Japanese Court Music and Dance: Gagaku and Bugaku

I’m taking a break from all this portfolio stuff to talk about something fun I got to do recently.

Over the past 2 years or so, I have been learning about Japan and Japanese culture. Going farther back, I’ve been interested in Asian cultures for many years, having joined Asia Society Texas many years ago.

The Japan Society, decided to dedicate some of it’s programming this year to have an imperial focus, in part due to the abdication of Japanese Emperor Akihito.

Japanese society being what it is, there are many ceremonies and rituals when a new emperor ascends the throne. They involve, among other things, music. And the fun thing I go to do recently was attend a performance of Japanese court music.


Gagaku

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides the following description for Gagaku:

Gagaku, characterized by long, slow songs and dance-like movements, is the oldest of the Japanese traditional performing arts. It is performed at banquets and ceremonies in the Imperial Palace and in theatres throughout the country, and encompasses three distinct arts. The first, Kuniburi no Utamai, features ancient Japanese songs, partial accompaniment by harp and flute and simple choreography. The second consists of instrumental music (especially wind instruments) and a ceremonial dance developed on the Asian continent and subsequently adapted by Japanese artists. The third, Utamono, is danced to vocal music whose texts include Japanese folk songs and Chinese poems. Influenced by the politics and culture of different periods over its long evolution, Gagaku continues to be transmitted to apprentices by masters in the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency, many of whom are the descendants of families with deep roots in the art. It is not only an important cultural tool in confirming Japanese identity and a crystallization of the history of Japanese society, but also a demonstration of how multiple cultural traditions can be fused into a unique heritage through constant recreation over time.

Here’s UNESCO video on Gagaku:

Essentially Gagaku is the entire performance and Bagaku is the dance.

Gagaku Instruments

There are 3 types of musical instruments: Wind, String, and Percussion. I’m not sure if all of these instruments are included in every Gagaku performance, but these were listed in my program.

Program insert showing different types of instruments
Program insert showing different types of instruments

Wind Instruments

These are the wind instruments.

  • Ryûteki
  • Komabue
  • Kagurabue
  • Hichiriki
  • Shô

Gagaku translates to “elegant music” and that’s probably the best way to describe the sound of the Shô. You’d probably recognize the sound if you heard it. It’s a “mouth-organ”.

When I was watching the performance, the shô players rotated their instruments over some kind of urn. I thought it was something to catch extra moisture, like spit-valves in trombones. I learned from the video below that the shô has wax inside where the mouthpiece is located and these urns have small pieces of coal in them, which the musicians rotate the shô over to heat up the wax.

String Instruments

  • Sô (Gakusô)
  • Biwa
  • Wagon (yamato-goto)
Biwa, string instrument
Biwa, string instrument

The Gakusô is a type of Koto, which is a 13-string instrument and is the national instrument of Japan. Modern kotos are derived from the gakusô used in Gagaku performances. I couldn’t find a great photo, but the wikipedia article where I found this info is interesting.

The yamatogoto, or wagon, is another type of Koto. But it usually has only 6 strings or so. It’s also considered fully native to Japan, unlike the other types of Koto which were imported from China.

The wagon is on the left side.
The biwa is on the right side.

 

Percussion Instruments

  • Shôko
  • Taiko (tsuridaiko)
  • Kakko
  • San-no-tsuzumi
  • Shakubyôshi

Shôko is a kind of small, metal gong that sounds like someone tapping a iron/stainless steel skillet with a drumstick. The taiko is a kind of large, hanging drum. It’s struck with big, padded mallets. The kakko is a double-headed drum that’s beated with skinny drumsticks. (Shakubyoshi look like 2 wooden sticks. To be honest, I don’t remember these but maybe I was watching something else.)

These are photos I took after the performance. The theater lights helped them turn out really well! 🙂

 


Bugaku

Our program didn’t include much information about the dancing portion, but UNESCO comes through again. Here’s a video that goes much more into the dance portion of Bugaku.


When I was there listening, I felt like I had been transported into a Kurasawa film. In particular, “Dreams” from 1990. And specifically, the scene in the peach orchard when all the dolls come alive.

I love this movie a lot but I have found throughout the years that this particular scene is very difficult to find online (for free).

However, the trailer for the movie is available. The only problem is that it’s set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Invierno and La Primavera. (Violin Concerto in E Major, Op. 8, No. 1, RV 269, “Spring”: I. Allegro; and Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “Winter”: III. Allegro.) It’s not bad music, but it’s not Japanese.

Anyway, if you are looking for more information on Gagaku and Bugaku, here’s some information:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugaku
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagaku
  • https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/gagaku-00265

Event: The Kitchen Presents – Nancy Garcia/Chase Granoff

Saturday, November 7, I went to The Kitchen with a friend to see a double performance by Nancy Garcia and Chase Granoff. Nancy Garcia is also a graduate of ITP.

As far as Chase Granoff’s work, “The Art of Making Dances”, I quite liked it. I found it easy to “get” quickly, in that I found it both entertaining and provoking in a non-intimidating way. They were offering a copy of The Art of Making Dances after the show. I didn’t get it because, well, mostly because I didn’t want to spend $10. Maybe if it had been $8 or $9, I would have bought it. Plus, I wasn’t alone and I didn’t want to hold up my friend. We were hungry.

As far as Nancy’s work, “I need more”, I really wanted to like this particular performance a lot more than I did. Maybe I was hoping for something that better fit my particular aesthetic needs, or maybe I was hoping for something I could connect with on a more immediate level. For instance, I would have liked to see more of an emotional statement with the choreography, as well as more cohesiveness between the dance sections. Although the four parts flowed one to the other, I also had a feeling of choreographic separation between the parts, but maybe that was done purposefully. In addition, I also did not appreciate the how loud music/sound was, and I didn’t understand the purpose of the singing. On the other hand, my exposure to the type vocal performance she was doing is still quite limited, so I guess I would have always a difficult time connecting with anyone’s show that involved that type of sound/vocal performance. I’m still learning, so there’s still time.

