Tonight I heard in concert something which I have waited more than 10 years to hear live: Japanese Gagaku music. At university I wrote a dissertation on this completely rare form of traditional Japanese music that has the longest continued performance tradition of any music in the world. It is traceable, with the same repertoire, easily back to 6th Century AD. We know that the same pieces were being played then because the music has been carefully and rigourously notated.

This music is so rare and special that UNESCO has awarded it Intangible Cultural Heritage status – i.e. ‘DON’T CHANGE IT FFS!’ status. It did nearly die out at the end of the 19th century, but then various groups were shored up to safeguard it, including the Imperial Household Orchestra from the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo, who I heard tonight. They don’t get out much, of Japan that is, so it was a real coup for the Edinburgh International Festival to get them booked for, as far as I can tell, their first ever Scottish date since they started occasional tours in the 1950s.

The music is slow, yet with a sense of inevitability as one sound follows another. And it is, to my ears, completely hypnotising. We think that the music has slowed down dramatically over the centuries. This might be one surprising effect of it being written down and fixed, rather than passed on in a purely oral way.

Here’s a really bad picture from my camera phone that probably only proves I was there. I WAS THERE! It was quite a fancy set-up as you’ll probably see. That big thing on the left-hand side turned out to be a drum! They had dancers too for the second half.

When I wrote my dissertation, I chose as the theme to look at the way Western composers had started to write pieces of music in the Western Classical tradition which drew on this Gagaku, either in writing for the instruments/ensembles or by trying to mimic them with Western instrumentation. If you’re interested, check out Messiaen’s piece Sept Haikai for orchestra, which includes a movement called Gagaku.

There’s so much I could say (I wrote a dissertation on it, so natch) but that’s a wee taster for youse. Oh, and this is an ear-taster from the old tube of youse.


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