the Japanese Imperial Gagaku ensemble

Tour report 2012

The Edinburgh International Festival is one of the most significant festivals for performing arts in the world today. It was two years ago that Festival Director Jonathan Mills first became determined to showcase gagaku, Japan’s ancient court music, in Edinburgh, sending an invitation to perform to the Musicians of the Imperial Household. This year, his dream came true as the Musicians of the Imperial Household headed to Edinburgh for our first overseas performance in 12 years, and only the eighth overseas performance of the Musicians of the Imperial Household since the 1945.

By 20 August, our entire team had arrived in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, and preparations immediately began for the performance. The shō, a type of mouth organ made from bamboo, is a delicate wind instrument that requires the player to use a charcoal-filled hibachi brazier during the performance in order to maintain the temperature of the instrument itself. It was not possible, however, to bring the sumi charcoal traditionally used to the UK as cargo due to the risk of fire. The first task of the day was to determine whether the charcoal sourced in the UK could be used in the hibachi for the performance. Thankfully, the size of the charcoal, the intensity of the flames, and the duration of the heat were all acceptable for purpose, which was a great relief for the team. “We weren’t able to find any of the right sort of charcoal here in Scotland, so we had to order it from England. Thank goodness it’s passed the test”, laughed the official in charge of staging for the festival.

On 21 August, we made a first visit to the Festival Theatre, where the performance was to take place. The Festival Theatre is the largest theatre in Scotland, with a long and distinguished history. It is located on Nicolson Street, in the centre of Edinburgh.

The front of the theatre has a modern, glass-walled façade that immediately captures the eye, nestled as it is among the old stone buildings that line Edinburgh’s streets. When the team arrived backstage, it quickly transpired that equipment from the performance the night before still remained in the theatre, preventing us from unloading the equipment needed for the gagaku performance. Loading and unloading was going back and forth, with the equipment from the night before being moved to one side of the backstage area while the gagaku team shifted equipment to the other side. Eventually, stage set up could begin in earnest.

The technical crew at the theatre was clearly made up of experienced professionals, and they were quick to tackle the set up job alongside Ideguchi Studios, who had travelled from Japan to oversee technical set up, and staff from Miyamoto Unosuke, who were responsible for setting up the dadaiko drums. The Festival Theatre technical crew was happy to start again whenever things weren’t quite right, ensuring that everything was set up exactly as it needed to be for the performance.

This was the first time that dadaiko had ever been taken overseas for a gagaku performance by the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency. These dadaiko have a deep and distinctive reverberation; they are designed so that the sound travels clearly and powerfully to the audience. The position of the dadaiko was adjusted in consideration of the movements of the dancers, and the technical set up of the stage was finally complete at 4pm.

From 7pm, Shogo Anzai, Chief Court Musician, was interviewed for a BBC radio programme.

From 7.30pm onwards, an open dress rehearsal for kangen (instrumental music) was held, to which members of the media had been invited. This was followed by a closed rehearsal, without costume, which lasted until just after 9pm and concluded the day.

Gagaku was featured on this day by The Scotsman, a daily newspaper published in Edinburgh, in its special report on the highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival.

In the morning of 22 August, three musicians recorded three songs and an interview for a music programme for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Shogo Anzai, Chief Court Musician, played the ryuteki(transverse bamboo flute); Goro Ikebe, Deputy Chief Court Musician, played the hichiriki(bamboo oboe); and Takeaki Bunno, Court Musician, played the shō(bamboo mouth organ).

At 7.30pm that evening, an audience of 1,900 took their seats in the sold-out Festival Theatre to witness the performance. Of the many performances that made up the Edinburgh International Festival, it was this performance of gagaku by the Imperial Court Musicians that was the very first to sell out. A representative from the Festival Office commented that it was extremely unusual for a performance at the Festival Theatre, the largest of all the theatres in Edinburgh, to be the first to record a sell-out audience.

