how it should sound, I knew how to read the sheet music, but I didn’t know how to actually play them. I believe that gave me the headspace to make something different and unique.”

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How do you think your modern practice of reinterpreting nongak relates to or diverges from its traditional roots?

“I feel confident about the rhythm, because it is more fixed, but at the same time it has the potential to be jammed and experimented with. From there I build my own narrative of sound. I fill in the gaps between the beats with melodies and sound textures that verges away from the traditional instruments. What I tried to achieve through the Guidelines EP was purely musical, put out of its original context. I had to reinvent the picture, mainly because I am disconnected from the old value system. 

Sadangpaes were treated as the lowest of the social ranks. Those who played nongak music used to be segregated from the society on different levels. Now their art is taught all around the country and it is a legitimate career path. However, the sense of disregard is still strong in the collective subconsciousness. Being a musician is still considered to be one of the worst paths to this day. Parents cry to stop you from pursuing weird music other than classical and K-Pop. I am owning that. I embraced the contemporary club culture because the aux cord is shared now. I want to truly celebrate being queer with this music. And I want to see how this music can take on different forms. In that sense, I fell away from the traditions.”

What are the challenges and possibilities of translating your work to a live setting?

“Recently, someone in the Korean traditional music scene suggested including nongak performers in my set. There are plenty of actual nongak performers who could perform perfect nongak for you, but I'm still in the process of learning how to reach out to people, which will allow me to explore such methods of collaboration. For now, I perform alone. It’s only recently, among the comfort of supportive friends from similar backgrounds, that I realized that I am driven by anger when I make sounds. Now that I found a reason behind my creative process, I could start finding ways to express it in a performance. Now it is quite clear: I grab a mic and a multi-effector and I show people my best anger through the medium of computer and voice. Of course, I dream of composing works for professional performers. One day, perhaps, when they’re ready!”

bela performs on the Saturday of Rewire 2022.