Ancient music-theatres of Japan

Japan’s Westernisation is only skin-deep. For musical proof of this, consider the eagerness with which the Japanese periodically forsake their hi-tech existence, and immerse themselves in their ancient music-theatre. The most popular form of this is kabuki, which offers lashings of violence, gore, and palpitating, cross-dressed sex (all the actors are male). But the Japanese also love the exquisite restraint of noh theatre, and the sacramental grace of gagaku music, which has scarcely changed over the past thousand years. Each of these forms has been designated by UNESCO as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’, so the rest of the world night profitably pay attention.

Gagaku – which literally means ‘elegant music’ – was originally banquet-music imported from Tang-dynasty China, but with its Zen and Confucian underpinning it was adopted in Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and the Japanese imperial court. Although the Imperial Household ensemble only makes a handful of public forays each year, other ensembles are now carrying this music far and wide.

Playing to a packed house in Tokyo’s National Theatre is one of those groups – the Reigakusha Ensemble, led by the sprightly octogenarian Sukeyasu Shiba. In their medieval silk robes, the musicians are ranged motionless across the stage like chessmen, and their music unfolds at a glacial pace: a high wail on the flute is followed by a few notes ruminatively plucked on the koto zither; a slow skirl on the sho mouth-organ – seventeen bamboo pipes bound together vertically like a bunch of petrified icicles – is punctuated by three thunderous strokes on the big taiko drum. Ma is the word for the Japanese concept of ‘space between sounds’ – something which Westerners dismiss as mere silence. In Reigakusha’s sonic realm, that silence is made to speak volumes.

Reigakusha also plays a new composition by Mr Shiba in which the traditional sounds are given a Western, jazzy twist, but one so subtle that the gagaku sound-world remains intact. Interviewed afterwards, he explains that he’s not only reviving forgotten scores, he’s also broadening the audience: ‘Hitherto gagaku has been played only for God, the Buddha, and the Emperor. Now I want children to enjoy it, so we are going into schools, and speeding up the tempo.’ The zany gagaku spoof on a popular nonsense-song which his musicians have just posted on the internet…

…may help spread the word, but Mr Shiba admits that gagaku is still a minority interest. His conservatoire-trained players make ends meet by teaching piano and violin, and by working as monks in shrines and temples, but he believes the music’s future will be as bright as its past. A virtuoso on the ryuteki flute, he surveys his own past with a smile: ‘My father played the ryuteki in the Imperial ensemble, as did my grandfather, as did his father, and so on back through eight centuries.’

Meanwhile, on little wooden stages all over Japan, noh theatre is still being performed as it originally was, six centuries ago on the penal island of Sado. And at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo a performance of a ghost-drama takes us into a world even more rarefied than that of gagaku. The gorgeously-costumed actors pose like statues – with climactic moments of ferocious activity – and their sepulchral voices, accompanied by flute and drum, create the momentum of a dream.

This art-form’s admirers in the West have included the poet WB Yeats and the theatre director Peter Brook. Among its Japanese devotees is the composer Toshio Hosokawa, who combines a successful avant-garde career in Europe with loyal adherence to his roots. Noh draws him, he says, through its notion of purification by contact with the spirit world, and through its reliance on the power of silence, as evidenced by the ritual gestures made by musicians and actors before a drum-stroke or a sword-thrust. ‘My music is calligraphy painted on a canvas of space and time,’ he says. ‘Silent movement in the air – as the drummer makes his gesture – has as much life as sound. And this movement I imply in my music.’

Does all this sound uncomfortably over-refined? Japanese audiences in the seventeenth century certainly thought so, with the result that noh was ousted as the main theatrical fare by the crazy flamboyance of kabuki, which was everything which noh is not. In place of noh’s austere expressiveness, kabuki made a brash appeal to the merchant class – and to the samurai, despite those warriors’ being forbidden to attend its corrupting spectacle.

The eighteenth-century comedies and tragedies which audiences now flock to see at the Kabuki-za theatre in Tokyo represent a brilliantly-choreographed and intensely physical art, whose lurid tales of love and death resonate powerfully for a twenty-first century audience. If it has something in common with theatre on Broadway and in London’s West End, there’s an excitement in the air, particularly when one of the fabled Kabuki-za stars makes his entrance, which is quintessentially Japanese. Here, too, you catch the spirit of a medieval culture bursting with health – behind the façade of modernity.

[published in The Economist on March 11 2017]

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