James Schlefer on sahkuhachi, Yoko Nishi on koto, and the Cassatt String Quartet performing at the Tenri Cultural Center.
The Intersection of Genres
James Schlefer on sahkuhachi, Yoko Nishi on koto, and the Cassatt String Quartet performing at the Tenri Cultural Center.

The Intersection of Genres

Kyo-Shin-An Arts was conceived in the collision of my musical worlds. I had become professionally proficient in two very different, highly structured classical traditions. I was acutely aware of their musical parallels and seemingly irreconcilable differences, and as a teacher, performer, and erstwhile musicologist, pretty well steeped in their history. This meant that I knew why the work I wanted to do ought to succeed, but that I needed to help lead the way for others. So, embracing a history of differences between Japanese and Western classical music, I set out in pursuit of a tangible way in which to reconcile them.

Japan’s classical music traditions flourished in virtual isolation.

Japan’s musical history in brief: Japan was a closed country for nearly three centuries before it allowed itself to succumb to outside influences. During that time, its classical music traditions flourished in virtual isolation. Many instruments maintained and expanded solo musical traditions, reflecting the Buddhist and Confucian ideals of inwardness and moral rectitude. The principal Japanese instruments in these traditions were the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), koto (harp/zither), and shamisen (three-string lute). Collectively the instruments and the music are known as hogaku. The solo traditions have their own names as well; for the shakuhachi it is honkyoku.

The chamber music tradition known as sankyoku evolved as performers of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi began to copy one another’s melodies and played them together in a heterophonic manner, displaying idiomatic instrumental characteristics without building an individual voice. These musical traditions came to a crashing halt in the late 19th century when Japan officially opened to the West and the Meiji government banned the playing and teaching of Japanese instruments in favor of European instruments. Nonetheless, despite being marginalized by the new government, the practitioners persevered. The music continued to be passed along by aural tradition and was preserved with the help of relatively new notation systems—one system for each instrument. To this day, traditional sankyoku is played with three different notation systems; one each for koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.

Enter the West. Suffice it to say that, beginning in the late 19th century, the Japanese embraced Western classical music with enthusiasm. At the same time, their own music tradition was becoming a socially marginalized art, and Western classical was rapidly becoming the focus for music education.  Despite the efforts of a few great 20th-century composers such as Michiyo Miyagi and later Minoru Miki, who were writing new music for traditional Japanese ensembles, East and West were separate and it was assumed they would remain that way.

Despite the efforts of a few great composers, East and West were separate.

In the West, however, composers enjoyed tinkering with Eastern sound worlds. Of course, the incorporation of exotic influences began earlier—we have Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy et al. In 20th-century American music, the pioneers of classical/world music crossover included Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. And yet, the most seminal influence is often debatably attributed to Toru Takemitsu.

Fifty years ago, Toru Takemitsu was probably the only Japanese composer of Western classical music to have crossed over into the world of high-profile name recognition. However, when prodded by Leonard Bernstein to write an orchestral piece including traditional Japanese instruments, he balked. Largely self-taught in the classical music tradition, and especially fond of the music of Debussy and Messiaen, Takemitsu couldn’t see how the two classical music traditions of Japan and Europe could effectively be brought together. But, reluctantly, he agreed to try.

The more I looked at the two worlds of sound the greater the differences loomed, and I nearly decided the project was impossible. I thought of giving up… but completed a work in order to show as great a difference between the two traditions as possible without blending them.

—Toru Takemitsu: Confronting Silence – Selected Writings (Berkeley CA: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995), p. 62.

Indeed, so challenging did he find this task that when he finally composed November Steps, long considered the seminal work for traditional Japanese instruments and orchestra, the two sound worlds literally never interact. That was 1967.

So what are these differences that Takemitsu found so difficult to overcome? Music is after all music, a collection of sounds in some manner of organization. But music is also a reflection of culture, of language, and of purpose. And perhaps of philosophy as well. Can a difference in approach to life, its meaning, purpose, and legacy, be reflected in musical language? Two thoughts come to mind. Buddhism points to the impermanence of life—don’t become attached to things or desire them, as they will go away. Confucianism honors fealty and social harmony over individuality. Both of these abstractions differ from Western thought and tradition and work their way into musical expression.

There are also significant structural differences between the classical music of Japan and the classical music of the West. One big difference is that Western music uses harmony and traditional Japanese music doesn’t. Structurally, Western music also incorporates the concepts of repetition, contrast, and variation to define the common forms of sonata-allegro, rondo, etc. Japanese music uses a form known as “jo ha kyu.” A quiet beginning (jo) proceeds to a complex middle section (ha) and then to a fast conclusion (kyu) followed by a final brief stasis. Scale patterns are also different (pentatonic and diatonic) as are tone color, dynamics, and pitch range. That said, the sonorities and technical abilities of Japanese and Western instruments are highly compatible. Which brings me rapidly back to the 21st century and its uniquely global aesthetic.

Today, performers of Japanese instruments and composers of classical music are forging new ground.

Re-enter Kyo-Shin-An Arts. For the last decade, I have had the good fortune to be the artistic director of a music organization designed to represent my personal vision of bringing Japanese musical instruments into the fold of Western classical music. KSA exists to commission great composers and produce or facilitate performances that combine these two classical traditions. The grass roots conditions were ripe when KSA was founded, and I believe its high-quality work has helped to mainstream a new reality. Today, performers of Japanese instruments and composers of classical music are forging new ground and building relationships that are stripped of the old stereotypes of conventional constraints. They are creating a new, cross-cultural voice in music. In Japan, the old standard-bearers of musical tradition, who have proprietorially guarded their musical lineages through the Meiji Era and well into the 20th century, are facing their decline in an increasingly global musical world, enabling a new generation of unfettered musical exploration.

My composition Dream Corner is the result of my longtime desire to write a work that would unite my two favorite chamber music ensembles: the European String Quartet and the Japanese Sankyoku (the traditional trio of shakuhachi, koto, and shamisen).

launch gallery

James Nyoraku Schlefer is a Grand Master of the shakuhachi and one of only a handful of non-Japanese artists to have achieved this rank. He received the Dai-Shi-Han (Grand Master) certificate in 2001, and his second Shi-Han certificate in 2008, from the Mujuan Dojo in Kyoto. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Tanglewood and BAM, as well as multiple venues across the country and in Japan, Indonesia, Brazil and throughout Europe. Mr. Schlefer first encountered the shakuhachi in 1979, while working towards a career as a flute player and pursuing an... Read more »

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.