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  • UNESCO Collection Week 53: Juxtaposing Traditional and Modern Music of Japan

    This week UNESCO releases Tribute to Noguchi, and reissues Japan: Semiclassical and Folk Music. These albums show traditional Japanese musical roots both in folk and classical form, as well as in modern Western fusion.

    This week we’re also featuring two blog posts so readers can compare perspectives, just as they can compare the two different albums being released.


    by Kyle Baker

    Japan: Semiclasssical and Folk Music
    Though these two albums are dramatically different collections of a variety of Eastern folk, classical, and Western music, they arrive at similar conclusions. Semiclassical and Folk Music and Tribute to Noguchi both illustrate the dichotomy of Japanese musical culture as authentic traditions of the country, and are heavily infused with external influence. While the former exhibits folk and traditional styles either originating in Japan or arriving from China and other surrounding countries in the 8th to the 19th centuries, the latter focuses on the efforts of a contemporary Japanese composer to create a dialogue between Eastern and Western musical idioms. Both albums demonstrate the ability of composers and musicians to incorporate external musical elements as a means of fortifying Japanese identity.

    From Semiclassical and Folk Music, we hear evidence of the balance that Japanese civilization maintained between adapting to a constant influx of Chinese, Korean, and Indian influence, and fostering their own musical and cultural values. Many integral ingredients of Japanese music indeed came from China, such as the 13-stringed koto, and the shakuhachi flute in the 8th century. However, like any civilization, the Japanese incorporated these external influences into their own lexicon, creating syncretic genres such as the Koto and Shamisen ensemble. Though a large portion of this album consists of styles that originate in China, the folk music genres that are present are believed to be authentic to Japan. The ancient court music of Gagaku and Noh musical theater are two such genres that appear throughout this album. Of course, there always remains a blurred line in defining folk music versus more professional or refined genres. Biyashi ensembles, for example, might be heard in Noh musical theater with a specific arrangement of a flute, two hourglass drums, and a flat drum. This arrangement, however, is often transformed in folk music as more accessible instruments such as barrel drums and gongs replace those mentioned above.

    Like many folk music traditions, the songs on Semiclassical and Folk Music appear to be either functional narratives of the laborer, or performed as ceremonial and celebratory activities. Featured songs such as “Tsugaru Yama-Uta” (Mountaineer’s Song) and “Tairyo Utaikomi” (Fisherman’s Song) were at one time practical activities for the mentioned professionals, often complementary to or dictating the rhythm of their work, but have since become celebratory pieces sung at sake parties and social events. The festivals and celebrations at which many folk songs are performed can vary. “Awa-Odori” is performed at a festival that draws hundreds of thousands of Japanese to Tokushima City each summer, where groups of bon dancers crowd the streets to sing and entertain. The Matsuri Festival however, where the recording of “Edo Matsuri Bayashi” was captured, could take place on street corners for entertainment, but is also recognized as having a religious character, and is observed peacefully on the seashore, in rice fields, and on mountain tops.

    Yoshihisha Taira: Tribute to Noguchi
    Yoshihisha Taira’s Tribute to Noguchi is a live concert given at UNESCO’s Japanese Garden in Paris, honoring the renowned Japanese-American sculptor. The creator and overseer of the garden, Isamu Noguchi, was dedicated to bridging Japanese and Western cultures through his art, and his work at the garden was indeed a testament to these ideals. The two-level garden is embellished with bridges, trees, flowing water, and sculptures whose stones were handpicked from Japan. Noguchi created this garden at a pivotal time for East-West relations, and the Japanese government gifted his work to UNESCO, which was the first United Nations organization to welcome the country into the international community after World War II

    The process of maintaining Japanese tradition while simultaneously incorporating Western influences is what ties the sculptor to composer Yoshihisha Taira. Noguchi died in 1988. Just a year after his death, Taira, his musical contemporary in many ways, held this performance at the Japanese Garden. Having studied in France with Olivier Messiaen and like composers, Yoshihisha Taira was known to build his compositions like sculptures, “seeing” the full form of each work before hearing them. For example, the primary composition of the concert, “Aiolos,” was inspired by the physical layout of the garden at UNESCO, and the composer is quoted in the liner notes as saying, “I immediately became aware of the breath of the wind wafting in the sounds from afar.” Keeping up with the cultural ideals of Noguchi, Taira also says of the piece, “I felt that it would be most suitable to use a flute in G and a harp, these being Western instruments that are somewhat suggestive of Japanese tradition.” Taira originally composed the second track of the album, “Synchrony,” for two silver flutes, but substituted one of the Western flutes with the shakuhachi for the performance. For this piece, the composer’s intention was to create a dialogue between East and West.

    This live performance lives up to the sonic characteristics of composers like Messiaen, who were known for experimenting in avant-garde styles such as total serialism. Tribute to Noguchi by Yoshihisha Taira also displays an overwhelmingly organic quality through the breath of the flutes and the subtleties of the stringed instruments, leaving wide gaps of silence, juxtaposed with strikingly dissonant and dynamically charged sections. Perhaps the philosophies of these two Japanese artists, and the art forms themselves, are best connected by Isamu Noguchi’s intention behind the garden: “The UNESCO garden does not attempt to reproduce the old or traditional, excepting in allusion and as a point of departure.”

