FEELING LIKE AN ARISTOCRAT:
Traditional Court Music Grabs the Limelight
December 10, 2001
Gagaku, or imperial court music, one of Japan's traditional arts, is quietly gaining in popularity as more and more people are discovering the soothing qualities of its elegant tones. Lately there are an increasing number of opportunities for people to enjoy it at their leisure, such as performances and classes. It has been taken up by TV, radio, and movies recently, and it will become mandatory for all middle-school students to take classes on traditional Japanese music beginning in 2002. It seems certain that more people will become familiar with gagaku.
From Temples, Shrines, and the Imperial Court to Cities
Gagaku is unique to Japan and has been passed down since long ago. Beginning in the seventh century it developed under the continuous influence of music from continental Asia, particularly from China and the Korean Peninsula. It reached its completion in the middle of the Heian period (794-1185) and has more or less kept the same form into the present day; it is said to be the world's oldest type of ensemble music. Gagaku falls into three categories: kangen (winds and strings), bugaku (dance music), and kayo (songs). This music is performed at imperial ceremonies and at temples and shrines.
Kangen is strictly instrumental music and is played by an ensemble consisting of wind, string, and percussion instruments. The three wind instruments are the sho (a small mouth organ consisting of 17 bamboo pipes), ryuteki (a kind of flute), and hichiriki (bamboo oboe). They are joined by string instruments, such as the biwa (Japanese lute), and percussion instruments like the tsuzumi (hand drum) and taiko (large drum). As there is no conductor, this is an ensemble performance in the truest respect; in order to attain the spirit of gagaku, the performers must have a proper grasp of the movements of the eight different instruments and even sense the breath and ma (a concept of space found in Japanese arts) of the other musicians.
Beginning in April 2002, Japanese middle school students will have to play at least one traditional Japanese instrument in music class. According to an official at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, "We want children to realize the good qualities of traditional Japanese music and to develop a feeling of respect for it." It seems that moves to reassess gagaku are taking place across a broad section of society.
Classes Popular, CD Sales Booming
Every Saturday in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, the beautiful sounds of gagaku can be heard coming from within Otama Inari Shrine. About 20 people sit cross-legged on a red carpet while playing gagaku instruments. Their expressions are serene, and the atmosphere is solemn, evoking an image of the imperial court in the Heian period. This is, however, the scene of the Mizuho Gagaku Society (site in Japanese only) at practice. The society holds gagaku performances and seeks to spread awareness of the music. Its members range from high-school students to office workers and housewives in their fifties.
Gagaku has lately been making appearances in movies and TV programs as well. Onmyoji, a hit movie released in October 2001, constantly employs gagaku as it portrays the elegant society of Heian nobles. This movie has pushed up the popularity of gagaku even further.
CDs of gagaku have been enjoying brisk sales. The CDs of Hideki Togi (site in Japanese only), a former musician of the Imperial Household Agency (site in Japanese only), have been particularly hot over the past year. According to figures from the record industry, Togi's albums have sold a combined total of more than one million copies.
Sales of gagaku wind instruments, which can cost anywhere from ¥5,000 to over ¥800,000 ($40 to $6,400 at ¥125 to the dollar), are picking up as well. A large retailer of gagaku wind instruments in Tokyo's Kita Ward noted that sales are up nearly 50% over the year before. In hopes of keeping gagaku from becoming a passing fad, the store is offering lessons and other services to those who purchase the instruments.