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Shō in New Music: Time Identity and Notation

This article has been translated from the original Japanese publication dated January 10, 2020, on Gagaku Dayori Vol. 60.

  For about three years, I have been introducing and analyzing how the shō is presented in the context of contemporary music, in universities across the United States and Europe. The invitations to conduct lectures and workshops on the indicated topic has increased notably, after presenting my paper “Shō in Compositions Today” at the Nief-Norf Research Summit: NEW ASIA (Knoxville, Tennessee June 2018).

  Participants of my lectures boasts a broad range of expertise. Many are composers and music theorists, however, musicologists and students of other departments are not uncommon to find. Topics of discussion encompass notation, compositional theory, extended instrumental techniques, introduction and analyses of post-war compositions of the instrument, as well as the time identity of the shō (Gagaku).


Lecture in CUNY Baruch College (March 2019)

  Of those, the time identity of the shō (Gagaku), I believe, is a crucial topic to comprehend, when trying to grasp the musicality of how this instrument has been performed until today. Students are presented with three time-identities; the metronomic, the chronometric, and the ideomatic. The metronomic time identity has been adopted in countless Western musical scores by post-renaissance composers, from Handel to Holst. In many cases, the score is presented with the tempo indication (in bpm) and the time signature, which allows composers to notate precise and unambiguous rhythmical expressions.


  The second in the list, the chronometric time identity, can be seen in numerous Gagaku music. The notation system of the chronometric time displays no tempo indication or strict rhythmic instructions in the same sense as the metronomic time, and the elasticity of the beats are to be discerned by the performers’ accords.


  The ideomatic time is a depiction of a time identity we perceive every day, and of which we are unable to precisely notate as musical score. When a sound is discharged into the spatiotemporal capacity, we are able to identify the instant transformations of the timbre (the German language possesses a convenient word: Klangfarbe) and volume, which deteriorates towards silence. The process of the deterioration differs with the external factors, such as the size, dimensions, as well as the component of the surface of the space. When composing for the shō, or analyzing past musical works of this instrument – including both Gagaku and post-war compositions – I believe that understanding and incorporating the theories of these three time identities will bring forth new perspectives in the creative output of composers and researchers.


  In order to understand the chronometric time identity of the shō in Gagaku music, it is undoubtedly crucial to not only listen to the music of Gagaku, but to also analyze and apprehend the component and the functionality of the Gagaku notation system. On the basis thereof, it is not as straightforward as to comprehend a transcribed information given by the aitake to the metronomic Western notation system. As noted above, the metronomic Western notation system is, in many instances, desirable when notating information such as precise length of a musical note. Regardless, Gagaku music’s concept of the beat cycles deriving from the given time signature is merely a pliant indication, notably from the perspectives of musicians formally trained in the metronomic system. A metronomic Western notation system functions when a musical note correlates with the given tempo indication. Hence, it can be argued that using the metronomic approach in the pursuit of analyzing or notating music, which specifically enables performers with a relative flexibility of the beats, is unreasonable.


  Since shō (Gagaku) was imported into Japan, and throughout much of its’ history, this instrument has not taken on a role of performing agile musical passages. Due to limitations deriving from the instrumental structure, musical manoeuvrability is uniquely low, compared with instruments such as flutes and pianos. For this reason, it is preferable for composers to avoid using precise tempo indications or rhythmic motifs, unless absolutely necessary for conceptual or aesthetical reasons.


  Composers in the post-war era has innovatively explored ways to present the chronometric time identity of the shō (Gagaku) on their musical scores. Maki Ishii (1936-2003) suggested a notation system in consideration of the shō, in his work Musik für Shō und Violoncello (1988). This work offers performers no time signatures, nor tempo indication in bpm, and is segmented in fourteen musical phrases that the composer concedes. Each musical phrase is notated with a number, as well as an approximate performance time in seconds. The approximate length of each note is exhibited by the horizontal line, which extends from the note, and is to be interpreted by the performer.


Musik für Shō und Violoncello Copyright © by Mannheimer Musikverlag GmbH,

Administered by Rob. Forberg Musikverlag GmbH. All Rights Reserved.

International Copyright Secured. Reproduced by kind permission of Hal Leonard Europe S.r.l. – Italy

  Musik für Shō und Violoncello was, as the title suggests, composed for a duo. Without bars and measures, both instrumentalists are required to listen to each other’s musical parts, in order to collectively perform the music. While this is true to most musical cultures around the world, it can be speculated that Ishii had the Gagaku ensemble technique in his mind, when notating this score. Furthermore, Ishii has placed vertical dotted lines in his scores, connecting both staves’ musical note or the horizontal line extension extending from the note. These vertical dotted lines facilitate the speed of the music, similarly to the function of the taiko in Gagaku music.

Musik für Shō und Violoncello (1988)

  By all means, Musik für Shō und Violoncello is not the only post-war work presenting us with efficient and practical notation system for the chronometrical time identity. Although notational approaches greatly differ with Ishii, TSUKI by Kikuko Massumoto (1937-), as well as La Matrice Des Vents by Paul Mefano (1937-) has shown extensive attention to leverage the unique structural reputation of the shō, which limits mobility to an extent, and reflect the chronometric time identity of Gagaku music.

  New Music is a musical style that is being developed today. Although many compositions of today still boasts complex theory and ambitious philosophical concepts, I do see a trend in new music that more composers are emphasising the importance of a more personal self-expression in their works. Notation is the means of communication with the performers. In my lectures and workshops, I aim to underline the importance of knowing diverse approaches to express an idea.

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