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By Janet Pocorobba

Who’s left to listen?

Traditional Japanese music is in danger of dying a slow death

Janet Pocorobba is a writer living in Boston

On returning to Japan this autumn, I see that traditional performance has not changed. I went to a recital recently of nagauta, a style of music originated in 18th-century kabuki theater, because its subtle rhythms and use of ma (space), its aching vocals and crisp shamisen solos are what I have been studying for the past eight years—and the reason I keep coming back to Japan.

The stage at the Nihonbashi Gekijo is set with the same black-trimmed gold screen whose warm, earthy glow contrasts with the cool sky-blue backdrop. Two tiers of red carpet offset the formal black kimonos of the performers, the honeyed wood of the shamisens and the tangerine shirabe of the drums in a feast that is visual as well as aural. But the faces onstage are mostly crinkled with age, and the expressions bored and lifeless even as they reach feverish climaxes, as if they are disconnected from the sounds they are creating. The audience, too, is disappointing: a 400-seat hall sprinkled with a handful of friends and relatives who leave once their loved one is off stage, hurrying to the gakuya or lobby to shower them with money and gifts. Everyone here today is part of an inner circle; there is no general public. Word does not get around. Hogaku (traditional music) is not popular. It is old, boring, slow. “Muzukashii,” the Japanese tell me.

What seems to be muzukashii is any desire to move this musical form beyond its secret sanctuary of doting deshi (apprentices), all-powerful masters, and the endless money required to rise through the ranks. On the stage, the students, mere amateurs, stand out from the professionals by their robes. Their inexperience is highlighted and their mistakes scrutinized under the hot lights. The pressure is enormous. Forced to memorize the music, they tremble visibly. Next to them, the pros are confident and assured. For them, it is a good day’s work, possibly thousands of dollars earned on this one recital, where their students will pay handsomely for the privilege to perform with them. Without amateurs, like latter-day patrons, the pros could not support themselves. And what does the amateur get out of it? The status of association. “I am in the Kineya ryu, I belong to so-and-so.” The privilege of belonging, or if they’re lucky, being “adopted” with a stage name, into an elite family tradition. And what of the amateur with no money? Forget about it.

An old woman is playing lead shamisen. She is a student, I can see by her pale blue robe. I estimate she’s been playing most of her adult life. She has an ease with the shamisen, a mellowness in her playing achieved only over time. Maybe she could have gone pro. Who knows? But here she is at her student recital, and I ask myself, Why does this person spend over $10,000 for 20 minutes in the limelight? Why continue expensive lessons that she will have to pay for even if she decides to go on vacation or gets sick and cannot attend? Why does she practice alone, year after year, song after song? Who, out there, is listening?
It must be something inside that makes her feel good. Elegant. Poised. Beautiful. Like this stage, like these kimono and these delicate and beautiful instruments and the heartbreaking sounds they make. The music humanizes her, expands her. Or maybe I am projecting. Maybe she has too much time and money on her hands. She probably she doesn’t think about it all. Too muzukashii.

And why do I study it? Because my instructor is an unusually open-minded woman who teaches Japanese music to foreigners. They’re more interested, she says. What she means is more passionate. They respond to what they hear as music, not as empty ritual or a status-seeking gesture. They sigh at a final cadence, thrill at a solo, sometimes cannot hold their limbs still as they take in the new scales and rhythms, the endless spaces between the sounds.

And I find, again, on return, that my teacher is alone in her efforts to not only expand hogaku in the world, but to make it alive again, not stuffed and mounted on a stage, a symbol of Japanese-ness that has no connection to its audience. She is trying to breathe life into it. I am one of the few who have been resuscitated by her efforts, and it has enriched my life.

I wonder how many young people today, here and abroad, will take an interest in this music. Not many, if the insular scene I witnessed today is any indication. Japanese music will remain a closed club, a secret society, and these performances nothing more than self-indulgent, childish pageants, mere masturbatory exercises, unless more people open the door to let in some fresh air. It is music, after all. When there is no one left to play, it will be gone, its sounds irretrievable, leaving only a deafening silence, a permanent ma.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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