the Japanese Imperial Gagaku ensemble

Tour report 2018

The Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency traveled to France to perform Gagaku (Japan’s ancient court music and dance, literally meaning “graceful music”) performances from September 1 to 8, 2018 with two major goals: to increase awareness of Gagaku in foreign countries and to provide young Gagaku musicians with the chance to perform abroad. We were able to achieve this thanks to the hard work of Hiroyasu Ando, the Chairman of Japan Foundation, who readily agreed to our participation to Japonismes 2018, which was held to celebrate the 160 years of friendship between Japan and France.
Japonismes 2018 : les âmes en resonance represents a groundbreaking celebration of Japanese culture that introduces the unique aesthetic sensibility of Japan based upon honoring nature and valuing the harmony of different perspectives, an appreciation of beauty which traces its roots to the beginnings of Japanese culture. Japonismes 2018 is being held in the hope that the sensibilities of both Japan and France will mutually resonate with each other through culture and art, and that their circle of cooperation will expand and spread throughout the world. We were given the opportunity to perform in Paris and Strasbourg as part of this celebration, which lasts for eight months and showcases Japan’s finest examples of art all over France. It has been six years since the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency last performed in Europe-- namely in Edinburgh and Amsterdam--and actually, it has been 42 years since we have performed here in France.

On September 1, 2018, the members were divided into two groups--those departing from Haneda Airport and those departing from Narita Airport--and both left for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The last time we went to France, 42 years ago, there was only one airport; Haneda, and in order to get to Europe, we had to arrange our visa, get vaccinated, and the plane had to refuel in Anchorage. Now, it only takes 12 hours to get there--with no stopovers--and we do not have to endure the pain of the vaccination needles the way we had to on the previous trip. I keenly felt the passage of time when realizing how convenient it had become to travel abroad. Some of the younger musicians, who had never traveled abroad before, were both excited and yet were also mentioning their worries about the risk of economy class syndrome. Everyone had safely arrived in Paris by 10pm, local time.

On the afternoon of September 2, all the members walked to the Philharmonie de Paris, their performance venue, and gathered around the shipping containers to get their instruments, such as the dadaiko drums, and shozoku, their costumes. The instruments and costumes had been shipped both air and surface. Those shipped surface had gone out in July, and had taken about two months to get there. After the shipping containers were opened in their presence, the performers carried the instruments and costumes to their dressing rooms and prepared for their rehearsal starting at 7:00pm.

The Philharmonie de Paris is located inside Parc de la Villette, the largest urban cultural park in Paris. It shines with a silver, neo-futuristic look, and you can enjoy a view of the immense park from the observation deck at the top where you can look out onto the dazzlingly beautiful green of the trees. During their rehearsal at the symphony concert hall--which had a pipe organ and could seat an audience of 2,400--the members were able to check the acoustics, no doubt due to a design based on a rich knowledge of the tradition of church construction. The hall, which first opened quite recently, in 2015, was designed in a way so as to give an impression of birds flying out into the sky, using streamline shapes for its interior and exterior. One of the most unique things about the hall is that the auditorium is asymmetrically designed. Because of this unique design, the dancers had a hard time trying to figure out where the center of the stage was while they were rehearsing.

Since there had been no chance to establish this beforehand, things became somewhat confusing when trying to rehearse the choreography and set up the various locations of people and objects on stage and also while trying to communicate with the local staff. However, thanks to the detailed and extremely helpful advice given by Hisashi Itoh of Hisashi Itoh & Co., who had also worked with the previous group during their performance in Edinburgh six years prior, and the various adjustments made by the accommodating staff of KAJIMOTO, the sumi charcoal used to warm and dehumidify the shita (reeds) of the Shō (bamboo mouth organ), as well as the Japanese tea used to open the Rozetsu (another type of reed) of the Hichiriki (a small double-reed wind instrument)--which are both unusually difficult to arrange for overseas performances--were properly set up to everyone’s satisfaction, and we were able to proceed with our rehearsal in a manner identical to an actual performance without having any major difficulties.
We would also like to express our sincere gratitude to Korehito Masuda from the Japan Foundation, who has gone out of his way to enable the members who have just arrived in Paris prepare and perform smoothly in this location so unfamiliar to them.

