Music Made in Japan
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
THE origins of traditional Japanese music reach back more than a thousand years. Included are classical or refined music, chamber music, theater, folk and festival music, as well as a host of vocal forms. This treasury of music was passed on from generation to generation without the help of musical scores.
Between the third and fifth centuries C.E., Buddhist missionary priests came to Japan to spread their views. The chants and background music associated with their religion gradually merged with the Shinto traditional music, forming a basis for nearly all native Japanese music.
By the seventh century this music of Japan developed into what became known as Gagaku, the classical (literally, “elegant”) music. From Gagaku, which became the music of the imperial court, the secular use of instrumental music grew, as did theatrical music. Meanwhile, folk and festival music appeared, with its loud drumming and lively rhythm, contrasting sharply with the quiet music of Gagaku.
Today many instruments are employed in traditional Japanese music. The three most commonly heard are the koto, shakuhachi and shamisen.
The koto, imported from China around the ninth century, is a long wooden box-type instrument about six feet (1.8 meters) long and one foot (.3 meter) wide. With the instrument lying before him, the seated player plucks its 13 strings with a plectrum. A skillful player can produce music that pleasantly resembles that of the harp.
The Japanese bamboo flute, measuring about 21 inches (53 centimeters) in length, is called shakuhachi. This instrument has five finger holes, and a mouthpiece at the upper end. The player holds the shakuhachi vertically. By skillfully adjusting his lips to the mouthpiece at varying angles and moving his neck into different positions as he covers the holes with his fingers, the instrumentalist is able to produce three octaves of tones. The plaintive wail produced by this flute may generate feelings of vagueness and melancholy.
The shamisen has no counterpart among Western musical instruments. It came to Japan from China by way of Okinawa around the year 1560 C.E. But only the instrument is an import. The manner in which the shamisen is played, the kind of music produced with it and the construction of the instrument itself are strictly Japanese. It looks somewhat like a banjo, is made of wood covered with cat skin, and has three gut strings. The shamisen is played by striking the strings with a large plectrum.
When music is produced on the shamisen, the most important thing is not the sound of the instrument but the words for which the music provides the background. Without the words, the music has little meaning. It varies according to the meaning of the song. When words fail to express what is to be conveyed, such as the cold of falling snow or the trickling of a brook, the shamisen is used to “imitate” these things, and the story is told without words.
Appreciating the Music
What is the composite effect produced by Japanese instrumentalists? If you are listening for the first time, your reaction may be that you are hearing the same thing over and over again. It may seem that you are listening to a kind of melody, and yet there appear to be conflicting melodies. But there is something delightful about seeing the musicians perform. Their movements, posture and expressions all appear to be choreographed and in perfect harmony. Yes, in Japan, not just the music, but how it is played and how the performance looks to the observer are important.
Japanese music is very different from the music common in Western lands. This difference includes the scale, the rhythm and the sound. In Western orchestral music, sounds from the various instruments blend, producing harmony. But in Japanese music the individual instruments can be heard playing conflicting melodies. Nevertheless, together they create an aesthetic balance.
In the last 100 years, the Western style of music has become the norm in Japan. Under Emperor Meiji’s reform, music began to be taught in the schools, and it was the music of the West. In spite of this, there is no danger that the ancient traditional music will die out. Many Japanese people want to preserve the traditional music. Therefore, the various guilds that perpetuate this music and teach it continue to thrive.
Because music of the Western world has become so much a part of Japanese culture, one can find old Japanese songs written in Western notation and scored for the piano or guitar. Also, in the last century many new Japanese songs have been written according to the Western style. But it cannot be said that these are truly Western songs. Rather, the Japanese simply have used a medium to enrich their own musical heritage. The development is music with a distinct Japanese flavor, though scored and played in the Western style.
If you are not an Oriental, this brief look at the music of Japan may help you to appreciate why it is so different from Western music. Should you have the opportunity to hear it, be observant and listen carefully. You may, in time, come to enjoy music made in Japan.
[Picture on page 21]
[Picture on page 21]