Some Practicalities of East-West Musical Collaborations

So you want to write music for the koto, the shakuhachi, or the shamisen? Well, you’re in luck. Up until fairly recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a traditional musician who would be willing to oblige.

Written By

James Nyoraku Schlefer

So you want to write music for the koto, the shakuhachi, or the shamisen? Well, you’re in luck. Up until fairly recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a traditional musician who would be willing to oblige. Beginning in the late 19th century, with its influx of Western culture and the ensuing dominance of Western music, traditional Japanese music was taught within families that jealously guarded their performance practices and repertoire. As a result, a kind of tribalism developed, split along family lines known as Ryūha (schools). Students in one line were unable to venture past the walls of their ryūha. In the last 20 to 30 years, this extreme isolation has begun to fade. Traditional instruments are now being taught in universities in Japan (and in the U.S.A.) where these strictures do not apply. Consequently, a younger generation of traditional players has emerged, and they are very open to a broader musical education. Many seem to be on a mission to share their instruments with a wider world, seeking newly developing and yet-to-be developed musical forms. It is not uncommon to hear jazz being played on the koto or shakuhachi. Some shamisen players have even taken to playing rock ‘n’ roll (and it’s a magnificent fit). In addition, with global culture inspiring an increasing number of non-Japanese masters of traditional instruments, there is a growing pool of performers available. This is particularly true of the shakuhachi, which has truly become a global instrument.

Notation: Most Japanese instruments have an extensive solo repertoire, possibly a reflection of the inward-looking nature of Buddhism. Until the 19th century, instruments were taught and learned orally, so when notation systems were created, each instrument developed its own notation. Of course, they are mutually unintelligible to one another. As a result, in chamber music there are no scores that combine all of the parts, as is the case with Western music. When the instruments first came together to play in ensemble, they simply joined by playing the same melody—hence the heterophonic texture in Japanese chamber music. For all Japanese instrumentalists, their specific notation systems are their primary notations. The good news is that increasing numbers of professional players are now fluent in reading Western music and at last have a common language for printed music; particularly the university-educated generations. Composers can write for Japanese instruments using Western notation and need not learn koto, shakuhachi, or shamisen notation. Frustratingly, many of the subtleties of playing techniques cannot be represented as precisely in this notation, but it nonetheless serves the very important function of providing common ground for music making.

When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time.

Compositional approaches: When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time. But I want them to write music that is in their voice, not to bend their ideas to find an Eastern sonority that somehow suits their style. That green light to go Western can make for some daunting performance and technical challenges, but that is the time-honored role of the beleaguered performer.

Performers of traditional Japanese instruments have spent years mastering their technique based on the melodic patterns found in the Japanese pentatonic scales. Western classical musicians have mastered major, minor, whole tone, etc. scales for their practice. As such, each group will be more comfortable playing what they have for years drilled into their fingers and ears. But this doesn’t mean composers should write pentatonic music for Japanese and diatonic for Western. Composers should write what they write. Performers will either make it work or politely suggest a change.

Audiences: Kyo-Shin-An Arts is in its ninth season of presenting chamber music concerts that mix and match Japanese instruments and Western ensembles via commissions, new music, and standard repertoire from two traditions. Every concert introduces new audience members to one or more Japanese instruments. Some of the audience is extremely loyal and has been returning for years because each concert has a distinct flavor. The differences lie in the unique styles of the composers and the partnering Western ensembles. Over the years, KSA concerts have presented the Arianna, Cassatt, Ciompi, Colorado, Lark, and Voxare string quartets, Ensemble Epomeo, Sybarite5, and many individual virtuosos gamely tackling commissions and favoring the audience with fantastic renditions of Debussy or Beethoven or Shostakovich. I have never heard a single attendee find this to be strange or daunting.

Nonetheless, it is still a common industry paradigm to automatically equate music that uses Japanese instruments (or any non-Western instruments for that matter) with something extra-musical such as cherry blossom season, moon-viewing, or samurai lore. Once, in proposing some of KSA’s commissioned works to a major orchestral institution, the somewhat unenlightened response was typical: “Well, it might work if we were to have some special Asian festival.”  For high-profile institutions, programming new music of any kind has always been a challenge. It can be wielded as a marketing hook or slipped in under the radar of a standard blockbuster. Living composers fight the good fight, and tastes evolve. But from my vantage point, the idea of classical music that incorporates Japanese instruments still sparks the notion of exoticism and “otherness.” I want to change this norm. Imagine a musical landscape where non-Western instruments are heard alongside Western instruments without notice. I am striving to achieve this through Kyo-Shin-An Arts with concerts on our series at home at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC, as well as in concert venues around the country and abroad. It is my hope that one day the sounds of these instruments will be welcomed simply as yet another color in the orchestra, as the clarinet or the celeste once were.

Ensemble partners: Performing partners with whom we have worked with over the years have enthusiastically embraced our commissions. This includes several orchestras in addition to the numerous string quartets, instrumentalists, and singers who have performed with KSA in NYC and on tour. All of the musicians have welcomed Japanese instrumentalists with interest and respect, not merely curiosity and tolerance. Clearly it is the musicians themselves who may be the strongest driving force for the creation and presentation of this new music.

Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter Japanese instruments.

Is it difficult to work with Japanese instrument performers? Yes and no. Language can be a challenge, so working with Japanese musicians who speak English or having a member of the Western ensemble who speaks Japanese can be quite helpful. And as I mentioned earlier, Japanese instruments have remained pretty much the same for the past several centuries and did not advance technically as they did in the West. Compare the modern silver flute with the blockflöte of Bach’s day and then the five-holed bamboo shakuhachi across the same time period. Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter the limitations of the Japanese instruments. But in general, it is not difficult, and ultimately a joy.

In a time when cultural sensitivity and discourse seem to be receding, understanding through the language of music remains one of the strongest expressions of our humanity. Integrating world cultures through music transcends divisions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Creating and presenting new music for Japanese and Western instruments is my pursuit, and over the last several years I have been gratified to discover that more and more composers, performers, and ensembles are exploring this work as well. Audiences and musicians alike are intrigued with the idea and the results. It is a global movement, and I am proud to say that I have been a positive influence for some of it. I look forward to continuing my work and celebrating Kyo-Shin-An Arts’ upcoming 10th anniversary in 2019.

Paul Moravec’s Shakuhachi Concerto, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts and Meet the Composer commission, performed by James Nyoraku Schlefer and the Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis Music Director.