Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Inside Look at Gagaku

In a world where pop music and rhythm and blues top the charts, there’s a different kind of music reserved for the discriminating few. Find out how gagaku keeps the mood on a high note during state parties in Japan. By Kaye Langit-Luistro

Does the name “Gagaku” ring a bell? Perhaps not, because it is a form of Japanese classical music heard only at Shinto-shrines, Japanese style wedding ceremonies or court events. But since 1956, the Imperial family (the Emperor, Empress, the Crown Prince and Princess), Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Prefectural Boards of Education have treated the public to gagaku recitals and performances once or twice every year, just to keep the music alive!

What’s special about gagaku is that it shows how and where Japanese music really came from. When you listen to it being played by the Japanese Imperial Household, you hear remnants of Korean, Chinese and Indian music, because gagaku evolved from these nations between the 3rd and 8th centuries. And then it was standardized (conformed to prevailing standards) during the 9th century. Like any other Asian music, it gave birth to more interesting styles.

The Togaku, or T'ang.
When you listen to gagaku sounding like music played in Central Asia, South East Asia and India, gagaku is said to be of T’ang style. Today, Togaku can be performed as kangen, (instrumental or concert music for winds, strings and percussion) or as bugaku (dance music but without the string section).

The Komagaku
Do you know that its name actually came from one of the three ancient states of Korea? Yes, that shows how Korean culture and tradition helped shape Komagaku. During the Heian period (794 AD), both Komagaku and Togaku were treated as chamber music (full ensemble of winds and strings) and a highly-favored dance accompaniment, at least by the nobility. Today Komagaku is enjoyed only as dance music, for chamber music performances were abolished during that period.

Can You Feel the Beat?
Gagaku is performed in three ways: Kangen (Instrumental), Bugaku (dances and music), and Kayo (songs and chanted poetry). Among the most popular vocal music around are Roei (Chinese poems), Saibara (gagaku-style folk songs), Enkyoku (banquet music), and Imayo (lyrics set to gagaku melodies).

But what really sets gagaku apart from other Asian musical styles is its use of “Jo-ha-kyu,” a notation (guideline) that determines when instruments should play and stop, when to quicken and slow down the tempo. For the past eighty years, gagaku’s tempo quickened a little, but it is still very, very slow by today’s standard. But gagaku won’t be gagaku without its trademark tempo. How else can it re-create the elegant atmosphere of the ancient courts, with a much faster pace?

What are the instruments used for Gagaku?
Musicologists explain that Gagaku’s musical structure is a combination of long, fixed rhythmic patterns (beat) and long melodic patterns played by the percussion instruments. They say that such technique brings out the grace reflective of the ancient courts. Very carefully, instruments were selected to achieve this effect. Among them were Japanese instruments, Wagon (6-string zither) and Kagura-bue (transverse flute), foreign instruments like the Sho (mouth organ), Hichiriki (oboe) and flute as wind instruments, the So (Japanese harp, or Koto), and Biwa (lute) as string instruments and the Kakko (drum), Taiko (drum), Shoko (Bronze gong) and San-no-Tsuzumi (hour-glass drum) as percussion.

Indeed, Gagaku was successful in importing the best in Korean, Chinese, Indian musical styles and mixing them with authentic Japanese instrumentation and rhythms, to produce some of the most unique Japanese singing style and vocal arrangements since the 9th century. In fact, the Roei, Saibara, Enkyoku, and Imayo are so great that musicians today base some of their songs and compositions from them. Who knows, Gagaku may find itself alongside Celtic or Irish music, and Jamaica's reggae, in the hearts of world music fans pretty soon?

Do you know that Gagaku made its debut overseas in 1959? It first resonated at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in New York, and has since been performed on 33 occasions in seven cities in the United States.
Gagaku is often played during state visits done by the Imperial Family. Since 1962 when the Crown Prince and Princess visited Europe, and in 2000, on the occasion of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress' visit to the Netherlands and Sweden, a total of eight performances have been held in five cities in Europe and in Egypt.

Illustrated: A Look Into Japan. Japan Travel Bureau: Japan, 1997.

This article was published in Buhawi Magazine (2005), a High School Reference Material by the Diwa Publishing Group.
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