Masataka Tarahara, Consul-General of Japan in Edinburgh, invited a number of distinguished guests to the performance, including Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Donald Wilson, who is the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh; John Swinney MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance; Lord Gill, Lord President; Load Bruce; Timothy O’Shea, Principal of the University of Edinburgh; Tomasz Trafas, Consul-General of Poland, Dean of the Consular Corps, and many more besides. A brief reception was held by Consulate-General Tarahara in the interval, between the first half, consisting of kangen (instrumental music) and the second half, consisting of bugaku (dance and music).

art of the hall by the doors leading to the audience seating was used for a display of 14 panels introducing the history and traditions of gagaku, and many visitors took the opportunity before and after the performance and during the interval to learn more about gagaku culture.

The first half of the performance consisted of kangen instrumental music, along with Kashin, an example of rōei, or masterpieces of Chinese or Japanese poetry chanted in chorus to music. The second half was a showcase of bugaku, or dance set to music, including Manzairaku (“Longevity Revel”), a dance customarily played at enthronement ceremonies, celebratory feasts and similar auspicious occasions.

Before the performance began, the audience fell completely silent; even the musicians were aware of the anticipation of the packed crowd as they concentrated intently on the music and song that was performed. The Festival Theatre is unique in that, despite the large number of seats, the distance between the stage and the audience is extremely small. This allows the audience an intimate view of the performance on stage, and to appreciate the intricacy of movements and beauty of costumes. For the entire second half, the audience was captivated by each and every movement of the bugaku dancers.

At the conclusion of the final bugaku piece, entitled Bairo, the audience exploded with applause, followed quickly by a standing ovation that lasted throughout the curtain call. The musicians and dancers were very much moved by the passion of the audience response. After the performance, Head of the Touring Company, Jiro Okuyama, Chief Court Musician, Shogo Anzai, and Deputy Chief Court Musicians, Nagao Okubo and Goro Ikebe were greeted by a number of distinguished guests who were generous with their praise. “It is an incredibly regulated and restrained music, like nothing I have ever heard before, almost other-worldly”, commented Donald Wilson, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, while John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth in the Scottish Government, said that “it is more than just beautiful music; it gives you a real sense of the weight of history”. Jonathan Mills, Festival Director, was also impressed, saying: “gagaku may seem at first glance to be made up of simple music and dance, but the art of gagaku is that everything is contained within that very simplicity. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan for allowing this overseas performance by the Imperial Musicians”.

The following day, on 23 August, a number of prominent newspapers, including The Scotsman, The Herald and The Daily Telegraph, featured rapturous reviews of the performance, confirming the fervor of the audience reaction from the night before.

The team then split into two groups to travel to travel from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, on 23 August. Amsterdam was hosting Floriade 2012, an international horticultural festival held once every ten years. The two gagaku performance held in Amsterdam were to celebrate Floriade 2012. The venue was the Muziekgebouw (“Music Hall” in Dutch), opened in 2005 located alongside the old port near Amsterdam Central Station. The glass wall of the hall reveals a large ship moored so close that you can almost see into the ship’s cabin.
On 24 August, we held a meeting with the Muziekgebouw team, then on the morning of 25 August, the technical team unloaded equipment and set up the stage. This was followed a lighting rehearsal and run-through.

On 25 August, the performance began at 8.15pm, and on 26 August, at 3pm. Each performance lasted approximately 2 hours, and both performances were played to a sold-out venue of around 700 seats. A display of panels introducing the history and culture of gagaku was set up in one corner of the venue, which attracted a great deal of attention from audience members.

The performance was divided into two parts. The first half was a showcase of kangen instrumental music, which included, on 25 August, Koromo-gae, the most famous example of saibara, literally songs of horse-grooms, which are folk songs sung to the accompaniment of T’ang musical instruments. On 26 August, Kashin, a rōei poetry chant, was played instead of Koromo-gae. The second half was a showcase of bugaku music and dance, and featured Shundeika (“The Garden Flowers in Spring”), a piece inspired by blossoming flowers, in honour of Floriade 2012. (For details on each piece, please refer to the Programme details).

