Tag Archives: Japan

Isang Yun: Composer and freedom fighter

Isang Yun’s youth was dominated by his involvement with resistance movements against the Japanese occupation of Korea, which began in 1910. His political activities deeply affected his development as a musician, which was characterized by the constant conflict between his artistic interests and the political commitment that he felt was necessary. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Yun traveled to Japan, despite his father’s warning, to embark on a college education focused on the study of Western music. After two years, he returned to Korea to continue his studies and his involvement in the Korean liberation struggle. Yun was arrested by Japanese occupation forces in 1943, and it was not until 1948 that he returned to music, this time as a music teacher at an all-girls high school in his hometown. He later began lecturing at a university in Seoul where he received several awards for his compositions.  

These awards enabled Yun to continue studying music in Europe at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik (Berlin University of Music). His frequent participation in Darmstadt’s summer courses for new music led to his acceptance by the European avant-garde, within which he remained an outsider, albeit a respected one. Yun settled in Berlin in 1964 as a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient but the political conflict in his now divided homeland was never far from his thoughts. He was especially critical of South Korea’s leadership and refused several invitations to perform there. Yun hoped for the reunification of Korea, and to make this happen, he made a daring visit communist North Korea in 1963.

The brazen visit concerned South Korean officials, who had Yun kidnapped from Berlin in 1967 in a spectacular operation by the South Korean secret service. He was charged with treason and sent to prison where he endured torture, attempted suicide, and was forced to confess to espionage. After a trial, Yun was sentenced to life imprisonment, a charge that was later revised after massive protests internationally. Subsequently, Yun left Korea in 1969 and returned to Berlin and later became a German citizen. From 1970 onward, he worked as a professor and taught composition while lecturing on various occasions throughout Europe and North America. In 1972, Yun composed the piece Sim Tjong based on a popular Korean fairytale specially for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. When asked in a 1987 interview whether he was consciously trying to combine Asian and Western elements in his music, Yun replied,

“No, that would be too artificial.  The inner truth is, in actuality, a music of the cosmos. Realistically seen, I’ve had two experiences, and I know the practice of both Asian music and European. I am equally at home in both fields. I’m a man living today, and within me is the Asia of the past combined with the Europe of today. My purpose is not an artificial connection, but I’m naturally convinced of the unity of these two elements. For that reason, it’s impossible to categorize my music as either European or Asian.”

Celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month by reading the entry on Isang Yun (also spelled Yoon) in MGG Online. Listen to Yun’s composition Muak dance fantasy below.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Asia, Musicologists, Politics

A landmark resource in ethnomusicology

The Garland encyclopedia of world music was first issued between 1988 and 1994 by Garland Publishing as a ten-volume series of encyclopedias of world music, organized geographically by continent. An updated second edition appeared between 1998 and 2002. Widely regarded as an authoritative academic source for ethnomusicology, the series features contributions from top researchers in the field globally.

RILM Music Encyclopedias includes volumes from the series on Africa (edited by Ruth M. Stone), The United States and Canada (edited by Ellen Koskoff), Southeast Asia (edited by Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams), South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent (edited by Alison Arnold), The Middle East (edited by Virginia Danielson), East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea (edited by Robert Provine), and Australia and the Pacific Islands (edited by Adrienne L. Kaeppler). Each volume consists of three sections that cover the major topics of a region from broad general issues to specific music practices, introductions to each region, its culture, and its music as well as a survey of previous music scholarship and research; major issues and processes that link the regions musically, and detailed accounts of individual music cultures. The special tenth volume compiles reference tools, criteria for inclusion into the series, and information about the encyclopedia’s structure and organization.

The entries synthesize in-depth fieldwork conducted since the 1960s, as well as recordings, analysis, and documentation. The publication is generally considered a landmark achievement in ethnomusicology. While ethnomusicologists may appreciate The Garland for its critically designed components, non-ethnomusicologists can embrace the encyclopedia for its capacity to serve as a primer on world music.

