By Dan Grunebaum
Bliss Out on Hougaku
A new generation looks to make traditional Japanese music
students will perform traditional instruments including
the shamisen (above) tsutsumi (below) and koto (bottom)
photos Courtesy of Iyoko Oka
As in many Japanese arts, traditional music, or hougaku,
is often a closed world in which practitioners undergo long
apprenticeships with teachers who act as family custodians
of a certain style of music. Students are expected to be loyal
to the masters of the harp-like koto, banjo-like shamisen
and flute-like shakuhachi, with the result, says concert organizer
Iyoko Oka of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music
(Geidai), that there is little opportunity for
independently produced concerts.
Because of the family system in hougaku, its so
difficult to mix up families in one concert, she says.
But while players are in school, they have no restrictions
on playing with other families.
Oka and her classmates in the countrys only university-based
hougaku program decided to take advantage of this freedom
by featuring all the 40-odd Geidai students in one big concert.
Because there are few producers of hougaku concerts, Oka,
currently getting her masters in art management, opted to
take on the role herself.
While hougaku is often viewed as one genre of music, it is
in fact made up of numerous styles related to the histories
of each instrument or region. Koto music, for example, derives
from a tradition of tranquil music that used to be played
in private homes. Shakuhachi music was originally created
by Buddhist priests as a form of solitary meditation. The
vigorous sounds of shamisen music come from Kabuki or are
associated with regional folk styles like Aomoris tsugarujamisen.
Its highly unusual for these instruments to be played
together, so the ambitious young hougaku players at Geidai,
Japans Julliard, decided to explore possibilities for
interaction. We thought that if we could give an ensemble
concert with those Japanese instruments together, we would
enjoy the new surroundings, and at the same time each instrument
would stand out more than when it is played solo.
In order to attract a younger audience, the group chose a
selection of works by contemporary composers, all of them
from the postwar period. Performances at the elegant Suntory
Hall include a piece for the flute and percussion ensemble
known as ohayashi; a work that will bring together several
koto musicians with players of the sho bamboo mouth organ
and shakuhachi; and a piece for vocalists as well as koto
and shamisen players. The highlight of the concert will be
Katsutoshi Nagasawas Shamisen Concerto for two shamisen
accompanied by flute, shakuhachi and percussion.
What this concert wont be, says Oka, is a program of
fusion music in which hougaku is mixed with rock, jazz or
New Age along the lines of the popular shamisen-playing Yoshida
Brothers or the former court musician Hideki Togi. This
kind of image makes hougaku worthless and joyless to listen
to, she says. What the students at Geidai want to do,
she concludes, is not to tamper with tradition, but to welcome
a new audience to the hougaku world.
Suntory Hall, June 7. See concert
listings for details.
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