top of page

Shō in New Music: Perspectives on Japanese Instruments from Academia

This article has been translated from the original Japanese publication dated January 15, 2021, on Gagaku Dayori Vol. 64.

  In recent years, Western art music composers around the world are spending more time in institutions of higher education. An artistic process is and should be essentially unrelated to an academic degree, however, we can see in many composer biographies that many have at least a master’s degree. One factor contributing to the composers spending more time in universities is the fact that it is crucial for them to acquire hands-on, extremely niche area of expertise, such as notation, compositional techniques, orchestration, and programming. Furthermore, an environment where one is able to receive aesthetical and compositional guidance by a respectable composer is extremely attractive to young composers. It is also worth mentioning that, with the exception of large cities and in certain areas of Europe, universities maintain and support the community function of contemporary music, however this goes beyond the scope of this article.


  The spread of music schools, or conservatories, as higher education institutions goes back to 19th Century Europe. Consequently, music schools of today did not exist during the lives of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel. The term conservatory derives from the Italian conservatorio, referring to an orphanage in Naples, which began training children to sing in 1537. In 1795, the Conservatoire National de Musique et d’Art Dramatique (CNSMDP) was established in Paris, France, with the fundamental purpose to train skilled orchestral musicians for national events.  Thereafter, conservatories, such as Conservatorio di Milano (1807), Pražská konzervatoř (1808), Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien (1817), Royal Academy of Music (1822), Hochschule für Musik Leipzig (1843), and Oberlin Conservatory of Music (1865), were established throughout Europe and the United States, following the French model.


  Until the end of World War II, conservatories focused mainly on instructing young musicians in the fields of opera, chamber, and orchestral music. While world music (ethnomusicology) was taught and researched in universities from the early 20th Century, it is after the 1960s that this subject was included in the curriculum of conservatories. Students are often exposed to shō and gagaku music in the framework of world music curricula.


  The term world music is, generally speaking, used to describe a study of music and musical cultures outside of Western art music. Terminologies such as comparative musicology and ethnomusicology has also been used, however, these terminologies have been of lengthy debate in many respects, including the ‘insider/outsider epistemology’, as well as criticisms of fixating Western European music at the top of the hierarchy of values. As far as comparative musicology, the terminology is no longer employed in academia today. However, some argue that world music, too, has a tendency to cover colossally disparate musical cultures as a singular reference, frozen in time. The term world music is, “at this moment, perhaps the least objectionable term to refer collectively to music from various cultures” (Huib Schippers) and is passively employed by process of elimination.


  While minor differences in the curriculum and pedagogical methods can be seen in between conservatories, a significant percentage of students of Western art music compositions are trained in the basic Western music theories, such as harmony and counterpoint. In addition, students experience hands-on instructions on instrumentation and compositional techniques, understanding the relationships between conventional and unconventional performance technique and the characteristics of sounds produced. However, since conservatories around the world continue to function as a training institution for Western art music performers and composers, experiential learning resources and materials for world music are overwhelmingly insufficient. I have been conducting lectures and workshops on the compositional approaches on shō in universities in Europe and the United States over the past four years. Through my experiences, I have noticed that, while many students are aware of the instrument shō and its’ characteristics, it was the first time the majority of the students had an opportunity to listen to the sounds of the instrument in person.


  There are, however, exceptional cases. Although not a conservatory, a paltry number of universities in the United States, such as Columbia University and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UH Mānoa), offers training opportunities for gagaku instrumentalists in its’ ensemble courses. While the courses have no direct association with the composition department, composition students have a chance to learn hands-on about the characteristics of the gagaku instruments, as well as both conventional and non-conventional techniques.


  In the case of UH Mānoa, the music department takes advantage of modern Hawaiʻi’s distinctiveness, as the islands lie halfway in between mainland United States and East Asia, both in terms of geography and culture. “Typically, if you would like to learn how to compose for Japanese instruments, then you should study in Tokyo. In case of Korean instruments, you should go to Seoul. If you want to study the notation and composition techniques of Chinese instruments, then it would make sense to go to Beijing, Shanghai, or maybe Hong Kong. However, the place where you can systematically learn all of them is actually here in Hawaiʻi”, says Dr. Donald Reid Womack, Professor of Composition and Theory at UH Mānoa.


