Healing the Universe With Japan’s Ancient Court Music

Nick Obourn
March 20, 2012

A little over a year after Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, Columbia students and master musicians will present a concert of Japanese classical music whose central purpose, for more than 1,400 years, has been to restore order to the universe.

Gagaku, which literally means “elegant music,” is East Asia’s oldest musical tradition, currently enjoying a revival both in Japan and on the Morningside campus.

Gagaku “has always been of the cosmos,” says Barbara Ruch, a professor emerita at the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies. “And if they play well enough, they will be able to call in powers that will make the rice grow and make us get over our emotional pain. Its purpose is not to feed on passions but to untie our emotional knots.”

Ruch, a leading scholar of medieval Japanese literature and culture, established the institute in 1968 but only in the last two decades has turned her attention to the heretofore overlooked discipline of Japanese music. She organized a program that brought musicians from Japan to the University to play gagaku, the cerebral, minimalist sounds meant to appease the gods and align the universe.

She was inspired by a donation in 1997 from a former professor, Leonard Holvik, a scholar of traditional Japanese music at Earlham College in Indiana. Holvik’s donation included historically important instruments, papers, recordings and scores.

Ruch wanted her music program to start with a focus primarily on gagaku, an ancient musical style performed in the imperial courts since the 7th century and popular until the mid-19th century, when the island kingdom was forced by U.S. Navy battleships to open its ports to Western trade.

“All genres of Japanese music flourished until about 1868 or so, when westernization flooded into Japan. In the throes of change, the ministry of education banned Japanese instruments from the schools and introduced the piano and violin instead,” says Ruch.

Since the 1980s, however, gagaku and other genres such as hōgaku, played with different instruments, have enjoyed a rebirth of interest among younger Japanese. Gagaku instruments include the flute-like ryūteki, a reed instrument called the hichiriki, the 17-pipe shō and the gakusō, a 13-string zither.

The institute’s first concert took place in 2000 when 89-year-old Yoshinori Fumon, a master narrative biwa player, played in Philosophy Hall. The biwa is a tear drop-shaped string instrument similar to a lute.

That first concert led to another the following year featuring a group whose members played a set of massive taiko drums on Low Plaza. For the institute’s 35th anniversary in 2003, Ruch organized a concert and a program of new music based on Japanese narrative poetry in Low Library.

“The reaction of the students is what excited me incredibly,” says Ruch of the musician visits. “They practically kidnapped these musicians when they came and took them off for pizza and music talk. They wanted to touch these instruments and play them and see what the potential of their unique voices was.”

The institute began to offer gagaku instruction to students at Columbia in 2006 with the support of Aaron Fox, an associate professor in the Music Department and, at the time, director of the Center for Ethnomusicology, as well as funding from Japan.

Ruch says Columbia is the only university in the country now offering classes in the performance of gagaku. “This was not going to be scholars sitting around talking about music,” says Ruch. “We were going to have these instruments in their hands so they learned to play them.” The instruments were purchased with funding from Izutsu Inc., a Japanese manufacturer of Buddhist and Shinto attire, and other American and Japanese donors.

From an introductory class in 2006, the University now offers classes for beginners as well as for more advanced students. Last fall hōgaku, a more secular type of music, was added to the lineup. Each winter and spring the students present a concert in St. Paul’s Chapel, which serves as a term exam of sorts. The institute also sends Columbia students to Japan every summer for six weeks of intensive traditional music classes with master musicians at the Kunitachi College of Music.

The spring concert on March 30 at Miller Theatre, titled “Japanese Sacred Gagaku Court Music and Secular Art Music: Ancient Soundscapes Reborn,” will feature the three masters of gagaku from Japan who guide the program and who will perform alongside the new Columbia Gagaku Instrumental Ensemble of New York. The ensemble played its first concert abroad in Tokyo in 2009.

One of the aims of the spring concert is to demonstrate that gagaku instruments and those of other forms of traditional Japanese music are very much alive and central to 21st century music.

“A part of the concerts is always devoted to new music being composed for these instruments and we often have them combined with Western instruments,” says Ruch. “We are not looking at a beautiful extinct butterfly pinned in an academic specimen case. These magnificent instruments fly.”