Anyway, none of these things really turned me off to her work, and I only offer these critiques as audience feedback (should she ever check out my blog). In viewing her website, I found her other work interesting and I’m impressed by her continued activity as a dancer, so if I have a chance to see her work in the future I’ll probably take it.

In any case, before I wrote this post, I checked my Gmail account and found the email Nancy sent to me regarding ITP. I asked her advice regarding ITP and she really wrote the most comprehensive and useful response of all the people I talked to about ITP. I wish I had looked it up when I was selecting classes this semester because it was really good advice. Well, I won’t post her answers but I will post my questions:

Hi Nancy,

Midori Yasuda sent me your contact info regarding the ITP at NYU. She
also sent me a link to your thesis, and I thought it was really very
interesting.

I plan to apply to ITP. My background is in dance and human-computer
interaction/usability. I’m interested in this program because I have
been looking for a way to synthesize dance and technology; although I
do not dance as much as I used to, I still have a passion for the art.
Your thesis seems very similar to an example something I might like to
pursue.

If you don’t mind, I have some questions that I’d like to ask:
————————————————————————-
I’m interested to learn more about what led you to ITP? Did you have
any doubts?
What have you been up to since graduation? Did you have a plan for
what you wanted to do after graduating?
What types of ideas did you want to explore?
How difficult was it to pursue study in movement, dance and
technology? What were some of the challenges? highlights?
How challenging did you find the more technical aspects of the program?
Is this still something you are pursuing?
If this was my focus at ITP, do you have any advice for me?
How did you come up with your thesis?

Tuition is a big factor for me. How did you deal with tuition costs?
Are you aware of any scholarships or grants for dance-based work in
technology?

Now that you’ve graduated, what is your opinion of the experience?
Would you do it again? Is there anything you’d change?”

BBC News on UseIt.com

Today’s new UseIt.com article, “World’s Best Headlines: BBC News” is an article after my own heart: a glowing review of BBC News. More specifically, it’s about the concisely written, yet richly explanatory headlines on the BBC News website.

I am so excited to see this wonderful review because for a few years, I was absolutely obsessed with getting a job at the BBC. To be honest, I guess I still am. I started listened to the BBC News World Report on NPR a few years ago when I didn’t have a cable (and had THE worst TV reception) and therefore no T.V. I was so impressed with the quality of their reporting and how much I learned about news from around the world as opposed to the very US-centric news reporting that I tend to get even from NPR or other US news sources. They easily could’ve focused on British news and just tossed in tidbits of world affairs, but it really was “fair and balanced” reporting from around the world.

I was also very impressed with the aggressiveness of the BBC reporters in their interviews who don’t let anyone get away with ambiguity – even when they speak to British, US or other Western officials. I loved how they would just call people out and tell them point blank how whatever rap they were supposed to give to reporters was just a load of bull. Wonderful.

I even tried to apply to the BBC after gradschool. Unfortunately, it never worked out, but even in the job rejections I was so impressed with the their class. They would send hand-signed rejection letters. Typically, the standard response is no response, or when I was lucky I would sometimes get a dry, automated email message telling me that there were no jobs for me but my resume would be kept on file for a year. So, yeah. I guess I am still a bit in love with the BBC. 🙂

So, I was so happy to see this article about their online news source. It’s really great to see props given to a deserving news site. I do have one qualm about the article: Nielsen says that using “4” instead of “four” in the headline would provide more space. That may be true for many other non-journalism websites, but here it would just be bad grammar. In this case, I think it’s better to stick with news writing convention – which is to write out numbers from 0-9, and use numerals for 10 and above – than with website convention. (I am writing a blog, so who cares!? ;P)

I also thought Nielsen’s explanation of BBC’s excellence as originating from their days as a radio broadcaster was also interesting.

“The news organization originated as a radio station, where word count is at a premium and you must communicate clearly to immediately grab listeners. In a spoken medium, each word is gone as soon as it’s uttered…”

That is very true for the performing arts as well. Dance and music are both art forms that exist only the present (videos and recordings aside) and the art is gone as soon as it has been danced or played. For instance, one of my dance teachers once said to me that it’s important to be fully committed to your technique even in class and not just on stage because you only get the one chance to do that pirouette or that arabesque as best you can. You can try it again, but it’s won’t be the same step. I guess it’s the same as saying you never step in the same river twice. That type of attitude, that is doing your best even for mundane things, is a bit of a perfectionist attitude, but over time it can lead to excellence.

Ha! Yet again I’ve managed to connect dance and technology! Yay for me! 🙂

What makes a (dance) community?

Now that I’ve moved to New York City, I find myself again dipping my toes into dance classes and yoga. No ballet just yet, but I’m already on a dance email list for my samba class. I’ve also attended a dance-animation program in Brooklyn, and am simply keeping up to date on dance-related activities. (One cannot have too much dance, right?)

At one time, I had no trouble at all saying that I was an active member of the dance community. Now, I’m not so sure. I wonder what makes one part of a community? Is it becoming a core producer, such as a dance artist, or is it simply one who affects the community in some way? I think the internet has helped more people become involved in the dance community who would not otherwise have been members, but I wonder if there are still degrees of community membership. Since I find myself thinking about the growing use of the internet within the context of dance, I’m thinking that this will be a vein of inquiry for me in the near future. (At least I hope so.)

Perhaps I should start by interviewing “well known” dance bloggers about their adoption of the internet publishing?