The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Interview with Kojun Arai -- Bringing the music of the thousand-year-old shomyo chant tradition to concert hall audiences

*4 Daihannya Tendoku-e
Also called simply Daihannya, it is a Buddhist ceremony to pray for world peace, peace and security of the nation, protection from disaster and good fortune and for good crops by reciting the 600 verses of the Prajna Sutra. As a sutra telling the true teachings of the Buddha, this 600-verse Prajna Sutra was written in transcribed Chinese characters in 663 by the Chinese priest Genso Sanzo after a 16 year journey to India dramatized in the famous story Saiyuki (X_yóu Jì in Chinese, Journey to the West in English). Initially each character of the sutra was read, but eventually that long process was abbreviated into fanning the folded pages of the sutra text through the air while reciting the Prajna Sutra incantation (chant). It is a ceremony that combines musical and dramatic elements to the large-voiced chanting.
In Western classical music there is a conductor, but does anyone serve that role in shomyo?
No. In Western music there is a conductor who controls the rhythm and pitch virtually with each phrase of the music in very precise and exacting ways, but in shomyo we harmonize and synchronize by listening to each other, so there is nothing really unpleasing if the pitch or tone in not exactly perfect. So, what we are often told is to listen well to each other. The natural way to learn the tempo and rhythm is simply by lots of repeated chanting.
There is a set tempo for each chant, and Tendai shomyo use a tuning flute of anything to get exact pitch to start chanting. But in Shingon we don’t need to get exact pitch. And, even if it is the same chant, we will change to the tone of expression depending on whether it is for an invocational prayer service or a funeral, etc. Unlike Western classical music, shomyo has that kind of room for flexibility.

I have heard that the roots of much traditional Japanese music (hogaku) and classical arts are found in shomyo.
It is safe to say that most of the ancient Japanese vocal music and narrative forms, from the lute accompanied Heike Tales recitations (Heikyoku) and the melodic recitations of Noh plays (yokyoku) to the shamisen accompanied joruri narratives and Naniwabushi ballads, and even to rakugo traditional comedy skits, all grew out of the shomyo tradition. The late renowned researcher of ethnic music, Fumio Koizumi, says that Japanese shomyo we call Koshiki was probably the first example of a musical recitation style being applied to story telling. It is believed that the other forms like Heikyoku, yokyoku and Naniwabushi ballads all developed from there.
Another reason for believing the roots of these ancient arts are to be found in shomyo is that Buddhist temples functioned as the venues for festive occasions and ceremonies from ancient times into the feudal period. For example, the grand consecration ceremony for the Great Buddha of Todaiji temple was an occasion where many commemorative performances of different arts were given in honor of the Great Buddha. At the time it was certainly a grand event to boost the national prestige and emissaries were invited from the neighboring countries came to watch. You might compare it to an event in the manner of today’s Olympic Games opening ceremony. There were large-scale recitations of shomyo was performed. Also, there were acrobatic troupes and mask theater from China and various performances from other Asian countries like Vietnam and India. In short, the Great Buddha Hall in Todaiji became grand performance stage and festive space.
In Japan, Buddhist priests have traditionally performed only choral shomyo, but on the continent priests performed choral chanting, dance and instrumental music together. Still today in Korea and Tibet the priests perform music and dance.

When did you begin giving shomyo performances on stage in concert halls and theaters?
The first such performance was when the National Theater, Tokyo was opened in 1966. This was an epoch-making event through which shomyo was viewed as “music” for the first time.
However, at the time there were also those in the Buddhist holy community who complained it was unseemly for priest to be signing for audiences in a theater. They said it was a sacrilege against the Buddha. In answer to this, our teacher, the high priest Yuko Aoki said, “The Buddha’s presence is spread evenly throughout the universe, not only in the main halls of Buddhist temples but in the streets of our cities as well. Let us actively seek out any place where people will listen to shomyo with a receptive heart and mind. Even past the age of 80, he continued to perform throughout Japan and also overseas. We were still in our 20s and for us, Yuko Aoki, who was our teacher and also a “Living National Treasure” designated by the Japanese government, was a great influence on us.
In 1973 the first overseas performance of shomyo was held in a tour titled “Japanese Tradition and Avant-garde Music” sponsored by the Japan Foundation (as one of the first independent projects when the Japan Foundation was founded in 1972). Yuko Aoki led our group and we toured the world for 43 days, beginning from Tehran, Iran, Europe, America to Canada. This tour resulted from a visit to Japan by Mr. Heinemann the director of a comparative musicology study institution in Berlin and Mr. Becker the head of the contemporary music department of the West German national broadcast network. When they asked if there wasn’t an older musical source than Kabuki and Noh, the consultation came to the National Theater and they offered shomyo as an answer. The resulting overseas tour was a very important experience for us.

What was the response overseas?
I’m sure that the audiences were surprised by our performances. It was so different from what people think of as music and it seemed that it was a shocking experience for many people. What’s more, the piece we performed was Daihannya Tendoku-e (*4), which is a chant where we literally shout. For Europeans, music usually means singing beautifully in harmonious chords. But this particular shomyo chant is one to drive out demons, so it develops into a harsh shouting. It is completely different from their concept of music. It was troubling to some, but from others we heard the response that they were surprised to discover such a wonderful music tradition from the Asia. Experience such a powerful response, we realized that it was a waste to keep shomyo shut away in temples.

What was the other priests’ response to the overseas tour?
At such famous venues as the Beethoven Hall in Germany, Priest Aoki was hailed as a great musician. In ancient times, you had to pass a difficult national examination to become a priest and shomyo was a major subject on that exam. Furthermore, the only people besides priests who could listen to shomyo were people from the aristocracy, beginning with the Emperor and extending to people of high education, all of whom had well-trained ears when it came to music. Only compositions with a very strong musical essence could satisfy such ears. Surely the priests felt the responsibility of this tradition and devoted themselves whole-heartedly to the pursuit of their chant. After the Meiji Restoration (in 1868 when Shinto was reinstated as the national religion) shomyo lost importance and became little more than a ritual practice within the temples. Despite being time-honored tradition, the intent to have shomyo be heard by the people was lost. So, after performing at the National Theater and receiving such acclaim on our overseas tour, we were awakened to the fact that we should devote ourselves more seriously than ever to the art of shomyo.

Was there any notice of shomyo as a form of music before the opening of the National Theater?
By the Meiji government (Meiji Era: 1868-1912), the reinstatement of Shinto as the national religion and the consequent suppression of Buddhism brought a big blow to the Buddhist community. At the same time, with the progress of Japan’s so-called Western-style modernization, the focus of music education in Japan was shifted completely to Western music and traditional Japanese music disappeared from public educational institutions. This continued until after World War II, when people like the contemporary music composer Toshiro Mayuzumi rediscovered Japan’s traditional music. People like him had studied music in the West and come to feel the limits of Western classical music for themselves, which in turn led them to look once again to their own country’s music traditions. Mayuzumi fell in love with the sound and resonance of the Buddhist temple bell, the sutra chanting and shomyo, and in 1958 he composed the work “Symphony Nirvana” that takes shomyo as its basic inspiration. This is a piece that can be considered an epoch-making work in contemporary music. It is a requiem prayer for the people who died in World War II and it deals with one of the most important Buddhist themes, Nirvana. Also, scholars of ethnic music like Fumio Koizumi became interested in shomyo and efforts were directed toward searching out shomyo scores (hakase) and making recordings of shomyo chanting.
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