Find the Garland encyclopedia of world music in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Resources, RILM, World music

Ryuichi Sakamoto, pioneer of electronic music

Ryūichi Sakamoto was one of Japan’s most internationally influential musicians. Sakamoto’s career began in electronic pop music as a keyboardist with the band Yellow Magic Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1978, and which triggered a boom for this genre in Japan. At the same time he released his first solo album Thousand Knives. His understanding of music, which transcended genres, became evident on numerous other albums combining pop music, ambient, jazz, and electro-acoustic music, ranging to early forms of house and techno. His works in addition include the operas Life (1999) and Time (2021). Sakamoto studied composition and ethnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music from 1970 onward, where he first came into contact with synthesizers.

He is also known for his music for films by Nagisa Ōshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, 1987; The Sheltering Sky, 1990; Little Buddha, 1993), Pedro Almodóvar (High Heels, 1991), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant, 2015), as well as for his music for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Sakamoto’s final studio album 12–comprising 12 miniatures for piano accompanied by synthesizer sounds–was released in January 2023. He died in Tokyo on 28 March 2023 at the age of 71.

Look out for a full article on Ryūichi Sakamoto’s life and musical activities coming soon to MGG online (www.mgg-online.com).

Below is a video of Sakamota performing his composition Blu with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Asia, Film music, Popular music

Entertaining the shōgun

An account by the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) of meetings in 1691 with the shōgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709) evinces examples of exoticism on both sides.

Each man was curious about the other’s culture, but the situation was unbalanced. The visitor was in a position to gain a fairly objective view of the world of his host, although the situation was far too restrictive to allow in-depth research.

On the other hand, while the shōgun could order his guests to perform for his entertainment—to dance, sing, and so on—he did not know whether or not the information that he gained thereby was reliable. For example, when Kaempfer complied with the order to sing a song and was subsequently asked for a translation of the text, he responded that it expressed his deep wish for the health and prosperity of the shōgun and his family.

This according to “Exoticism and multi-emics: Reflections upon an earliest record of culture contact between Japan and Europe” by Osamu Yamaguchi, an essay included in Music cultures in interaction: Cases between Asia and Europe (Tōkyō: Academia Music, 1994, pp. 243–248; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-35931).

Above, a version of the map that Kaempfer brought back from Japan in 1692 (click to enlarge); below, the opening movement of Manzai raku (Ten thousand years of music), an example of the bugaku genre that was flourishing in Japanese courts at the time.

Related article: 17th-century Persian music

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities

Chindon’ya today

Chindon’ya (チンドン屋) are companies of street musicians engaged primarily in advertising for shops, stores, cabarets, and game parlors. Their development is closely linked to the economic and cultural development of Japan since the end of the nine­teenth century.

Although once a common sight in urban Japan, the number of chindon’ya has greatly decreased since the late 1960s. Recently, however, some signs of a new interest in this nearly obsolete profession have appeared.

Their profile has changed somewhat; job offers from rural communities are increasing, and engagements as main attractions in large hotels and at festivals have begun to be booked. The music has even influenced some pop music groups, who are taking up the chindon’ya repertory.

This according to “Chindon’ya today: Japanese street performers in commercial advertising” by Ingrid Fritsch (Asian ethnology LX/1 [2001] 49–78; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2001-24360).

Above and below, chindon’ya in action.

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ECD’s legacy

 

The Japanese rap pioneer and activist ECD (Ishida Yoshinori, 石田義則) was neither the earliest nor most commercially successful rapper, and he would have eschewed calling himself a leader of any protest group; nonetheless, he was what Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual of the working class.

The frankness of his music, writing, and performances touched his audiences at an affective level, connecting them to the movements in which he participated. His life embodied the worlds of hip-hop, contentious politics, and the working class, and his songs convey a vivid account of his life, reflecting his personal and political concerns as well as the ambience of street protests.

