Front is media partner of Rewire – from 7 to 10 April 2022 in The Hague. In addition to bela, Alabaster dePlume, Mabe Fratti and Oceanic will play, among others. More information can be found at Rewire's website.
South Korean electronic artist bela makes decisively rootless music. Their work is a result of sharp practice and dedicated research, usually triggered by a specific question or personal experience. bela’s latest EP Guidelines, released by Montreal imprint Éditions Appærent, was initially conceived out of boredom towards contemporary club sounds. To make something interesting, bela drew from a cultural tradition that has nothing to do with electronic music. Nongak,a form of traditional Korean folk music, applies elements like dance, acrobatics and theater as a form of communal entertainment and shamanic ritual.
Written by: Jasper Willems
But bela holds no sentimental feelings towards Nongak. To them, this music is simply a fertile, novel source to establish a highly original sonic angle. “If you went to both Nongak and Seoul club events on the same day, you probably wouldn’t describe them as similar to each other,” they explain.”But when I try to explain them in words, I could say they are similar in that they are both sharing the experience of music and dance. There is no big pipeline from Nongak to club music, though. I wanted to bring them close to each other.”
As these undertakings often do, Guidelines took on greater personal meaning for bela as they traveled further down the proverbial rabbit hole. “I experimented with what a section of Nongak beats could do in a club setting, rather than using the narrative of a typical Nongak performance. This may seem irrelevant, but when I first started working on Nongak beats, back in 2019, I thought I wanted to separate my queerness from my music. On a personal level, years of seeing the homophobic rallies against the Seoul Queer Festival (Pride Parade) bring out traditional music and dance made me doubt the spirit of Korean traditional art forms more and more every time they did it. I was even scared to release this in Korea as bela. So for the live performance, I wanted to actively be on the other side of those bad memories, forging my own narrative for a change. I am willing to dig deeper into the art of Nongak if the situation allows, of course.”
Instead of applying cast-iron sampling of Nongak performances, like you would with traditional hip hop productions, they are more interested in pulling the rhythms and melodies into a digitized zone of noise and abstraction. It results in futuristic club romps that are unlike anything else. ‘칠채 Chilchae’ translates the clattering percussion of Nongak to a frantic fiberglass IDM foray. And structurally, sure, you could picture the glitchy ‘반길군악/별달거리 Bangilgunak/Byeoldalgeori’ as a parading group of vibrantly-clad pungmul practitioners. But if you came in listening to this without knowledge of Guidelines’ premise, the imagery of a technologically-advanced alien beehive seems way more apt.
I’m interested in the extent of your research: it’s described on Bandcamp that you uncovered sheet music from government archives? What made you realize you had to go through such lengths to achieve this music?
“I wanted to research without having to introduce myself to a percussionist, come out, have a conversation, explain my intentions. This way I don’t have to go looking for queer-friendly options. And as I told you before, there’s no pipeline from Nongak to club culture. I didn’t know anyone in Korean traditional music back then. It was set out to be a solo journey. The research itself was musically challenging, but I had already learned some basics when I was little. It was the easiest choice on my end because I could find a lot of sheet music on Korean government-run organizations' websites.”
Your first EP why are you so lost sweetie is a musical journal reflecting your military service, which was at odds with your non-binary identity. It’s music made from a forced limitation: can you talk me a bit through the process of making this record?
“It’s quite personal to me… but I think some people can relate? Since when I was a kid, whenever I was in a stressful situation I would space out, and in those moments when your vision blurs, my brain starts singing these melodies that I wanted to document in some way. I learned how to play piano for some months when I was five, six, but I had forgotten how to read music since, so I would draw graphic notations to remember the melodies. Which often didn’t work because I have relative pitch.”
“Fast forward to the mandatory air force days. I would try to whistle these tunes throughout the day at work, so I could come to the shared PC rooms in the evening and put them down into the online MIDI sequencer I found. That was possible because I was given a lot of field work. The men there were annoyed at me, but it didn’t really bother me. The ones released on the EP are the ones that have survived in my memories.”