    Existing in separate musical worlds, Semiclassical and Folk Music and Tribute to Noguchi share a subtle yet important element of tradition. Through adaptation and creativity, these Japanese art forms have not only been preserved, but remain relevant in modern culture.

    Kyle Baker is a music enthusiast who loves to play, research, record, talk about, and write about all things music. He is a Smithsonian Folkways intern and a recent graduate of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA where he studied ethnomusicology and audio recording.


    By Rita Kit Yan To

    As an ethnomusicologist with a strong interest in the history of East Asian music, I am particularly drawn to the musical traditions of Japan, a country where many people are keen on preservation as well as incorporating new traditions into their way of life. This week’s UNESCO releases, Japan: Semiclassical and Folk Music and Yoshihisha Taira: Tribute to Noguchi, feature, respectfively, traditional Japanese music cultivated between the 16th and the 19th centuries, and the commissioned music composed by Yoshihisa Taira in 1989 in tribute to the renowned Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who created UNESCO’s Japanese Garden in Paris. Each of the albums exemplifies the rich diversity of musical expression in Japan.

    Recorded in 1974, Japan: Semiclassical and Folk Music documents semiclassical music and surviving folk music dated from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The eight tracks present not only a variety of musical genres and cultural contexts in Japanese traditional music, but also the incorporation of both traditional and new elements in preexisting genres. Track 2, the koto duet “Godan-Kinuta,” for instance, was a new genre developed by a blind koto musician in the 17th century. Koto, a thirteen-stringed zither introduced from China during the 8th century,1 was originally associated with the Gagaku ceremonial court music tradition. Tuned one fifth apart, the two kotos converse in a lively call-and-response, posing a stark contrast to the koto played as a solo instrument or as a string component in slow, dignified Gagaku court music. As the liner notes explain, the genre was further developed by koto musicians and evolved into different sizes of chamber ensembles, allowing development of increasingly sophisticated styles of polyphony in koto ensembles. The ensemble repertoires, which began as a form of chamber music to be performed at home and that was popular among women, is now expanding its place on the concert stage both in Japan and abroad. While the koto is ancient in origin, innovations have culminated in highly sophisticated, original playing techniques and musical aesthetics.

    Despite being audibly distinctive in terms of its Western instrumentation and dissonance, Yoshihisa Taira: Tribute to Noguchi similarly captures the dynamics between old traditions and new experiments in the history of Japanese music. Japanese gardens are commonly found not only in Japan but also across the world. Millions of visitors come to enjoy the tranquility, the natural beuaty, and sensual space created in the gardens. Designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1958, the UNESCO Japanese garden (also named the Garden of Peace) comprises clear boundaries and autonomous spaces, which can be viewed as individual sculptures on their own. One must note the significant relationship between traditional Japanese music and nature when it comes to the concept of time (music) and space (nature/architecture) in Japan. Quoted from Yoshihisa Taira in the liner notes, the concept of space or pause—ma (間 in Japanese kanji), which literally means the empty space between two pillars—suggests the emptiness (i.e., silence) is not empty; instead, it contains “a breath of life.” The tension between the space of living silence and the sounds make the musical notes alive.

    Such aesthetic sensibility of Japanese music is reflected in track 1, “Aiolos,” for flute and harp, performed and recorded at the world premiere of Isamu Noguchi’s UNESCO Japanese garden in 1989. On his first visit in the garden, Taira aspired to capture the “breath of wind,” which is simulated by the timbre of the flutter tongue and overblowing of the flute (4:31). The sound of the wafting wind in the garden is also heard as a sonic component and contributes to the overall “breathing” sonority of the piece.2 The plucking strings, blending pitches played by the harp with an emphasis on half steps, also recalls the playing technique of koto. The tension created by the instruments and the silence, or “ma,” throughout the piece remain even after the lingering sounds diminish. This tension is also reflected in track 2, “Synchrony,” for two flutes. A Japanese flute, shakuhachi, was used in this recording, according to Taira’s intention to use two instruments belonging to two different cultures in the piece. The contrast created by the flute and shakuhachi is very prominent in the opening, creating an expectation of the next sound, followed by the sufficiently intense “ma.” The “ma” is considered to be highly expressive, thus the listeners must strain their ears for the “ma” to appreciate traditional Japanese music.

    The music that has developed in Japan over such a long span of time is widely diverse. I make no attempt to draw a direct linkage between the two albums. Instead, I invite the audience to join with me in exploring how these composers and musicians uphold their traditional values and aesthetics while embracing new elements and ideas. This pair of albums, together with the other four Japanese music albums in the UNESCO Collection of Music, will definitely appeal to those interested in exploring the richness and diversity of music in Japan as well as to those who enjoy reveling in Japanese philosophy and aesthetics through music.

    Rita Kit Yan To
    M.Mus. in Ethnomusicology, UT Austin

    1 Koto is a chordophone related to the Chinese zheng, the Korean kayagum, and the Vietnamese dan tranh. It was sent among the ceremonial instruments from China to Japan during Tang dynasty (AD 618–907).

    2 A concert version of the piece is also found in the album (track 4); listeners can compare the two versions.

    UNESCO Collection Week 53: Juxtaposing Traditional and Modern Music of Japan | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings