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Shō in New Music: Thoughts on Cultural Labels on Compositions

This article has been translated from the original Japanese publication dated April 3, 2021, on Gagaku Dayori Vol. 65.

  Since 2015, the Hearing China Festival in Shanghai, China, has been commissioning Western art music composers around the world to compose new works for Chinese heritage instruments and Western orchestra. I was commissioned to compose a new work by the festival in 2018, and composed Pink Elephant in Prentis, which was premiered in December of the same year by the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Following the concert, I was interviewed by a journalist, who asked me, “Do you think your music is Western music? Is it Chinese music because you used a Chinese instrument? Or is it Japanese music, because you are Japanese?” Although it was a casual question, I was unable to formulate my answer to the question on the spot. What is the most appropriate cultural categorization of a work, when a Japanese composer used Western five-line notation system to compose a work for a Chinese sheng and a European-style orchestra?


  The term “contemporary music” can be used to describe the music of today in a simple and straightforward manner. Also known as “new music”, the term refers to art music isolated from popular music genres such as rock and hip-hop of today. However, it is clear that contemporary music is the current musical expression that follows the lineage of European classical music, and so in recent years, there have been many instances where the term has been replaced with the words “Western art music”, as was the case in the first paragraph of this article.


  In “The Western Impact on World Music: Change, Adaptation, and Survival” (1985), musicologist Bruno Nettl notes the following characteristics of “Western art music” as “(1) music is carefully composed and meticulously rehearsed; (2) radical innovation in musical content or style in composition is allowed; (3) and music is conceived of as autonomous from other domains of culture bound by social and ritualistic constraints”. Taking into consideration the fact that the academic classification of music has been debated among scholars for many years, and there are many who oppose part or all of Nettl’s characterization of the terminology.


  In the 1960s, a phenomenon known as the hōgaku boom erupted among classically trained Japanese composers and works of Japanese instruments composed during the period are now classified as contemporary hōgaku and contemporary gagaku. Works, such as Tōru Takemitsu’s “In an Autumn Garden” (秋庭歌一具) is highly regarded as a contemporary gagaku piece and not as contemporary music. Around the same time, Western art music composers in Europe and North America began incorporating Japanese instruments in their compositions. However, musicologist Christian Utz states in his paper “Beyond Cultural Representation: Recent Works for the Asian Mouth Organs Shō and Sheng by Western Composers” (2004) that composers such as Helmut Lachenmann (1935-) and Klaus Huber (1924-2017) are just “reconstructing Japanese shō in Western new music”.


  On the other hand, although Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi’s “Essay”, a work composed for string orchestra and notated on the five-line notation system, may seem to be a work of Western art music, musicologist Steven Nuss describes it as Japanese music and not as Western art music in his paper “Music from the Right: The Politics of Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Essay for String Orchestra” (2004). He bases his conclusion on the correlation between “Essay” and Noh’s “Tsurukame” on “(1) overall form and proportion; (2) melodic contour; (3) timbre; (4) Tsurukame text – Essay measure correspondences; and (5) rhythmicities and rhythmic organization”. Furthermore, Nuss characterizes Mayuzumi’s “Essay” as a “dramatic confrontation between East and West in which, in essence, Mayuzumi takes a staple performing ensemble of the Western art music world and forces it to ‘speak’ Japanese.”


  I will refrain from commenting whether these categorizations of the above music are appropriate or legitimate, however, I must point out that various scholars throughout history have analyzed and attempted to classify music using diverse methods. Therefore, a unified academic view is absent, and we are able to witness that the existing framework of musical classification is not enough to grasp the essence of today’s music. So far, I have introduced several examples of musicologists classifying compositional works into categories, but what kind of identity do the composers base their compositions on? To discover the clue to the question, I have interviewed Naoyuki Manabe – a performer of gagaku and contemporary shō, and also a composer who receives commissions from around the world.


  “I always try to compose contemporary music works. It is not my intention to compose or promote Japanese or Eastern sounding music. I use the techniques of Western art music to create compositions”, states Manabe straightforwardly.

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Naoyuki Manabe and author (January 2021)

  “A composition by a performer and a composition by a composer are two different things. I understand the difference very clearly between those two, as I am both a performer and a composer. When a performer composes, it is usually a ‘performer’s composition’, where they play their own compositions. Those are usually considered contemporary hōgaku and contemporary gagaku. A ‘composer’s composition’ is when a work is written not for oneself, but for other performer to perform the work. I strongly resonate with the practice of ‘composer’s composition’, which is also an expression of self and ego. So, I hope that people don’t categorize my works as contemporary gagaku or contemporary hōgaku. As a composer, I am practicing Western music.”


  I was curious whether “Naoyuki Manabe as a gagaku performer” ever clash with “Naoyuki Manabe as a composer”. He answered, “I have learned to play gagaku very well. I have two separate personalities in me: a performer and a composer. When performing gagaku, there exists a conservative side of me who tries to preserve the tradition. On the other hand, when I compose, I challenge myself to break free from all influences of gagaku, so I am not bound by it. Preserving a tradition and creating something new is contrastive acts, don’t you think? Therefore, we must be totally independent from our other self, when exercising with one.”


  When composing for shō, Manabe uses the Western five-line notation system, and says, “influences of gagaku are excluded as much as possible from my creative process”. If something Japanese or of gagaku resonates in the audience listening to Manabe’s works, perhaps it was not intentionally placed there by the composer, rather, it can be said that it is a moment when the work exudes the composer’s story, who happens to be a Japanese person.


  Manabe’s works can be applied to Nettl’s three criteria to categorize a piece as Western art music. However, after speaking with Manabe, I have reached a conclusion that, as there are different strokes for different folks and as composition is an extremely personal act of expression, it might be best if the essence of a composition isn’t categorized with labels such as “Japanese” or “Western” in accordance with standards established by people other than the composers themselves. 


  Let us return to my interview in Shanghai, mentioned in the beginning of this article. Here, I’d like to give an answer to the journalist’s question, which I was unable to answer right away. Regardless of the instrumentation, I believe that I compose in a context of Western art music. While I compose works not only for European orchestral instruments but for Japanese and Chinese heritage instruments, I notate my scores based on the Western five-line notation system, and structure the flow of music from a metronomic standpoint. It can be said that this act follows the theory and traditions of the European art music. However, to ask whether the core of the composition itself is “Western” or “Eastern”, moreover in a narrower category such as “German” or “Japanese”, it diminishes and disregards the subjectivity of the expressions of self and ego.

  Culture blend and merge, and in essence, there exists no pure or truly authentic culture. Therefore, placing an abstract framework, such as “Western” or “Eastern”, on artistic expressions may promote biased stereotypes by cropping out a specific historical era and freezing it in time, and oversimplifying the actuality of the complex certitude of a culture and identity. As mentioned above, I base my creative process on the theories of what is known as Western art music, however, the music is my expression and my story. I wish to continue exploring this question, so when I ever receive a similar question about the cultural identity and categorization of my compositions, I will be able to provide an answer.

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