September 3 was the day for the actual live performance, and it began at 8:30pm (3:30am September 4, Japan time), which is quite a normal time to begin by world standards, but rather late for performances in Japan. We went to the venue at 6:00pm, intensely aware of the time difference with Japan. Soon after we entered, I was interviewed by a TV station (the French branch office of a Japanese TV station), which caused me to instantly recognize the high-visibility of this performance. At 7:45pm, pre-performance talk was given by Emeritus Professor François Macé from the Department of Japanese Language and Civilization at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in France.

In the lobby, visitors showed great interest in the exhibition of pictures and accompanying descriptions of the Gagaku. Similar exhibitions, held during the previous performances in Edinburgh and Amsterdam had also garnered great interest and were well accepted.

For the kangen (instrumental music) program, hyō-jō--one of the six tonalities called rokuchoshi (consisting of ichikotsu-chō (D), hyō-jō (E), sō-jō(G), ōshiki-chō (A), banshiki-chō (B), and taishiki-chō (E); with taishiki-chō and hyō-jō being in the same(E) key)--was selected. This was purposely chosen to give an impression of autumn.
The recital began with Netori (tuning); then proceeded with one of the most famous songs in the Saibara (vocal music, literally meaning “songs of horse-grooms”) genre called Ise-no-Umi “Sea of Ise” (which is also performed during the Emperor’s birthday ceremonies); moved on to Etenraku, which is the most famous piece in Gagaku; and finished up with Bairo, a beautiful melody of the string instruments with an unique combination of 2/2 and 4/4 rhythm.

At first, the audience appeared to be somewhat at a loss as they listened to music they have never heard before and were not prepared to classify into any genre with which they were accustomed. However, as soon as the intermission started, they immediately gathered around the stage taking pictures of the stage and Gagaku instruments, amazed and moved by the beauty of their shapes and combination of colors. After the 20 minute-intermission, the latter half of the performance, bugaku (Dance and music), started with the Manzairaku,--a very celebratory piece performed by four dancers on the left side of the stage and which is also performed during the ceremony in which the Emperor accedes to the throne--and the Ryō-ō --performed by one dancer in a gorgeous heroic costume and eccentric mask. And on the right side of the stage, two dancers in masks performed the Nasori in which they depicted two dragons dancing blissfully together while they perform the ha (intermediate) and kyū (climax) movements of the music. This performance was live-streamed globally in real-time on the Philharmonie de Paris website. The full-length video of the performance will be accessible to anyone on the same website until January 3, 2019.

During the performance, we strongly felt the capacity audience’s intense concentration and interest. When the program finished, we were greeted to a storm of applause that seemed like it would never end. The applause seemed to grow bigger and bigger--perhaps due to the acoustics--which made us feel warm and euphoric as if we were being lifted up on a thick, soft handmade carpet. The performers felt a great sense of accomplishment when they took the curtain call to receive the shower of applause, something which is not customary in a typical Gagaku recital.

At the reception hosted by Philharmonie de Paris held after the performance, we received encouraging words of appreciation from Masato Kitera, Ambassador of Japan to France. He informed us that the performance received high marks from various people such as, for example, Jack Lang, the former Minister of Culture for France, who complimented us before the performance by saying “It’s amazing that the biggest hall here is full. Gagaku is a present from Japan to France.” Also, Laurent Bayle, the President of Philharmonie de Paris, repeatedly said “It was fabulous!”. This helped make us confident that our performance was a great success. There were also “Fantastique”, “Magnifique”, and many other words of praise found in the comments in the questionnaire filled out by the audience members after the performance ended. Answers to the questionnaire also included such compliments as: “Thank you for bringing this performance to France.”, “It was so wonderful that I feel that I can’t do it justice in an answer in a questionnaire.”, and “I was so moved that it felt as if my heart had flipped upside down. (Je suis bouleversé!)”. We were greatly satisfied and felt a sense of fulfillment stemming from the fact that the performance--which was a recreation of the stage we had been preserving as the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency--had resonated in the hearts of the French audience. Not only was the performance itself an apparent success, but the audience also seemed fascinated by the mekuri, a stand located by the stage wing holding large cards on which the names of the pieces were written in Japanese kanji. The cards were flipped as the performance progressed, acting as a kind of a “live program” of the entire performance.

