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Shō in New Music: "Exotic Expressions" in Free Improvisation

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

  One of the most memorable free improvisations I have heard was performed in a basement of a typical apartment building in a tranquil neighborhood in Tokyo. I was in my second year of college. While I am unable to recall the name of the band, the instrumentation was shō, alto saxophone, electronics, and drums. During the course of the performance, the shō uninterruptedly played on the highest note sen (F#6) in a contemplative manner. The other three performers produced various colors and expressions with their instruments, while attentively listening to each other’s sounds. Their music was “elegant violence” to my ears, as they were staying true to the philosophy of “finding significance through dismantling culture” by annihilating traditional and conventional means of playing the instrument.

  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 improvisation can have a musical framework, such as chord progressions and rhythmic configuration, free improvisation is performed without any musical structures or requirements, however, interpretations of these two words can greatly differ in various genres, and it is not a simple task to draw the line between the two.

   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, composers well known in our age, 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. On the other hand, Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) cultivated a radical improvisational style liberating musicians from chord structures, which in the 1960s further developed into what we now know as free improvisation.

  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. For close to ten years, I have enjoyed collaborating with various artists, attempting to cultivate unprecedented ways of performing shō in the improvisational context.

  Yoko Murakami, one of my close collaborators, is a dancer in the fields of improvisational movement art. “When I first danced to the sounds of shō, it was as if I was being called upon from afar. Then, I suddenly sank deep into the ocean of the immersive sounds of shō”, describes Murakami of our first improvisational performance. “shō’s ‘drone-like’ sustained clusters distorted my sense of time, and aroused my inquisitiveness to imagine something new. One of the more challenging aspects of improvising with this instrument is that, it is not easy to create an obvious drama with shō’s timbres, so many times, I feel like I can lead the change of atmospheres throughout the performance. Another issue that we faced is that, since it is necessary to warm up the shō every so often, we had to be creative and figure out a way to accommodate that.”


Yoko Murakami and author(April 2018)

  Murakami is based in New York City, and cultivates site-specific movement arts in locations such as a hair salon and hat workshop. Her unique and concept-driven events attract diverse audience from all walks of life. “First, we must completely let ourselves be with the flow, and open our eyes and ears”, says Murakami. “Observe which kinds of energy is flowing, the design of the space and time, what natural and artificial sounds rings. Perhaps, you are soaked in a downpour, or getting burned by the vicious sun. Perhaps you are ill and your body weak. But accept everything, and imagine how your movement or you yourself can be of creative value in that space and time. Upon blending with the ‘present’, express your confusion and your emotional eruption. Balance out the inner energy with the outer energy, and then destroy it. I’m interested in how the blended sounds of nature and shō can affect my improvisational performance, and so, one day, somewhere in the vast nature, I would love to improvise with shō again.”

  Readers so far might have already noticed, that I have so far described improvisational expressions mainly from a Western perspective. “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 improvisational music is a point of view from Western music”, explains Junichi Usui, a musician who employs improvisation as one of his creative expressions.

  “I began learning how to play shō in the context of Gagaku from around 2007. Shō in Gagaku uses multiple free reeds to create sustained cluster chords, which the sound expands and deflates throughout the performance. My main interest is to find out what will happen when I bring shō, boasting vastly different aesthetics from today’s popular music cultures, into improvised music”, Usui states.


  A musician who has always pushed the boundaries of how shō can be used in improvisational context, I have had a chance to collaborate with Usui several times in Tokyo’s music venues. Like his easygoing and playful personality, his improvisations, too, seemed as if it was an extension of him playing the game of ‘music’. Perhaps from his experience in touring around the globe and collaborating with local musicians, his timbres reminded me of traditional gagaku aesthetics, as well as a mash-up of South East Asian heritage music.


  “After bringing shō into improvised music, I feel I understand the unique Japanese traditional musical perspective more clearly. The sound of shō, which sustains the soft eruption of cluster sounds, is very different from the musicality of piano or guitar, which is 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 the instrument, 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 voices such as ‘the timbre is beautiful’ 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 in countries such as the United States. 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 of this rare instrument. One of the prevalent philosophies found in Western improvisation music is the act of destroying old traditions to create new values. This, too, is a challenge with shō, as the remnants of “gagaku” are strongly glued to the sounds 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.”

  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 “experimental music”, not based on Western music.


Junichi Usui (August 2020)

  As stated above, the genre of Improvisation Music of today is unable to exist outside the context of Western music. This also includes the faction in which the musicians believe in destroying and liberating music from the conservative theorical structures. On the other hand, improvisations on shō are, in many cases, interpreted by audiences both in Japan and abroad as gagaku or gagaku-like. Aside from the instrument’s structural limitations of not being able to play fast passages or to alter the timbre, many shō improvisers, including myself, must admit that we have not been able to liberate ourselves from the expressions of gagaku.


  This, however, is not to be confused with the ‘value’ of an improvisation. I myself favor the gagaku-style fluctuations of time and dynamics and find significance in excavating deeper on the aesthetical values of this chronometric time-identity. Those who view improvised music as needing to maintain the nature of “destruction” and “liberation” from theorical structures of music, as well as tradition, can only improvise with performance techniques not found in gagaku, such as staccato or flutterzunge.


  Each improviser has an authority on whether to improvise based on traditional aesthetical values, to find new expressions in “destroying” and “liberating” the music from the conventional, or to find other potential expressions yet hidden to be discovered by future performers. Improvisers who desire to perform based on traditional aesthetical values, including myself, could be argued that we are what Edward Said calls an “Orientalist”. It is only when we acknowledge that one is an “Orientalist” and become defiant to the accusations, that shō slips out of what the world sees as “exotic expressions”.

© Chatori Shimizu. All Rights Reserved.

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