bela, “Guidelines”

An exhilarating combination of percussion-driven dance, song and theatrics, the Korean traditional farmers’ music of Nongak is thought to have originated as a rustic promotion of harmony to appease gods and spirits prior to the harvest season. Selected  by UNESCO for a place on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it is regarded as one of the oldest performance styles in Korea, possibly having originated as early as 57 BCE. Although there are differences between Nongak styles across regions, its percussive elements are indispensable and – as noted by the musicologist Keith Howard in his 1991 essay Why Do It That Way? – far more important to the tradition than such frivolities as melody.   

With that in mind, it’s incredible the wild and improvisational Nongak isn’t plumbed more regularly by artists hunting new directions. By utilising instruments such as gongs (namely kkwaenggwari and jing) and a variety of drums (particularly janggu, sogo, beopgo and buk), Nongak musicians are able to create complex, driving webs of rhythm at once solid and subtle. For example, the double-headed janggu might dictate the beat and provide rhythmic embellishment depending on which type of stick is used (there are two: yeolchae and gungchae), and it may be played by a number of participants all at once. Likewise, the tiny, toy-like sogo, which appears little more than a dancer’s prop, is handled with such flair as to provide almost imperceptible accent among the whirling fray.  Occasionally, pipes such as the hojŏk ride and writhe, adding touches of wild free jazz fever – yet another joyous layer of “loud and weird noises,” as this Arirang News anchor would have it in 2014.  

In a recent interview with Swine Daily, bela expressed a desire to somehow Westernise Nongak following an airport encounter with an ensemble attempting pop bangers on traditional Korean instruments. Although bela has never participated in Nongak, they did learn to play janggu at school and, like most Koreans, holds their country’s cultural heritage in high esteem. “I wanted to give it a twist… but in a way that doesn’t necessarily hurt the tradition,” they said. “Why not play Korean traditional music but on a computer as a form of entertainment in the most western establishment, a club?”

Welcome to the floor Guidelines, the third release on Jesse Osborne-Lanthier’s fledgling Éditions Appærent. Using original sheet music found in government archives and as many YouTube videos of ensemble performances as they could find, bela – a club DJ by trade – squeezes and shifts Nongak’s hyper-propulsive rhythms into frenzied beat assaults, heavily overloaded with the kind of fuzzed-up clatter and zip you might find tucked away in the Raster-Noton catalogue. 

Every single instrument in the Nongak stockpile is accounted for by Guidelines, with what I term the “dervish” phase of proceedings (i.e. the thrilling point at which the performers begin their spinning acrobatics) mined most often, being the part we might recognise as the crescendo. Here, with all drums banging out multiple different beats, dizzying layers of rhythm emerge like twitching branches, reverberating against one another in such a way that the throb of echo itself becomes a vital part of the tapestry. “Bangilgunak/Byeoldalgeori” is a stand-out, showcasing the razor sharp tempo changes Nongak is famed for as it ramps up into a genuinely astonishing web of percussive showmanship.

Anyone who has experienced the joy of a Nongak performance, on YouTube or otherwise, will not find it difficult to identify constituent parts of bela’s process. On the surface, it may even appear that not a lot has been done on their part, save the odd shift of pitch. But with repeated listens, as with Nongak itself, the tiny details that make the tradition so riveting make themselves apparent. “Jjaksoe” introduces ambient elements beneath cascading “Baba O’Reilly” style organ rolls, and the oozy “Variation 1” ups the fuzz on glitchy, glottal pulses with coats of grime The Bug would be proud of. On the louder end of the spectrum, “Variation 2” has a thundering industrial clang to it, all fiery spumes, wailing alarms and squealing coils riding huge, hollow janggu beats. It’s as close to pure noise as Guidelines gets; if this is what club music sounds like these days, I need to get back out there.