Shomyo got off to a good start in Japan. The first documented performance of this form of Buddhist sutra chanting, originally from India, was before an audience of 10,000 monks and priests at Nara’s Todaiji Temple in 752.
More than 1,200 years later, it survives as one of the oldest extant forms of music in the world. Mind you, Japan also did a pretty good job of forgetting about it. For most of its history, shomyo was among the country’s most rarefied music, confined to temples and heard only by the emperor, clergy and privileged members of the aristocracy.
Its standing declined after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and by the mid-20th century it was synonymous only with fusty old rituals. That changed with Toshiro Mayuzumi, a Western- educated composer whose avant-garde sensibilities found inspiration in this ancient music, as in his “Nirvana Symphony” (1958).
Much like gagaku (Imperial court music), shomyo’s sonorities sounded utterly alien to the Western classical tradition, and it became popular among composers including Jean-Claude Eloy and Toshi Ichiyanagi. Some of the participants in these initial forays into the concert hall are continuing to bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the first millennium, as members of Shomyo no Kai. This troupe of singing priests stage an annual concert at Aoyama’s Spiral Hall, where they aim to introduce shomyo to new audiences and tackle works by contemporary composers.
The program of the 16th such concert promises a quality slice of East-meets-West: Mamoru Fujieda’s “The Night Chant” (1993) employs shomyo and traditional Japanese instrumentation while taking its text from a Navajo sand-painting ritual; meanwhile, famed U.S. minimalist and Zen devotee John Cage’s “Ryoanji” (1983) bases its score on the positions of the 15 boulders in the eponymous Kyoto temple’s rock garden.
Shomyo no Kai perform at Spiral Hall in Aoyama, Tokyo, on March 1 at 7.00 p.m. and March 2 at 4.00 p.m. Tickets are ¥4,300 in advance, ¥4,500 on the door. For details, visit www.spiral.co.jp or call Kaibunsha at (03) 3275-0220.