This use of the mekuri was the first time we had tried such a thing during an overseas performance, and we felt entirely justified in attempting this innovation. It felt as if we had played an important role in introducing a part of Japanese culture. We became engaged in a race against time at the end of the event because the performance ended around 10:30pm, and we had to remove the props and instruments for the stage and get them and our personal belongings all packed and ready to go by 2:00am for our next performance in Strasbourg. All of the members worked very hard together and we were able to finish the preparation in time.

The following day, September 4, four of the musicians had to leave the group early and go back to Japan on an afternoon flight from Charles de Gaulle to Narita in order to participate in an event there concerning the visit of His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince to (interestingly enough) France. The remaining members, who were heading to Strasbourg, gathered at 9:30am to take a bus to Gare de l'Est (Paris-East), and then took the TGV to get to their next destination. It took one hour and 45 minutes by high speed train to Strasbourg, where we were then taken to the city hall, which took about 15 minutes by tram. We all ate lunch at the staff dining room located inside the government building. We then again took the tram and then walked to the hotel, arriving there at 3:30pm.

That evening, we were invited to the consul general’s official residence and were the recipients of exceptionally kind hospitality by Takamasa Sato, the Consulate General of Japan in Strasbourg. We had the pleasure of listening to stories about past members of our group participating in an international music festival held in Strasbourg 48 years ago--in 1970--as part of an international exchange project by KBS (Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai “The Society for the Promotion of International Cultural Relations”) We also learned about the culture unique to Alsace and about its local specialty, wine. Here, we heard that Japonismes, which was very popular in France at the end of 19th century, provided an impetus for the close relationship between the people in Alsace and Japan. We felt honored to be able to come here as part of a project concerning “Japonismes.”

On September 5, we made our first visit to the concert hall to see what the venue was like and to have a dress rehearsal. We all got together at 8am and headed to “Conservatoire Strasbourg” where the instruments and costumes sent from Paris had safely arrived. Here, we were suddenly informed that a forklift would be required to carry in the dadaiko drums. We were a bit startled by this unforeseen change in plans, but were able to prepare in time thanks to the quick adjustments made by the local staff.

We had an open dress rehearsal for the bugaku section, before an audience of about 20 people who had been chosen by lottery. After the rehearsal, we explained the basics of Gagaku and then moved on to at a question and answer session where questions such as “How do you learn Gagaku?” and “How can we learn Gagaku?” were asked, and comments such as “Gagaku is said to be the oldest orchestra, but I didn’t know it doesn’t have a conductor.” were made. During this session, we mentioned that we also play Western instruments, which seemed to surprise the audience members.

After the rehearsal, we were invited to a reception hosted by the city of Strasbourg where we were given a warm greeting by Roland Ries, the Mayor of Strasbourg. During our pleasant chat following the greeting, we found out that the ginkgo sent by Emperor Meiji is still growing in the Republic Square. Upon hearing that it took about two months to get there by ship at that time, I asked whether travelers then experienced jetlag in the same way I did, and he nicely replied “No. This is a good example of the sacrifices we have to make as civilization progresses.” His observation was very thought-provoking for me as one of the members responsible of passing down classical arts without changing the form. We were deeply touched by the warm hospitality we received at the city hall, which was very beautiful and looked like a museum. We walked back to our hotel admiring the view of the historic cathedral and basking in the afterglow of this beautiful experience.

Our performance in Strasbourg took place on the following day, September 6. After a final check of the stage at 5:30pm, we were interviewed by a local TV station, which was later broadcast during a news program at 7pm nationwide in France. Dozens of people had gathered to be on the waiting list for our performance, which was to begin at 8pm. These people kept on waiting in spite of the fact that we had a heavy rain just before the performance began. Unfortunately for them, there were no cancellations, and the audience of 500 took their seats at this sold-out performance.
Conservatoire Strasbourg only has two aisles leading to the seats--one on the right and one on the left--and we could see the audience filing in from the aisles in horizontal lines to take their seats.

Although we were performing the same program as the one in Paris, we had to make some adjustments for some roles because of the four missing performers who had had to go back to Japan. Here again, we took the curtain call receiving the thunderous applause from the capacity audience. Also, as in Paris, the audience was able to take in the pictures and accompanying descriptions displayed in the lobby. They were quite pleased viewing the display, saying that it greatly helped them to learn about Gagaku.