ECD was a key figure in the development of the underground hip-hop scene, organizing events that allowed it to take root and to be lifted into commercial viability. He was on the front lines of several Japanese social movements—anti-Iraq War, anti-nuclear power, anti-racist, pro-democracy, and anti-militarization. He wrote protest anthems, inspired Sprechchor, performed at protests, and helped to establish a new mode of participatory performance that engaged protesters more fully. His sheer presence at demonstrations, constant and reliable, energized and reassured protesters.

This according to “‘It’s our turn to be heard’: The life and legacy of rapper-activist ECD (1960–2018)” by Noriko Manabe (The Asia-Pacific journal: Japan focus XVI/6 [March 2018]).

Today would have been ECD’s 60th birthday! Below, a live performance.

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Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

Kumi wudui vocal culture

 

Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.

These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.

This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).

Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dramatic arts

33 1/3 global

 

In August 2017 Bloomsbury launched 33 1/3 global, a series of short music-based books related to but independent from their series 33 1/3. The new series brings the focus to music throughout the world, starting with Supercell’s “Supercell” featuring Hatsune Miku by Keisuke Yamada, in the subseries 33 1/3 Japan.

The lead singer on Supercell’s eponymous first album is Hatsune Miku (初音ミク), a Vocaloid character created by Crypton Future Media with voice synthesizers. A virtual superstar, over 100,000 songs, uploaded mostly by fans, are attributed to her. By the time Supercell was released in March 2009, the group’s Vocaloid works were already well-known to fans.

This book explores the Vocaloid and DTM (desktop music) phenomena through the lenses of media and fan studies, looking closely at online social media platforms, the new technology for composing, avid fans of the Vocaloid character, and these fans’ performative practices. It provides a sense of how interactive new media and an empowered fan base combine to engage in the creation processes and enhance the circulation of DTM works.

Below, Hatsune Miku in action.

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Filed under New series, Popular music, Reception, World music

David Bowie and Japanese style

 

Japanese fashion, theater, and music played significant roles in David Bowie’s pioneering career.

The Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto devised some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, and in the 1960s the singer studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a UK performance artist who was influenced by kabuki theater with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes and makeup, and onnagata actors—men playing female roles.

This training with Kemp inspired Bowie as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism, and alienation. The inspiration extended to the musical realm as well: on Moss garden from Heroes (1977) Bowie plays a Japanese koto; It’s no game (no. 1) from Scary monsters (and super creeps) (1980) features Japanese vocals; and the instrumental B-side Crystal Japan (1980) was released as a single in Japan and featured in a sake commercial.

This according to “David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style” by Tessa Wong, Anna Jones, and Yuko Kato (BBC news 12 January 2016).

Today would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday! Above, Yamamoto’s Tokyo pop design for Bowie; below, It’s no game (no. 1).

BONUS: That sake ad.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Kabuki animals

kabuki

In the eiri-kyōgenbon (illustrated editions of kabuki plot synopses) of the Genroku reign (1688–1704), evidence is found for the representation of exotic animals on the kabuki stage: tigers and elephants, regarded as Chinese animals, in plays of the Edo tradition, as fierce opponents of the protagonist; and peacocks in the Kamigata (Kyōto-Ōsaka) style, in kaichō scenes (the unveiling of a Buddhist image).

It is not clear whether stuffed prop animals were always used or if actors portrayed the animals; it seems certain that real animals were not used.

This according to “元禄歌舞伎に登場する動物” (Animals in Genroku kabuki) by 鎌倉 恵子 (Kamakura Keiko), an article included in Kabuki: Changes and prospects—International Symposium on the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Tōkyō: Tōkyō Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kenkyūjo/National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, 1998, pp. 135–47).

Above, Bandō Mitsugorō I as a samurai subduing a tiger; below, a modern-day kabuki dragon.

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Filed under Animals, Asia, Dance, Dramatic arts