UNDERGROUND SOUNDSA bustling downtown Seoul subway station is one of the least likely places one would expect to find a chamber ensemble playing classical music. Indeed, the very unexpectedness of music wafting through the subterranean space is what stopped subway commuters in their tracks to look around for the source of a familiar tune at Euljiro 1-ga Station on subway line No. 2 on a recent Saturday afternoon.
A crowd gathers while the seven-member troupe Eirene begin tuning up for the mini concert, filling all the available space on the tiered seats that encircle the round stage in the central part of Euljiro 1-ga Station. The two violinists, two cellists, two keyboard players and a double bassist are wearing black velvet tops and black pants with long black gauze wraps, lending an air of formality to the occasion.
The rousing Hungarian Dance in D quickly draws a crowd as more commuters gather around the stage. For 40 minutes, the ensemble runs down its repertoire of semi-classics, including a tango number that stirs a little girl seated in the front seat with her mother into a little impromptu dance.
The familiar tune "Besame Mucho" stopped Darren Finch, 36, an Australian on his way to the Yongsan Electronics Mart. "The unusual selection caught my ears," says Mr. Finch, who has been in Korea for two years teaching English. A musician himself -- he used to play drums in a jazz band -- he appreciates the talents of the underground performers. "It's really difficult to play in a noisy setting like this because the players cannot hear each other," he says.
Also among the audience were two homeless men who appeared not to be listening to the music at all, sleeping through the entire 40-minute performance. A drunken man with a bottle of soju who staggers into the performance area provides a bit of drama, but he is briskly pulled away by a young man in the audience.
"Oh, we get episodes like this quite often," says Choi Jae-hee, the 40-year-old group leader and keyboard player. Despite the frequent disturbances, however, she prefers this very public stage to playing at the Plaza Hotel Lobby Lounge where she performs with a trio. "The hotel act is a job whereas this is a performance," she says, describing the unadorned subway stage as a real, live stage where the group can feed off the crowd's immediate reactions. "Besides, you'd be surprised how many drunken men there are at a hotel lounge," she says with a shrug.
Most of the audience does not stay around for the complete performance. Kwon Hyun-hee, a 35-year-old office worker, says she likes the music being played and sings along to the tune of "My Way," but quickly walks away when her friend calls on the cell phone to say she is at the station. However, Ms. Choi is not disheartened by people who walk away during the show. "The fact that we can stop passers-by to listen to our music is rewarding in itself," Ms. Choi says. Judging from how the crowd eagerly grab up all of the 80 free CDs of their music in less than a minute, the chamber ensemble is a hit with the subway riders.
The underground performances by Eirene and some 250 other groups -- ranging the gamut from folk singers to jazz saxophonists to ballerinas and even a team of sign-language singer-dancers -- are the brainchild of Park Jong-ho, 37, who was inspired by the performers in the London subway system. Mr. Park set out for England in 1997 to study English but was forced to return after a month when the foreign exchange crisis hit Korea and he could no longer fund his stay in London.
"In London, the subway authorities assign performers to particular spots after they pass certain screening procedures," he says. "Here, the underground performance movement is led by the performers themselves."
Another key difference is that the London performers who play in the subway make money from their performances; in Seoul subways, artists are not paid a penny. "People in London drop money in the hat naturally, as a token of appreciation for the music," Mr. Park says. "They are regarded as professional performers who deserve to be paid, not someone begging for money." Korean performers do not think to get paid, according to Mr. Park. "We do not think of ourselves as performing on stage for an audience. Our aim is to have people join us in the festivities."
Volunteers who have signed up with the Arts Association of Railroads and Subways, the nonprofit group founded and headed by Mr. Park, have held 132 weekly concerts since April 2000 at Sadang Station, where subway lines Nos. 2 and 4 cross. Today, major subway stations on all of Seoul's eight subway lines play host to underground concerts.
At Isu Station on subway line No. 7, a five-piece amateur band with three vocalists and two sound engineers has been setting up since noon for their debut performance at 4 p.m. The group starts their concert 10 minutes past its scheduled time, beginning with a very loud rendition of "St. Elmo's Fire."
Although there are eight people on stage, the stage seems a little too large for the first-timers, and the sound engineers have flooded the entire station with much-too-loud music. The distance from the stage to the semi-circular tiered seats seems too far this afternoon, as less than 20 people sit scattered.
When the first number is over, a handful of people get up and head down toward the platform. The team belts out a string of contemporary Christian music, much to the dismay of Mr. Park. "They are O.K., but their music is too Christian-oriented," he says.
When the group's leader Oh Se-ran starts to talk about Jesus during an interlude, Mr. Park quickly runs toward the stage and signals Ms. Oh to cut it short. There have been complaints by Buddhists about using public spaces to promote Christian music, according to Mr. Park.
Noticing less than 10 people remaining in the audience as the group's hour-long concert draws to a close, Mr. Park comments that this has been one of the lowest turnouts. "This is sort of an audition for first-timers and we schedule debut performances at this station because there are few commuters," Mr. Park says. Even so, Mr. Park thinks this has been a failure.
When the performance is over, Ms. Oh announces to the near-empty audience, "We hope to see you on Dec. 24 for a Christmas Eve concert." Offstage, Ms. Oh reviews the first public concert by the group. "I know I overdid it a bit in talking about God, and the pauses between pieces were awkward," she says. Nevertheless, two months of practice has been worth the experience in her mind.
Will subway riders get to see this group again on Christmas Eve? Mr. Park is not so sure. "Usually, we do not hear again from groups when they have had a couple of disappointing concerts. But we shall see," he said.
by Kim Hoo-ran