The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.
History of the Free-Reed Instruments in Classical Music

Asian Free-Reed Instruments
by Henry Doktorski (© 2000)

Part Two: The Japanese shō

Illustration 10: Sho.

Image from William P. Malm, Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959), 99.

The sho (or shou) is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese shêng. Although the standard sho has seventeen pipes and fifteen reeds, there have been several varieties of the sho at different periods, varying chiefly in the number of reeds. One is mentioned as having had thirty-six, and others with twenty-six, nineteen, and thirteen respectively. The sho is perhaps best known for its use in the Gagaku orchestra, where its principal function is harmonic.

To hear music performed by the sho Click Here

Gagaku — meaning literally noble or elegant music — (End note 11) was founded in 703 A.D. and, as such, is the world's oldest extant music and dance performing institution. It flowered during the four centuries of the Heian Period (the time between the succession of Emperor Kanmu in 781, to the beginning of the Kamakura bakufu — samurai government — in 1192), and since that time its tradition, imperial support, hereditary personnel and artistic repertory have continued without interruption. Gagaku is not theatrical dance and music for a popular audience; it is designed to be performed at a court or shrine, for a philosophic, moral or religious purpose; for the inthronization of emperors, for the marriage of crown princes, for the completion of temples, for the gathering of the first rice.

Gagaku was introduced into Japan by Chinese and Korean musicians in the seventh century. Since its appearance in Japan, it has been associated with the ceremonies and entertainment of the Imperial Court and its playing tradition has remain relatively unchanged since 1150 A.D. There is no conductor; the concert master — Gakucho — plays a small drum (Kakko or Sannnotuzumi) and leads the performance. The Choushi or Awase introduction — musical passages to confirm the scale for the musical selections which follow — is played first. Each instrument enters in a particular order: Choushi begins with the sho and Awase begins with a fue.

Illustration 11: Sho player performing court banquet music in the T'ang style. (From the Shinzei Kogakuzu).

Image from Robert Garfias, Music of a Thousand Autumns: The Togaku Style of Japanese Court Music, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975)

To see a close up view of this image Click Here (117 KB)

Robert Garfias wrote about the image at left: "The present Gagaku tradition demands that sho players hold their instruments with the pipes straight up. The Shinzei Kogaku Zu illustration depicts either an older Asia mainland style of playing or simply the artist's fancy."

The present-day Gagaku musicians and dancers are the direct descendants of the court musicians of the Heian period and many trace their lineage back for more than one thousand years. These musicians have undergone rigid training since childhood to master their art; they can perform from modern Western notation (End note 12) as well as from traditional Gagaku notation. The young court musician completing his ten-year training period is required to have memorized the entire Togaku repertoire, which numbers ninety-four compositions. This does not include the netori, choshi, ranjo and special Bugaku versions of compositions, as well as the entire Komagaku and Shinto ceremonial repertoire.

Illustration 12: Gagaku orchestra.

The musicians of the Japanese Imperial Household Music Department performing Kangen, music with winds and strings, on the dance stage of the Music Department in the palace.

Photo by Robert Garfias, ibid.

Illustration 13: Seating chart for Gagaku orchestra.
Image from Robert Garfias, ibid. 75.

3 Ruyteki (fue) [flutes], 3 Hichiriki [oboes], 3 Sho [mouth organs]
2 Koto [zithers], 2 Biwa [lutes]
1 Shoko [drum], 1 Taiko [gong], 1 Kakko [barrel drum]

To see a close up view of this image Click Here (8 KB)

Despite its relatively frozen playing style, Gagaku is not a dead art. New dances are created today for contemporary occasions, such as the marriage of Prince Akahito, the Imperial heir. Several Western composers, including Igor Stravinsky, have shown an interest in Gagaku. (End note 13)

The current leader of the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble, Sukeyasu Shiba, has composed fifteen works for Gagaku Ensemble — ranging from three to fifty-five minutes in length — which were recorded on the Columbia record label. Three of his compositions are titled Hyobyo-no-hibiki I (1986), Koku (1987) and Shotorashion (1990). He studied Gagaku in the Gagaku Institute of the Imperial Household Agency. After working as a court musician for over twenty years (playing the Yokobue), he became an independent musician and began to disseminate Gagaku both inside and outside Japan. Sukeyasu reconstructed ancient musical works and received the Medal with a purple ribbon from the Japanese Government, the Education Minister's Prize, as well as the Mobile Music Award. He presently works as a guest professor at Kunitachi College of Music.

