Where the Music of India and Japan Meet


On the Shichiseikai (pt 4): Contemporary Shomyo

Originally a religious ceremony, yet also attractive as a musical form, shomyo (Buddhist sutra chanting) gradually stopped being performed. But times change and today a reexamination of religious rites and traditional performing arts has begun. Along with this resurgence of interest, there has also been an increasing number of shomyo performances. However, the present focus is no longer on shomyo as a traditional religious ceremony, but instead on the artistic aspects of the form. In this issue, we present the final installment of a four-part series that began in SoundArts #8 with "Where the Music of India and Japan Meet." For those lucky enough to attend Nakagawa's concerts and workshops at Xebec in addition to reading these articles, you have no doubt been treated to a unique, "three-dimensional" experience stretching from shomyo of the past to the present, and on into the future


Last November, at a hall for traditional performing arts in Otsu, I heard the first restored version of "Gokuraku Shoka" in several hundred years. The work was restored by KATAOKA Gido, the renowned shomyo researcher, and was performed by a group of about twenty Tendai monks of the Shinsei sect and thirteen gagaku (imperial court music) musicians. "Gokuraku Shoka" is part of Shingen's Junji-Ojo-Koshiki(1114), which I touched on briefly in the last article. The lyrics, written in Japanese and called wabun shomyo, are notable as they are chanted to gagaku accompaniment. Written in praise of Amida Buddha, they express human hope about the journey that lies ahead to the Pure Land. According to the concert program, since orchestrated musical forms such as the cantata had not yet been developed, at the time it was written "Gokuraku Shoka" was perhaps the most advanced form of music in the world.

The sound of shomyo being chanted against the relaxed strains of gagaku recreated the elegance of Heian and an air of majesty. Right then and there as I listened, I felt as if I had been transported back 850 years ago. The brilliantly colored costumes of the monks and musicians on stage were gorgeous and created a beautiful contrast to the simplicity of the No stage they performed on.

"Gokuraku Shoka" is both a religious ceremony, and a kind of artistic performance. So why (as it said in the program) did "performances gradually decrease until at last the work was completely forgotten"? One can imagine many different reasons: Changes in the economic situation that made the substantial cost of maintaining the ceremony impossible, and changes in the tastes of event organizers and listeners among them. "Gokuraku Shoka" is not unique in this respect; there are countless examples in history of traditional performing arts that disappeared completely from the stage. And their inability to survive has of course led to their extinction today. But it is possible that later generations will dig up traditions that history has buried and imbue them with new life. It is impossible at this point to say whether or not "Gokuraku Shoka" will turn out to one of these. One thing that occurred to me as I listened to it was that no matter how attractive a particular tradition might be, traditions are not always eternal.

The Restoration of "Gokuraku Shoka"


The shomyo tradition, in which the restoration of "Gokuraku Shoka" has played no small part, has continued for over 1,000 years regardless of historic and social changes, and exists even in our day as a unique form of religious rite as well as performing art. However, the number of monks and listeners who are seriously studying and practicing the tradition is actually extremely small, and shomyo is recognized as nothing more than an unusual tradition. In light of this situation, is a complete revitalization of a tradition that was once thought of as music that "delighted the ear of each and every man...and offered solace to the heart of one and all" (from the Shomyo Genryuki by Gyonen Daitoku) possible? The average person was first able to hear the music that is sung in temple rites in 1966 at a performance at the National Theater. It would not be incorrect to credit the National Theater performance with popularizing, to some degree, the word "shomyo." Since this performance, Buddhist music with a focus on the shomyo of various sects has continued to be presented. In these performances, being that the theater is national, more emphasis has been placed on the artistic aspects of Buddhist music than on its religious aspects.

