The Contemporary Sankyoku Ensemble playing koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.
Koto, Shamisen, and Shakuhachi in Ensemble
By the Edo period (1603-1868) three instruments had emerged from various directions to become popular among common people. The koto, a 13-string zither, the shamisen, a 3-string banjo-like instrument, and the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, eventually became a regular trio in ensemble music. This combination is called Sankyoku, or "three instrument ensemble." (For a time, the kokyu, a stringed instrument played with a bow, was popular in Sankyoku with the koto and shamisen. However, by the beginning of the Meiji-era [1868-1914] the shakuhachi had replaced it.)
Special note: Information on this page is derived from many sources, including websites. The contributions of these sources is greatly appreciated. In each section, website credits and resources are provided. Some websites on the general history of Japanese music are:
- NAJAS: The Japanese Performing Arts
- Research Centre for Japanese Traditional Music, Kyoto City University of Arts
The koto came to Japan from China in the sixth century. It was initially used only within the Imperial Court, however during the Edo period the koto became popular among wealthy people as a sign of culture (particularly for young girls and women). Music only for koto, called sokyoku, was played for a time by a class of blind musicians. It is from these musicians that the early classical compositions and techniques arose.
Ultimately two schools of koto music developed: the Ikuta school and the Yamada school. The schools differ in minor technical ways with regard to the plectrums (finger picks) they use and the way they sit (Ikuta school musicians sit at an angle to the koto and play with square plectrums while Yamada school musicians sit perpendicular to the koto and play with pointed plectrums). More significantly, the Yamada school emphasizes narrative song whereas the Ikuta school greatly values instrumental components of the koto repertoire. That being said, the Yamada school repertoire contains instrumental pieces and the source of many traditional Ikuta pieces is Jiuta, or voice accompanied by the shamisen. The most common form of classical Ikuta pieces is to have two voice components separated by a significant instrumental interlude called the Tegoto.
This website is all about the koto, so to learn more about koto visit:
Yoko Hiraoka plays the shamisen.
In the Edo period the shamisen became a very popular instrument in the entertainment districts of Japanese cities. There are three primary categories of shamisen music: singing (utamono), narrative (katarimono), and folk (minyou). The shamisen traditionally accompanied vocal music. Jiuta is a style of music stressing singing and shamisen playing. Jiuta songs tend to be about the range of human emotions: love; resentment; joy; sadness; passion; loneliness; and a variety of emotionally charged situations and experiences: the seasons; the passing of time; beautiful places; memories. Nagauta shamisen developed as an accompaniment to dancing in Kabuki theater. A narrative style involving shamisen developed to accompany bunraku, puppet theater.
In contrast to these "refined" traditions, street musicians also picked up the shamisen and developed a raucous style of playing and storytelling called Tsugaru shamisen. The shamisen continues to be a popular folk instrument to accompany songs at Japanese festivals (matsuri). Festival song lyrics deal with many conditions and situations of human life including work, marriage, funerals, religion, children's songs, and just plain parties and feasts. Many folk songs are presented at O-bon, the summer Buddhist festival for the dead.
To learn more about the shamisen visit:
The shakuhachi is a very simple, end-blown flute fashioned from bamboo. It has five finger holes for controlling the air flow. The name is derived from "isshaku hassun," the Japanese expression for the standard length of the instrument (one shaku and eight sun, or 54.5 centimeters), although the instrument comes in many lengths. The bore of a shakuhachi is tapered, becoming narrower moving inwards from the mouth end and then flaring at the end (this is the natural shape of the root end of bamboo, from which the best shakuhachis are made). This gives the shakuhachi its distinctive sound and, for flutes crafted from natural bamboo, gives each individual flute a unique sound.
A 200 year old shakuhachi of standard length.
The shakuhachi has a long history as a solo instrument. It was played by priests and poets throughout the Middle Ages (13th-16th centuries). In the Edo period the shakuhachi was adopted by the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism as a practice to help achieve enlightenment. The considerable repertoire of solo, religious music developed by the Fuke Zen monks is called honkyoku. Most shakuhachi players value their ability to play pieces from the solo repertoire, however the shakuhachi has now become an important and beautiful part of Sankyoku ensembles with koto and shamisen.
To learn more about the shakuhachi visit:
Ancient Japanese Music:
Gagaku and Nohgaku
The koto, shamisen, shakuhachi and other Japanese musical instruments had predecessors in several ancient instruments. Two important early musical traditions are Gagaku and Nohgaku, both elite musical styles meant to accompany theater.
Gagaku, which means "elegant music," has been played by imperial musicians for the court of Japan since 703 A.D. It is considered to be the oldest orchestral music in the world. The instruments of the Gagaku orchestra include several wind instruments:
- the Sho, a hand-held wind instrument with multiple bamboo pipes;
- the Hichiriki, a double-reed (oboe-like) instrument;
- the Ryuteki, a transverse flute;
- the Shouko, a cymbal-like instrument;
- the Tsuridaiko, a large bass drum;
- the Kakko, a two-sided drum;
- the Biwa, called "Gakubiwa" when played with Gagaku;
- the Gakusou, a 13-string koto!
Gagaku remained an elite style of music, however some instruments -- in particular the koto -- eventually moved into more common use.
To learn more about Gagaku music, visit
- www.gagaku.com/ (in Japanese).
Noh is a highly stylized theater tradition that was developed in Japan at the beginning of the 15th century. The tradition arose from earlier forms of comedic theater and peasant theater that had been practiced since the Heian Period (900-1200 A.D.). Noh plays reflect the feudal code of ethics of Samurai warriors, and thus Noh was highly regarded by the Samurai class and became the military government's official performance style during the Edo period (1603-1868). Noh theater continues to be popular in Japan.
Two playwrights, a father and son named Kan'ami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo, created the vast majority of the plays that make up this more serious theatrical genre. The Noh repertoire now consists of around 250 plays which tell important Japanese legends and stories from as far back as the 8th century.
Probably the most well known aspect of Noh theater is the mask. There are about 80 traditional masks worn by actors playing gods, demons, beasts, spirits, old men, and women (middle-aged men living in the present are the only type of characters not depicted by a mask).
The music that accompanies Noh theater is called "Nohgaku." The primary instruments of Nohgaku are human voice (singing and Buddhist-style chanting are important aspects of Noh theater), a bamboo flute called the Nohkan, and three types of drums: Ko-tsuzumi, O-tsuzumi, and Taiko.
To learn more about Nohgaku, visit:
- The Noh Training Project
- ArtsWorld article on Noh masks.
Contemporary Ensemble Music
The koto is now played with many contemporary instuments. In avant-garde music, koto accompanies any imaginable type of sound-emitting entity (like bees and gyroscopes!).
|I will be adding more to this section in the future.|