You mentioned that Guidelines is a product of “the dual impulses of painstaking research and boredom with the sound of the club music around them”. What came first? Was it a long process connecting the research with the willingness to make something distinct from what everyone else was doing?
“Boredom first. I didn’t like how it was always either tresillo or techno with the club music I was around all the time. I didn’t hate it, but I was looking for something new. I always thought Nongak would be a great fit to the sound I was already familiar with, but I knew that if I was going to do it, I had to at least do my homework.”
How has club and electronic music been instrumental to your identity as non-binary? Are there specific artists that opened your eyes on this matter?
“This is the question I dread the most because it is so personal. I’m only sharing because I know it helps others, the more I speak. I first discovered electronic music after Burial and Thom Yorke, I think. Back in 2010 I was 14, and I wasn’t fluent in English yet. I was already out to my family as gay, but listening to SOPHIE and Arca’s 2015 releases really rewired me. I mean, I liked Burial too, but his music didn’t make me reconsider my gender. Both SOPHIE and Arca had not come out as trans or non-binary yet back then.”
“They didn’t even have a big media presence like they did after coming out. But me and my friends all sensed it anyway. It was so clear, but not in a way that can be articulated. All the time I listened to their music I constantly went, ‘Yes, that’s what I mean, thanks for saying it out loud.’ The years 2014-2016 in music, and the people who were at the clubs, were important to me. They were mostly very progressive-minded people, and it felt natural to me. All these factors made it easier for me to come out anew as a non-binary person. I don’t remember when I first encountered the word non-binary, because it happened really smoothly.”
Where are you based exactly? And what are the places and venues you enjoy performing?
“I live about 30 kilometres away from the center of Seoul, in Paju. It’s not a big distance by big country standards, but as a person whose family can’t afford a used car, it makes me think ‘Is it really worth it to go out tonight and suffer the extensive walk of shame?’ Because there’s no night buses running when the club closes at 3 or 4 in the morning, and I always felt bad about crashing at friends’ places. I played at ACS, Cakeshop, Senggi Studio, Seendosi, Trippy, MWG, AJO, Channel1969, which are/were all in Seoul. I think I love Senggi the most because it’s the freest place to experiment. I never had to stay up all night after a Senggi Studio gig because they do them early. Cakeshop is the best for parties, though. These are just my suburban opinions, by the way.”
Though the theme of Nongak is the main thread of Guidelines, I wonder how different you approached each track. Are some tracks faithful delineations of Nongak songs? Or are some faithful recordings that have been manipulated? Is it important to blur the lines? Or is each track composed with a specific question and angle in mind?
“Guidelines is a result of research and experiments, but it isn’t an attempt to solidify my musical practice. What all tracks share in common – except for the two variation tracks – is that large parts come from a written or performed version of some form of Nongak jangdans. I wanted to show versatility in production, because I wanted to embody many different potentials I hear in Nongak rhythms, in a club-adjacent context. For example, you would hear ‘Dongsalpuri’ in a Seoljanggu performance, not exactly in the field but more in a staged event like a Mudang ceremony, sometimes through a janggu (drum) solo, sometimes in small groups. On the other hand, ‘Chilchae’ is more a Pungmulpae sound, usually performed in huge groups. So I wanted to augment each jangdans based on their differences in context and use. As a result, ‘Dongsalpuri’ unfolds in a way that intrigues curiosity about what happens next, and ‘Chilchae’ goes from 0 to 60, as it should in a live performance.”
Since you’re performing at Rewire this year, what can the audience expect? Nongak has elements of theater interwoven with the music: are you also more inclined towards that aspect, or are you trying to engage it with more from a compositional vantage point?
“I mean, it’s a solo performance. But I’m doing something new, I’m expecting death growls and mosh pits. Is it the right kind of crowd? Let’s see what happens…”
bela will perform at The Hague’s Rewire Festival on Saturday April 9. Order Guidelines digitally at their Bandcamp page.