De Ferranti opens the door to a musical Other

by Alexander Mackay-smith Iv

JAPANESE MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS, by Hugh de Ferranti. Oxford University Press, 2000, 104 pp., $13.95 (cloth)

It would be perfectly possible for a foreigner to live in Heisei Japan for quite some time without ever becoming aware that Japan has an original music of its own, so low is the profile of “hogaku” (Japanese-style music) today. Foreigners who do come into listening range of hogaku sometimes react very strongly for or against it. Hogaku is Different with a capital D; it is the Other made music.

Anyone who studies Japanese history or literature, however, must be aware of how large Japanese music’s impact was on events in every age, and this impels us to deal with it directly, to try to understand what the music meant to the listener, and what it can tell us about Japan.

It is hard to get a grip on. The instruments and performance styles are radically different from Western ones; the newcomer may be dismayed by a welter of Japanese terminology. William Malm’s great “Japanese Music and Musical Instruments” explains it all in detail, though after 44 years it is becoming a little outdated.

De Ferranti’s “Japanese Musical Instruments” is a more concise reference source on the tradition and instruments of Japanese music. The author is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, where Malm taught. The book is one of a series of short guides to various East Asian topics that Oxford University Press is publishing, including such items as “China’s Walled Cities” and “Indonesian Batik,” pocket-size hardbacks printed in Hong Kong. It does not pretend to be exhaustive, but it provides some background and helps you figure out what you’re looking at.

The first two chapters, “Music in Japanese History” and “Instruments in Japanese Literature and Folklore,” sketch the background. The first traces the development of major musical trends in Japanese history and their impact on society and government, giving attention to the peculiar tenacity with which musical styles are kept going by devotees for centuries after they have lost their main popularity. (This, of course, is why we have them available to study now.)

The second chapter looks at the image of musical instruments in Japanese literature, from the drums that accompanied primordial songs in the ancient “Kojiki” to the musical parties in “The Tale of Genji” to shamisen songs in the novels of Nagai Kafu. In every age music had the power to affect people’s hearts, sometimes to change their lives, and often to connect them with the divine.

Since the book is meant as a reference rather than an analysis, de Ferranti treats the instruments in three broad categories of percussion instruments, wind instruments and stringed instruments, to make them easier to find. Percussion instruments, found in every culture throughout the world, are perhaps the oldest type of musical instrument. In Japan they had a close connection with religion, both in solemn ritual and in boisterous popular festivals. Through the latter they found their way into popular music; among Edo Period courtesans, skill on the hand drum was almost as much admired as shamisen playing.

The Japanese instrument that finds most success outside Japan is a flute, the vertical, end-blown shakuhachi, which has built up a large following of fascinated admirers overseas. Many foreigners (hundreds at least, maybe thousands) have actually practiced on the instrument, and a few have achieved mastery that is respected by the best Japanese artists.

There are many other Japanese flutes (almost all horizontal, side-blown flutes), used for folk songs and festivals, Shinto rituals and “gagaku” court music, noh dramas and kabuki plays, but all are less known and less appreciated outside Japan.

Interestingly, Japan has never used any kind of horn, unless you count the conch shells used for signaling in difficult mountain country and on the battlefield. One double-reed pipe, the “hichiriki,” is the main melodic voice of gagaku, but scarcely used otherwise; its notoriously shrill, harsh voice has a position in literature and the public imagination out of all proportion to its actual popularity.

Stringed instruments are at least generally recognizable to the Western eye: the pear-shaped “biwa” lute, the banjolike shamisen. True harps died out in Japan over 1,000 years ago, but plucked zithers have maintained a steady popularity. Today the 13-string koto is one of the few traditional instruments that remains acceptable to the ordinary Japanese ear. It is sometimes used to perform Western music, and is second only to the shakuhachi in the size of its foreign following.

De Ferranti has a lot to say about the biwa, which has a relatively small following today, but for a long time was by far the most popular stringed instrument, and its importance in the music of Heian times was far greater than its modest role in the modern gagaku orchestra might suggest.

It is also the subject of de Ferranti’s research, as it happens, and he introduces some interesting tidbits, not reported in Malm’s pioneering work, which may become part of a more specialized, extensive book in de Ferranti’s future. The images of the last surviving blind bards and their instruments are interesting for their own sake, anyway.

It might be argued that he gives the shamisen too short shrift, considering its transcendent importance in Edo times and continuing popularity today. To be sure, some of the different shamisen music styles are considered in conjunction with its importance to kabuki in Chapter Two, but still, after the long discussion of biwa types, the section on the shamisen comes to a close unexpectedly soon.

This is a small complaint, though, about an otherwise valuable, reliable resource. De Ferranti’s book plugs a hole in the literature about Japan, and opens a door into a completely Japanese experience.