Members such as: Catherine Trautmann, a member of the City Council of Strasbourg and the Vice-President of Strasbourg Eurométropole; the former Minister of Culture of France; the former Mayor of Strasbourg, Brigitte Klinkert; the President of the Department Council of Haut-Rhin, Thierry Michels; a member of the French National Assembly, and Bruno Studer; a member of the French National Assembly attended the reception hosted by Conservatoire Strasbourg at the foyer. Catherine Trautmann, who has an especially profound knowledge of Japanese culture, gave us her very poetic impression, with the admission that she didn’t know much about Gagaku, saying “I was incredibly moved and was astonished to hear every single Gagaku instrument marking the passage of time and every note having its own meaning with its dignified tone. If the stars could make music, it would have sounded like the music I heard today.” She gave me a firm handshake saying “I was moved by everything...... the colors, design, the tone, and I don’t know how to break the spell.” Korehito Masuda, Director General of the Japan Foundation Secretariat for Japonismes, introduced me to the guests saying “Hiroaki Togi had been a young member of the troop, only about 20 years old, when he last came to Paris 42 years ago. Now, he had come back to France in charge of the performance as the Chief Court Musician and the Head of the touring company.” Following a round of applause, I again felt fulfilled and also a sense of accomplishment for having worked on this performance.

At the reception, the daughter of a brass instrument instructor at Senzoku Gakuen College of Music showed me a picture she had drawn during the performance. I was thrilled to see how beautifully the picture had been drawn and found it hard to believe that she had drawn it just by watching the recital. [PICTURE]

Even during the reception, there was a sense of being in a state of tentekomai, a term used in Japan that refers to an intense dance to drums meaning “moving around without any rest”. This was because we were under extreme time constraints in that we had to have all of our things packed and ready to either take with us or ship back to Japan by 1am. We had to make strenuous efforts to disassemble and pack the props and instruments because there was zero time to spare. Normally, it is customary to carry out sabosu, “an airing out of the costumes that have been worn before putting them back in its place.” However, the schedule was so tight in Paris and Strasbourg that not only did we not have the time to perform the sabosu “airing out”, but were barely able to gather up our belongings. We tried to compensate for this by putting a lot of drying agents around the sweaty costumes.

On September 7--the day of departure--the members were divided into two groups, the first group gathering at 7:45am and the other at 10:45am, and the two groups took the bus to Strasbourg Station and then got on the TGV for the just over two-hour trip to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Once we had checked in our baggage and completed our check-in at the Strasbourg Station, we didn’t have to go through any procedures when getting on the plane in Paris. The way Air France had made this process so smooth and efficient again brought home to me how things had changed over the passing of time.

By the afternoon of September 8, Japan time, both groups had safely arrived at Narita and Haneda. Although we had originally been thinking about attempting a new and different Gagaku performance in collaboration with France, for this festival--where various Japanese traditional arts such as noh and kabuki were to be introduced--we chose to stick to our classic performance in the belief that it would be better to focus on our history of 1,300 years. We believe that performing real legitimate Gagaku classics which had been ended up being able to play a role in lines with the purpose of Japonismes.

In closing, we would like to thank all of those who assisted us in France, including the following;

The team from Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten Co., Ltd.
The Gagaku stage set up team from Ideguchi Co., Ltd.
The costume team from Otsuki Shozokuten Co., Ltd.
Hiroyasu Ando, the President of Japan Foundation
Tsutomu Sugiura, Tomoaki Shimane, Korehito Masuda, Masaya Shimoyama, Shinobu Morohashi, Yasuhiro Kobayashi, Yukari Shinohara, Marie Sakamoto, and Chinami Kitani from Japan Foundation
Masato Kitera; Ambassador of Japan to France
Takamasa Sato; Consul General of Japan at Strasbourg
Toru Yoshikawa and Tomomi Hatanaka from Consulate General of Japan at Strasbourg
Maki Takemitsu, Yumi Yokota, Akiko Sugiyama, and Toshihiro Isei from KAJIMOTO
Hisashi Itoh of Hisashi Itoh & Co.
Virginie Fermaud from CEEJA
Interpreters: Yoko Oshiro, Megumi Kobayashi, and Jun Vercoutter

Hiroaki Togi
Head of the Touring Company / Chief Court Musician, Imperial Household Agency.