In Amsterdam, too, the audience members were enthralled by the performance. Each performance ended in delighted applause and a standing ovation. Eminent guests invited to the performances by Takashi Koezuka, Ambassador of Japan to the Netherlands, included H.G.J. Kamp, Minister of Social Affairs and Employment; Wim Kok, former Prime Minister; J.P.H. Donner, Vice President of the Council of States, and Yasunori Sugiyama, Chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce on 25 August, and D. Gabor, Commissioner for the World Horticultural Exhibition Floriade 2012; M.L. Griffith, Member of the Council of States, Councilor,; R.C. Robertson, Queen’s Commissioner in Utrecht; Vice-Admiral M. Borsboom, Commander in Chief of the Netherlands Navy; Eberhard van der Laan, Mayor of Amsterdam; H.J.J. Lenferink, Mayor of Leiden; and E.F. Jacobs, former Dutch Ambassador to Japan; as well as the Ambassadors of various countries and the Presidents of Japanese companies located in the Netherlands on 26 August. The performances also attracted a number of renowned artists from the performing arts, including Pierre Audi, a legendary figure in the Dutch musical world, whose impressive resume includes positions as Artistic Director of the Holland Festival, Artistic Director of De Nederlandse Opera, and and Peter Hofmann, Member of the Board of the Netherlands Dance Theater. Comments after the performance were, as in Edinburgh, overwhelmingly positive. Pierre Audi commented that it was “a truly astonishing performance”. For many audience members, this was their first experience of gagaku. “It was wonderful to be able to experience traditional music and dance that cannot normally be enjoyed here in the Netherlands”, said one audience member, while another said that “I was deeply moved by the fact that the costumes, music and dance of gagaku have been passed down to successive generations for more than a thousand years”.

Receptions were hosted by Ambassaor Koezuka during the interval between the first half, comprising kangen instrumental music, and the second half, comprising bugaku music and dance, and after the performance. Each reception welcomed around 150 distinguished guests, and brief introductions to gagaku were given by Ambassaor Koezuka and Head of the Touring Company Jiro Okuyama. At the reception after the performance, guests were introduced to Chief Court Musician, Shogo Anzai, and Deputy Chief Court Musicians, Nagao Okubo and Goro Ikebe. Guests were quick to gather around the court musicians to congratulate and to question, a clear indication of the level of interest in gagaku sparked by the performance.

In 1965, gagaku as played by the musicians of the Music Department of the Imperial Household was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government, and the musicians themselves were certified as Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties—otherwise known as living national treasures. In 2009, gagaku was inscribed on the on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This latest international tour saw the Court Musicians complete three highly successful performances, inspiring joy and emotion in many people around the world. It represents a new step forward for gagaku, as it becomes better known and loved throughout the entire global community.

This international tour was sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, which contributed the majority of the funding. The Japan Foundation also made a generous contribution. The Tokyo Club also provided a grant for cultural activities, and KLM Airlines supported the travel arrangements for the tour. We are extremely grateful for all of these contributions.

Finally, we would like to thank all of those who assisted us in Edinburgh, including Masataka Tarahara, Consulate-General of Japan in Edinburgh, and interpreters Yuki Kosuge, Mio Kobayashi, and Mary Moreton. In Amsterdam, we were similarly grateful for the kind assistance of Takashi Koezuka, Ambassador of Japan to the Netherlands, as well as Mr and Mrs Baggerman of GPAG, and Hideaki Yogo and Takako Hamano. Our thanks must also be extended to Kei Ishikawa, Daisuke Yamazaki, and Hikaru Koyanagi, who handled the audio and visual recording of performance, and to Hugo Glendinning, who took stills. Performances would not have been possible without the efforts of the technical set up team from Ideguchi Studios, and the team from Miyamoto Unosuke, who took such good care of the dadaiko, as well as the costume team from Otsuki Shozokuten. Our deepest gratitude must be shown to Jonathan Mills, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, for inviting the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency to perform at the festival, and Hisashi Itoh who produced the tour, along with his assistant Yoko Koyama. Thank you once again to everyone who made this possible.

Jiro Okuyama
Head of the Touring Company, Imperial Household Agency

(All the titles are at the date of Augutst 2012)