Sukeyasu Shiba's expansive inspiration

Imagine plucking a lute slowly and deliberately.  The impulse could arise from emotions within yourself.  But possibilities for inspiration other than the self also exist.  Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe, performed this past Wednesday evening by the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble at the Freer Gallery, drew inspiration from within and from without, from relations with objects and with others, and from specific, real places and from imaged scenes.  The whole universe was inspiration for this music.

An emotion from within is longing for home.  The work Chosa Join expressed a young girl’s longing for home after being called away for  service in the Chinese Imperial Court. The music was reconstructed from a manuscript found in the 5’th to 11’th century manuscript collection at Dunhuang, and it was played on instruments preserved from the Nara Period (8’th century) in the Japanese Imperial Treasury. The music easily moves persons far removed in time and place from its historical source.

A member of a clan of gagaku musicians stretching back more than a thousand years, Sukeyasu Shiba played a flute solo called Ichigyo no Fu.  The sliding, turning transitions between tones were exquisitely beautiful.  The phrasing of the music was in deep, long breaths that emphasized the performer’s body.  In the program, Mr. Shiba explained that the piece presented devotion to flute playing.  The piece did that not through technical virtuosity, nor through historical and familial authority, but by giving “full voice to the performer’s personal expressiveness.”  It thus related inner emotion to an external object.

Interpersonal communion was another source of inspiration.  About 1050 years ago in Japan, an gagaku musician who played a double-reed pipe yearned for the lute music of a blind monk.  For years he traveled a great distance hoping to hear it.  Finally, the monk, sensing the pipe musician hiding nearby, resolved to play. According to the program notes, the monk said, “Let me pluck my strings to his music.  Let him breathe through his instrument to my music.” [*]  As far from romantic as the distance that remained between the scarcely moving players, the resulting duet, Souan no Kai, presented beautiful, selfless music.

Other pieces expressed specific, real places and imaginary scenes.  Mr. Shiba described the first movement of his work Shotorashion with multiple senses other than sound:

Here is the solemn magnificence of the old Buddha Hall, shadowy with the slight chill and the fragrance of incense hovering in the air.  And the hanging mandala scroll with its faded colors bespeaks the weight of the years gone by.

Most persons probably wouldn’t know what sort of music that description implies. But having heard nothing, you might be able to imagine the sound of this scene:

Fujin — the God of Wind — rides high on the clouds, his mouth drawn into a great screech as he squeezes his huge bag of winds with such fearsome power that it feels as though at any moment he will come swooping down on the intruder.

The Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble included two mouth organs (sho), two double-reed flutes (hichiriki) and two side-blown flutes (ryuteki).  They made sounds of fearsome power.

Unlike the music, the dancing incorporated in Shotorashion lacked inspirational scope.  Stephen Pier’s dancing was balletic, with some gestures from jazz and flamenco dance.  His emphasis on arm and leg lines, along with his placid torso, clashed with the forceful breathing of the music.  His dancing also seemed exclusively egoistic, with head movements anticipating and paralleling arm and leg lines.  That quality of movement would have been more appropriate for a performance of ancient Roman pantomime.  More weighted, floor-oriented modern dance would have made for a more appealing re-interpretation of gagaku dance.  Maya Sakai performed a mikomai dance.  This dance harmonized with the music, but added little to the over-all effect. A collaboration with a group like Shen Wei Dance Arts would produce more interesting work.

Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe presented a living tradition of Japanese classical music stretching back for more than a thousand years.  It communicates just how encompassing music can be.

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Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe, presented by the Reigakusha Ensemble at the Myer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Feb. 24, 2010, as part of the Music From Japan Festival, 2010.

Notes:

[*] This is the legend of Hiromasa Minamoto, who sought out the monk Semimaru at Mt. Osaka.

A video is included above.

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