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Shō in New Music: "Traditional" Resonance in Improvised Music

This article has been edited and translated from the original publication dated October 1, 2020, on Gagaku Dayori Vol. 63.

  Improvisation in music is an act of spontaneous performance of music, without prior preparation or instruction. The etymology of the word is a combination of the Latin in (not, opposite of) and provisus (forseen). While in many genres of music, improvisation can have a musical framework, such as chord progressions and rhythmic configuration, it can often "liberate" musicians from traditional theoretical structures, which in the 1960s further developed into what many now know as "free improvisation". I have performed free improvisations on shō many times as a soloist as well as with other instruments, however, I often ask myself whether I have been able to "liberate" shō from Gagaku-like sounds - a question often asked by many improvisers on this instrument.

  “After bringing shō into improvised music, I feel I understand the unique Japanese traditional musical perspective more clearly", says Junichi Usui - a musician who employs improvisation as one of his creative expressions. "The sound of shō, which sustains the soft eruption of cluster sounds, is very different from the musicality of piano or guitar - efficient for playing rhythmic or melodic passages. When improvising music in the context of ‘Western music’, the performer tries to express their distinctive character by utilizing diverse timbres to expand their expressive world-view. However, due to the structural limitations of shō, it is very difficult for shō players to perform fast passages, change the timbre, or dynamically increase or decrease the volume of the instrument. I wanted to change that, and explored non-traditional performance techniques such as a trill, preparation on instrument, and effect pedals. However, I get reactions from audience members such as ‘the timbre is so Japanese’ or ‘it’s mystical’ from the audience – the same reaction when I play Gagaku.”

  I have also experienced similar reactions from audience members, when I improvised on shō. Though I have absolutely no problem with these reactions, it made me think whether the audience really appreciated the musicality of my improvisation, or was just in awe of the characteristics and the sonorities of this rare instrument. It is a challenge with shō to create a music that does not sound like "Japanese traditional music" or "world music", as the remnants of Gagaku are strongly glued to the sounds and the performance techniques of the instrument.


  Usui laughs and tells me of similar experiences while touring with shō. “The audience took my music as ‘meditation’ when I improvised with shō in New York. In Italy, the prevalent comments were something along the lines of ‘mystical instrument from the Far East’, in Malaysia ‘an instrument, along with sakura, Fujiyama, and samurai, which reminds of Japanese culture’, and in Indonesia ‘a spiritually powerful instrument which can alter the atmosphere of the space’. It seems that the audience projects their distinct images of Japan onto the sounds of the shō.”


Junichi Usui (August 2020)

So, is there a way for shō performers to improvise on this instrument without projecting the likes of Gagaku onto the music? Or perhaps, should we be asking a different question?

It is believed that humanity has been creatively organizing sounds from when society has not yet developed writing systems or musical notation. Therefore, it can be said that the beginning of improvisation is the beginning of music. We are able to see documented improvisational practices in the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, and in the classical period, well known composers such as W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) and L.v. Beethoven (1770-1827) are remembered as excellent keyboard improvisers of their era. Today, classically-trained musicians often display their virtuosic improvisations when playing a cadenza. Jazz music is another genre commonly known to embrace improvisations during performances. In many instances, improvisational solos are performed within the chord progression and the cyclic structure of thirty-two bars. ​


Likewise, experimental music is often performed in an improvisational manner. It could be argued that the majority of improvisational performance of shō is done in this genre, although in recent years, we are able to witness fusions in wide variety of genres. Improvisational expressions can not only be seen in music, but also in dance, theatre, poetry, and many other fields of expressions. In general, this is also a genre where many performers are eager to "break free" from boundaries of "traditional music", whether it be European classical music or Gagaku.

“Improvisational expressions can be seen in Persian and Indian classical music, in the Spanish flamenco, and also in many Japanese folk culture, such as kakeuta, renga, and utagaki. The genre of improvisational music is a point of view from Western music”, explains Junichi Usui. Perhaps the pressure that improvised music must be freed from "tradition" is only due to the fact that improvisers think of "improvised music" within the experimental music genre.

  Resulting from a massive interest in the South East Asian free reed mouth organs, Usui immigrated to Vietnam in 2017. When I interviewed him for this article via video call, I could see various types of free reed mouth organs cluttered in the background. He says he is currently conducting fieldwork of Asia’s countless types of mouth organs, and played an improvisation on a Vietnamese mouth organ. I could not find any “destructive” characteristics in his improvisations, as sometimes seen in the Western improvisational scenes, however, it made me enthusiastic about the future of “improvisational music”, not based on experimental ones.

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