The Role of the National Theater in the Revitalization of Shomyo

Music of the Heavens at Xebec Hall 11/22/96


As part of this series, works by contemporary music composers such as ISHII Maki, KONDO Jo, FUJIEDA Mamoru, NISHIMURA Akira, and TAKAHASHI Yuji that include shomyo as a type of musical vocabulary have been commissioned and performed. Naturally, the way in which each composer has chosen to use shomyo varies, but the vocabulary of this time-honored tradition has been placed in a contemporary setting in an attempt to present new expressive possibilities. Ishii Maki, for example, has said, "It was my intention to integrate the traditional musical aspects of shomyo with contemporary music. In addition, I have tried to create the complex integration of 'religion and music' with the use of the 'frog' poem."(Ishii's piece was built around the recitation and singing of the poem "Kaeru no Shomyo," a contemporary work by KUSANO Shinpei.) Concerning the work "Yumenokiregire," Takahashi Yuji explained the compositional attitude he took this way: "I tried to maintain some distance from the tradition, which is not to say that the work is any kind of destruction, deconstruction, or modernization....More than drafting a blueprint for an acoustic space, composition resembles the presentation of a plan of a rite or an event." As these comments suggest, each of the composers took a unique approach, leading to a wider understanding of the possibilities that shomyo possesses as a form of contemporary musical expression. Shomyo is not only receiving special attention in Japan, but also in the U.S. and Europe. The American composer Richard TEITELBAUM has written a work for shomyo, which was performed in 1983 in a Catholic church near the wall that separated west and east Berlin. There are other approaches besides those of composers. Take, for example, someone like SAKURAI Makiko, who performed together with Shichiseikai at Xebec last year. In a field that is almost exclusively composed of male monks, she specializes in shomyo as a music and pursues her performance activities as an individual.

Shomyo as an Expressive Vocabulary for Contemporary Music

Amit ROY and Shichiseikai

It is also possible to see Shichiseikai, a group that I'm involved with as a producer, as another example of the forms that contemporary shomyo is taking. The performance that was held at Xebec last year, "Music of the Heavens," was designed as a small attempt to create a new form of music. The explanation that I wrote for the concert flyer was somewhat exaggerated, but this is what it said: "1. An actual Jodo memorial service accompanied by shomyo, which is thought to be the source of every type of Japanese vocal music tradition. 2. An experimental performance by Japan's only female shomyo specialist, Sakurai Makiko, that suggests a new direction for shomyo as a single-voiced, choral music. 3. With the accompaniment of Indian classical music, and shomyo, which were both developed from the musical traditions of India, the performers will try to envision the music of the Pure Land (as imagined by the author from the standpoint of ancient India), the world that awaits us after death."

Shomyo consists of a group of singular male voices joined in unison. But with the layered vocalization of trained monks and the overtones it creates combined with the living tradition based on a long history and the inherent religiosity of the music, a dense musical environment is formed that is unlike any other form of musical expression. While being impressive musically, shomyo invites us to an unusual place of calm away from the hustle and bustle of daily life in modern society, and forces us to consider the inevitability of life and death. By producing this concert, it was my hope to expose as many people as possible to this unique experience.

The reason I decided to add Indian music accompaniment goes deeper than the mere fact that the roots of Buddhism lie in India. Both Indian music and shomyo have no concept of harmony as a layering of individual sounds, and both have structural similarities, in that melodies are created around a central standard tone. In addition, being basically improvisational, Indian music is quite flexible as a form of musical accompaniment. During one part of the concert, the sitar and bånsuri (traverse bamboo flute) accompanied the shomyo of Shichiseikai to perform a scale (råga) common to both musics. Although there are still many things that need to be considered in arranging such accompaniments, I am proud to say that this attempt does seem to offer a fairly good indication of the directions the music might go in the future.

Shichiseikai and the Future

As I have said, it seems as if shomyo has come to be recognized to some extent as one type of expression available to the contemporary performer. However, performers who have taken this approach to the tradition are decided "outsiders" in the field. Of course, in the new shomyo works that have been commissioned, there are some cases in which temple rites were included. But the "insiders" in the field, the monks who are carrying on the shomyo tradition, have for the most part devoted themselves to being shomyo performers. This is due to the fact that the thick walls of custom and tradition have stood firmly against any response from the temples concerning the use of religious rites in the "new shomyo" of outsiders, and stopped insiders from creating their own "new shomyo." Despite this, it isn't as if the ceremonies and shomyo have maintained the same form since their inception. When Buddhist hymns, for example, began to be sung in Japanese, this was undoubtedly regarded as a kind of heresy, a deviation from accepted tradition, by the monks who regarded the Chinese and Sanskrit versions of shomyo as the "orthodoxy." In my opinion, it will be necessary for positive reinforcement and tolerance on the part of insiders concerning changes in the magnificent shomyo tradition as well as new approaches by outsiders, such as preventing the total disappearance of something like "Gokuraku Shoka," for the music to remain vibrant in the future. But then again, I myself am one of the outsiders, and I have a feeling that an insider would respond by saying, "That's easy for you to say."

Tradition and Its Insiders and Outsiders

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