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By Dan Grunebaum

Bliss Out on Hougaku

A new generation looks to make traditional Japanese music its own

Geidai 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, it’s 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 country’s 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 Aomori’s tsugarujamisen.

It’s highly unusual for these instruments to be played together, so the ambitious young hougaku players at Geidai, Japan’s 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 Nagasawa’s Shamisen Concerto for two shamisen accompanied by flute, shakuhachi and percussion.

What this concert won’t 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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