Distant echoes from a desert lute

by Alexander Mackay-smith Iv

“We are not reviving the original music of over 1,000 years ago,” says Sukeyasu Shiba, director of the leading independent gagaku (court music) group Reigakusha, which will present a concert March 23 of music from over 1,000 years ago.

Shiba has spent decades studying the oldest sheet music in the world, preserved in the cave temples of Dunhuang in western China and in Japanese archives, including the documents stored in the Shosoin in Nara since the 8th century.

His studies have yielded questions as well as answers, and in the end, he says, we still cannot be sure what the music of Tang China and its cultural satellite, Heian Period Japan, really sounded like.

Still, he has the instruments: reproductions of those found in the Shosoin, made (at great expense) after intensive study of the precious originals, the oldest surviving musical instruments in the world.

“I just wanted to know what they sounded like,” Shiba says.

He has a right. Scion of a family that has been in hereditary service to the Emperor as gagaku musicians since the instruments were first put into the Shosoin (around 756, with some additions a century later), Shiba joined the Imperial Household Agency gagaku orchestra as a teenager, graduating from their training school in 1955, specializing in flute, biwa (lute) and dance. He has won numerous awards, including the Minister of Education Prize in 1987 and, in 1999, the Medal with Purple Ribbon, awarded by the Emperor himself for achievement in culture.

Shiba’s work in gagaku has covered a wide range, from new compositions by modern composers like Toru Takemitsu (and Shiba himself) through all the Imperial orchestra’s standard repertory.

The effort to reconstruct the works that have dropped out of the standard repertory over the centuries, however, has particularly engaged his attention. Although scholars from Oxford to Beijing are hard at work on the ancient tablatures, Shiba has done most to let them be heard — within the limits of reconstruction. Possibly feeling constricted by the conservatism of the Imperial Household Agency, in 1984 he resigned and founded Reigakusha to make gagaku available to wider audiences, explore new music for the instruments and strive to reconstruct the old.

The upcoming concert, “Saiiki no Hibiki (Echoes from the West),” features extracts from the Dunhuang Lute Tablature (Tonko Biwafu), part of the immense hoard of books and documents famously found in 1900, walled up in back of a Buddhist cave temple in the old Silk Road desert city of Dunhuang.

Discovered by a monk named Wang Yuanlu, the documents (a whole library of thousands of documents, printed books and manuscripts in a dozen languages, ranging from Buddhist sutras to bills of lading) were apparently hidden sometime in the 11th century, ahead of an impending invasion, but it includes much older material. Most of it was bought up by French scholar-explorer Paul Pelliot in 1908, taken back to France and subsequently published in facsimile form. Deciphering and studying the materials has occupied scholars around the world ever since, and probably will for generations to come.

The great Japanese musicologist Kenzo Hayashi (1899-1976) established that the Dunhuang Lute Tablature was essentially the same notation system as that used since Nara times for gagaku biwa music in Japan. Hayashi launched, and for years dominated, the study of this material in Japan. Shiba speaks of him with respectful affection, but he has moved beyond Hayashi’s work.

“Hayashi sensei was a scholar,” Shiba emphasizes. “I am a musician.” The notes of the Dunhuang tablature are understood well enough, but they don’t seem to add up to much of a melody. Shiba has proceeded on the assumption that, as in modern gagaku performance, the biwa provided chords to support a melody carried by the flutes and hichiriki reed pipes (a wider range of which were used in those days).

There is much dispute in the musicology world as to the validity of the reconstructions. Many Western scholars have taken a different approach, disregarding the Japanese performance tradition in favor of studying the original documents only.

Still, Japanese scholars feel a proprietary interest in the old tablatures. The music they represent died out utterly in China sometime around the 13th century; modern Chinese music uses different instruments and different principles. Only in Japan was the music of Tang handed down by a continuous chain of transmission. Their interpretations, they insist, are valid.

There has been loss, to be sure, and change. Many pieces are no longer performed, and instruments have fallen out of use. Performing style has changed. Anyone who has sat through a gagaku performance must have been nagged by the suspicion that in Prince Genji’s time the music was rather more sprightly. Shiba cheerfully agrees.

“At least twice as fast,” he grins. Centuries of respect verging on awe resulted in ever-increasing solemnity, and ever-slower tempos. Performers responded by elaborating the melodic line with delicate nuances.

To Shiba the musician, though, the instruments are the key. Whatever the reconstruction of the written music, at least we can play the instruments, we can hear what they sounded like.

Reigakusha’s concerts offer the chance to hear some of them: the kugo harp; the haisho panpipes; the five-string lute; large versions of the sho mouth organ and hichiriki; and others. As Shiba says, the music may not be exactly the same, but just to hear the sound of the ancient instruments is to feel a connection with the glories of Tang and Heian.