  “Back in the 80’s, when I was an undergraduate student at Furman University in South Carolina, I remember taking an introductory music history course. In the course, there was just one day dedicated to non-Western music. That very brief and oversimplified overview was my first introduction to Japanese instruments. It’s been close to thirty-five years since then, but I think the situation hasn’t changed much.” Currently, Womack offers a course named “Intercultural Composition” for graduate composition students. In his course, he teaches practical composition techniques by using books such as “Composing for Japanese Instruments” by Miki Minoru (trans. Marty Regan), and also discusses the importance of ethical standards when borrowing elements from outside of one’s own culture. UH Mānoa continues to function as a base for a cross-cultural practice of diverse musical cultures, not only in the framework of musicology or world music, but also the ways in which composers are able to implement these techniques into their works.


Donald Reid Womack and author(October 2020)

  Womack, who practices “intercultural composing” himself, has conducted workshops and concerts in universities around East Asia. When asked about the potential reason for the delayed inclusion of East Asian instruments in curriculums of composition departments around the world, he noted that even in East Asia there often seems to be a lack of interest in East Asian instruments among those studying composition in a traditional Western curriculum. “When I was invited to do a three-day residency at a university in Taipei”, he explained, “I saw that many of the Western composition students had no interaction with the Chinese instrumental majors, who were practicing right across the hallway! Here they are in the same building, and the students do not even know each other. I see tremendous resources right in their lap, but they don’t seem to be interested in them!”


  When focusing on Japanese instruments in academia, countless issues arise. “In the past 15 to 20 years, students from Japan have largely stopped coming to study in the United States”, says Womack. “While I don’t want to overgeneralize, I think it’s common for many students from East Asia to focus on composing works for Western instruments while in their country, and then to develop interests in their own heritage music only after going abroad.” It is frequently heard that Japanese students become aware of their Japanese identity while studying abroad, however, as the number of students studying abroad continue to decline, I feel the need to pay close attention to the potential consequences that can be derived from this situation.


  Although it is by no means an ideal situation, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean heritage music experts in universities in Europe and the United States can many times be seen indirectly competing with each other for budget allocations from the university, as well as to maintain and expand their respective curriculums. The momentum of research on Japanese heritage music in Western universities has decelerated, compared to the Chinese and Korean counterparts. The Japanese government does not provide a formidable support system for further research on Japanese heritage music and instruments, both domestically and internationally. Although the annual budget of the Agency for Cultural Affairs has slightly increased since 2006, when compared with other MEDC countries, it is at the lowest level as a ratio against GDP.


  In Germany, where I currently reside, the South Korean embassy and consulates offers ensemble lessons for traditional Korean music. The National Gugak Center in Seoul invites musicians and researchers from all over the world annually, covering all necessary expenses such as airfare, and providing an opportunity to study Korean traditional instruments. In addition, Seoul National University offers majors in both Western art music composition, as well as composition for Korean traditional instruments. Considering the dissimilarities in how Japan and South Korea protects, embraces, and promotes their heritage music, a simple comparison of the situation is rather meaningless. However, for Japan, there is much to be learned from South Korea’s approach to funding research on their traditional instruments, boasting a budget of 2821 billion yen (2017; take into account that allocations of ‘cultural budget’ moderately differ between Japan and South Korea), nearly three times as much as Japan’s.


  As stated above, young composers of Western art music around the world are spending more time than ever in conservatories and universities, and there is a possibility this trend continue for the foreseeable future. However, subsidies and Japanese governmental support to educational programs offering research on Japanese instruments are by no means increasing, prompting the limited number of universities, which offer rich research environments in East Asian traditional music and instruments, to gradually shift towards a more resourceful Chinese and Korean traditional music. It is the reality that very few opportunities are presented for young composers to come into contact with Japanese traditional instruments in conservatories and universities around the world.

bottom of page