Court Music

Last Saturday I was invited to a performance of Gagaku – traditional Japanese Court Music. Gagaku is an ancient form of music; it was imported – together with instruments – from Korea and China around the 8th century, i.e., at the start of the Heian period.

A Gakagu orchestra consists of wind instruments (different types of flutes), string instruments (zither, lute, and harp) and different types and sizes of drums. There are often three parts to a concert: one where the whole orchestra plays together, another one containing songs and actual singing, and a third one where only the drums and wind instruments accompany classical dance.

I went to the performance not really knowing what to expect. When everybody had settled down (the place was sold out), a young girl came on stage and made a short introduction before the curtain lifted. There was an orchestra of maybe 30 people, sitting on tatami in a stage that was fenced off with red wood like in a shrine. The percussion instruments were in front, the strings behind them, and the wind instruments in the very back on red steps. They started with the kangen, concert music, and the effect was … striking. It was similar to the music I had heard before at shinto shrines; I would call it rather a sequence of tones that were more or less attuned to each other than a melody that you could follow to help you along. The second part was a short introduction to a song that was contained in the brochure, in the end the whole audience was expected to sing along with the teacher on stage. It was fun, even without understanding Japanese (or being able to sing…) a gagaku orchestraDuring the break, the stage had been rearranged for the third part, the bugaku, or dance music. The string instruments were gone, and the musicians now sitting to the left and right of the tatami stage in the middle, where the dancing took place. The dancers, clad in elaborate costumes, performed slow dances fitting the music, almost like the stylised movements in Noh theatre, or, as a friend of mine observed, resembling the slow movements in tai chi.

The whole concert took only 90 minutes, and to be honest, I was rather happy about this. It was interesting and worth a try, but nothing I really need to do again. The music could not move me at all, as I said there was no melody at all to help you along or make you understand the intention of the song. I liked the songs in the middle, but that was only a 10 minute intermezzo. The dancing would have been more interesting had I known what the movements meant. That was similar enough to Noh to expect that with some deeper understanding you could get something out of it though.

Maybe there is something more to it, I have to confess complete and utter ignorance here I’m afraid. I know, however, that I’m not the only one: the lady sitting next to me, after taking off her shoes, fell sound asleep within the first five minutes of the concert. Or, maybe, she just had had a hard day?