The traditional Japanese systems of music notation were types of tablatures, as were early European systems. They either indicated a string, a fingering position, or, in the case of the woodwinds, a hole or fingering. Notation in Japan has always been primarily a supplement to rote teaching methods and as such is often vague. Indeed, the tradition of secret pieces and clan-owned music made such a system necessary, however regrettable it may seem to the contemporary music researcher.

Example 7: Traditional Gagaku Notation.
Image from William P. Malm, op.cit. 264.

Example 7 shows the notation of the sho, the hichiriki and the ryuteki for the beginning of the piece Etenraku. The column at the right is the flute notation. The second column is the music for hichiriki. The left-hand column is the notation for the sho. Each symbol represents the bottom note of one of the eleven chords of the sho, or, in some cases, the note itself. Rhythm is indicated by dots along the right-hand side of the column plus white dots among the solfeggio for rests. The large dot represents beat four or eight, depending on the meter of the composition.

As a rule, Gagaku music is not written in score as shown in example 7. Instead, each musician has a separate part book. In fact, individual musicians are sometimes unaware of what is going on in the other instruments. This is an unfortunate consequence of rote teaching methods.

Example 8: The ten aitake.
Transcribed by Robert Garfias. op. cit. 48.

The sho players in the Gagaku orchestra most frequently play clusters of tones, called aitake. Example 8 shows the ten aitake. The instrument can be sounded either by inhalation or exhalation and the player is expected to maintain a continuous stream of sound. The distinctive mark of the professional sho player as opposed to the amateur is the careful execution of the te-utsuri, the special changing-patterns for moving from one aitake to another. Since any one of the aitake may move to any one of nine others, there are in all ninety possible combinations. The sho player must be familiar with all the changes. Example 9 shows three examples of te-utsuri. The effect of the patterns is to give a distinct character to the connection of any two aitake. (End note 14)

Example 9: Three examples of te-utsuri.
Transcribed by Robert Garfias. op. cit. 48.

The aitake harmonic structures are constructed on the basis of consecutive fifths. In Gagaku (as in most Asian music) there is no concept of harmonic progression as there is in Western music. Instead there is one harmonic structure for each of the tones of the Togaku system.

Example 10: Transcription of a Togaku composition. (38 KB)
Transcription by Robert Garfias. op. cit. 267.

Example 10, Bato (Yatara-Byoshi), is a transcription of a Togaku composition. The placing of the various instrumental parts on the score follows neither the standard Western system, which would place the strings below the percussion parts, nor the usual Japanese order, which always begins with the sho, after which come the hichiriki (oboe) and the fue. The order used here, devised by Robert Garfias (University of California, Irvine), divides the ensemble into three main instrumental functions: the primary melody-playing instruments, the fue and hichiriki; the secondary or supporting instruments: the sho, koto, and biwa (lute); and the underlying rhythmic foundation supplied by the shoko, kakko, and taiko. In the sho part, only the aitake have been given; the te-utsuri patterns, produced by the various combinations of finger movements when moving from one aitake to another, have been avoided because they would add great confusion to the score and would overemphasize subtleties of sho technique at the cost of melodic clarity.

