All the Japanese arts were somewhat mistreated after Japan’s 19th-century collision with the West. Temples, shrines, pagodas were threatened with destruction, and the classical noh drama all but vanished. Worst hit was hogaku, Japanese traditional music. In the pathologies that followed Japan’s chase after Western ways, native music was neglected and then, to an extent, suppressed.
Hogaku was denied any place in the Japanese educational syllabus. It has been only quite recently (in 2002) that it was finally included into the basic curricula of Japanese public-school music education. The century and a half of relative silence, however, meant that much was lost.
One of the people concerned about this loss was the acoustician Ichiro Nakayama who realized that traditional vocal techniques were being forgotten and that the links between the Japanese language and song were now very few. He consequently began what became a lifelong study — finding out how the Japanese language is actually sung by the traditional singers still here.
Such a comparative study, however, not only must contain numerous examples but must also conform to a unified paradigm. Nakayama’s answer to the problem was to use a set phrase and ask all the performers to sing and to adapt it to their own styles. Over the next decade he gathered his artists, taped and videoed their performances and carefully calculated the results.
One result is this educational treasure, a complete catalog of the way in which the Japanese language creates Japanese song. This is a compendium of four DVDs containing over 13 hours of of Japanese vocal styles. Seventy-nine artists, including 16 “Living National Treasures,” present 32 genres of Japanese song — from Buddhist chant to noh and kabuki declamation, to opera and the aria, to enka pop songs, to reggae, to rakugo, and beyond.
Another result is a map into largely uncharted territory. As Mika Kimula (one of the artists viewed here) has written in the accompanying notes: “Over 85 percent of all Japanese music involves some sort of vocal technique [and] such song just cannot be explained only using Western concepts of ‘music.’ “
“As a singer,” she continues, “I want to share this extremely valuable data with as wide an audience as possible . . . The singer’s role is also that of cross-cultural messenger. It was upon this realization that I decided to undertake the responsibility — as a singer — to translate this work.”
This edition is thus meticulously bilingual. Further, it is arranged and presented in a rigorous and methodical manner so that comparisons in singing styles can be made appreciable. The material is labyrinthine and the way through the maze is unusually well marked.
The result is not only educative, it is enjoyable as well. These 79 masters are all entertainers and each is given a wide slice of time so that the full effect of the style in question can be not only appreciated but also savored.
Despite the desperate excesses of the Meiji Era, hogaku has survived and is even prospering. That a publication such as this one is now generally available is one of the indications.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5