Illustration 14: Mayumi Miyata

One of the foremost sho players today, Mayumi Miyata has premiered works by John Cage, Toru Takemitsu, Klaus Huber, Maki Ishii and Gerhard Stäbler, including the world premieres of Cage's work for sho and percussion, Perugia (1992), Takemitsu's Ceremonial (1992) with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, and Toshio Hosokawa's Usurohi Nagi (1996) with the Cologne Radio Orchestra. She also performed at the world premiere of Helmut Lachenmann's opera Das Mädchen mit den Zündhölzern (1997) at the Hamburg State Opera. Mayumi (as well as another virtuoso sho player, Ko Ishikawa) has performed with the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble under the direction of Sukeyasu Shiba.

Mark Izu is another performer who specializes in Asian instruments, including the shêng and the sho. He has studied and performed on the sho with Japanese Imperial Court master musician, Suenobu Togi, since 1976, and was the featured soloist for the West coast premiere of Somei Sato's composition for sho, strings and percussion, Journey Through Sacred Time, at the 1986 Cabrillo Music Festival. Izu is also a composer of music for sho, including the live score to Sesue Hayakawaís 1919 film, Dragon Painter. More recently Mr. Izu was commissioned by Asian Improv aRts to write and perform a composition for a joint ensemble featuring Western and Eastern instrumentation called Hibakusha, Survivors!

Illustration 15: Tamami Tono
Photo by Miro Ito

Tamami Tono is another Japanese sho player who is also a distinguished composer. Her piece for sho and soprano won second prize in the Sougakudoh Japanese Song Concours, and her works for sho and live computer were accepted in ICMC98 (Intermational Computer Music Conference) in the US — ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music). As a sho player, she has been playing at the National Theatre of Japan since 1990.

The German composer Gerhard Stä'bler has written for solo sho: Gagaku — Zwei Stücke der japanischen Hofmusik für Sho (1998) and Palast des Schweigens — Kassandra-Studie für Sho (1992-3), as well as Karas. Krähen (1994-5) for sho, contrabass, percussion and tape.

The American composer, John Cage (1912-1992), wrote several pieces for sho, including One9 (1991) for solo sho, Two3 (1991) for sho and conch shell/percussion, Two4 (1991) for violin and piano or sho, and Perugia (1992), for sho and percussion. These pieces were composed during Cage's most abstract period; he titled works simply with numbers which represented the number of players in various ensemble configurations. Most of the works use his "time-bracket notation" which permitted him to generate pieces rapidly and mechanically.

Example 11: John Cage, One9 for sho. (page 1) (9 KB)

Copyright 1991 by Henmar Press Inc., New York. Page one.

End Notes

11. Robert Garfias wrote, "Gagaku was introduced to Japan from China and Korea. The Word Gagaku is written with two Chinese characters that mean "elegant music". The term is in fact a misnomer, not to imply that this music is not elegant, but only that the term, in Chinese, Ya-Yueh, refers to the ancient music for the propitiation of the ancestral spirits and the ensuring of the continued balance of the elements of nature. This was not the music introduced into Japan. The music that the Japanese imported into the court during the 6th and 7th centuries, was of the type known as yen yueh, or engaku, in Japanese, meaning court banquet music. Ya-yueh, proper, sometimes called Confucian Ceremonial music, was never introduced into Japan, perhaps because the Japanese already had their own sacred ritual music, kagura, which was associated with the way of the gods, or Shintoism. Nevertheless, the term, Gagaku, or ya-yueh in Chinese, was retained by the Japanese perhaps because of the loftier associations carried by that word."

Robert Garfias, from

12. For over one thousand years, the Gagaku musicians performed only Japanese music learned by rote. In 1872 a crisis occurred: the Imperial Family decided that Japan needed a European classical orchestra to welcome foreign guests. The Imperial Household Agency ordered the Gagaku musicians to organize a classical orchestra, but they refused and went on strike. This was the first strike in Japan. In time, however, the musicians accepted the proposal at last and began performing European classical music.

Takeshi Mogi, from

13. For more information about Gagaku, see:

14. Robert Garfias, Music of a Thousand Autumns: The Togaku Style of Japanese Court Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 48.

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