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
Jean-Claude Eloy's ANAHATA
Jean-Claude Eloy's ANAHATA
It is very interesting that avant-garde contemporary composers should rediscover shomyo. When were the first new shomyo pieces composed for performance in theaters?
The first one to be performed was the piece "A l'Approche du Feu Méditant” composed by the French contemporary composer Jean-Claude Eloy and performed at the National Theater, Tokyo, in 1983. Eloy had come to Japan many times and had composed numerous works in the ancient Japanese court music (gagaku) style. Before that, the National Theater had produced experimental performances of contemporary compositions for gagaku and I believe that they decided to do the same with shomyo as a traditional Japanese vocal music form together with gagaku as a traditional instrumental music form. It was the National Theater producer at the time, Toshiro Kido, who commissioned the Eloy work.

What was Eloy’s composition like?
A L'Approche du Feu Meditant was an incredibly long piece that took three hours to perform in its entirety. He also composed a new work titles Anahata in 1986 in a form that was something like a game. He selected a group of verses with respective melodies and told us to choose freely from them and chant in an improvisational way. It was a work that reflected Eloy’s believe that music is not something set and fixed but something that is constantly fluid with the seasons and weather and performers’ feelings. There we were, these priests who knew nothing about music until then being made to rehearse until 1:00 am at the theater in one of the busiest times of the year when we had Buddhist services to be performed during the equinoctial week (laughs). But this encounter with Eloy was a very important experience for us.

Since Eloy, you have worked with a number of different composers. What are some of the main works you have performed with them?
In 1984 we performed the new work Kaeru no Shomyo (Buddhist Chant of Frogs) composed by Maki Ishii using a poem by Shimpei Kusano. We have worked together on compositions by more than 20 leading Japanese contemporary composers, including Toshio Hosokawa with the piece Tokyo 1958 (1985), Yuji Takahashi with Yume no Kigire (1987) and Kazuo Yoshikawa, Yoshio Mamiya, Mamoru Fujieda and others.

How have the participating priests approached these experimental projects?
We have always found it very interesting (laughs).
On our 1973 world tour the contemporary composer Maki Ishii was with us and he performed his piece Choetsu (Transcendence), which had no score and involved him banging on the piano, strumming harp strings and making us blow the Buddhist ceremonial conch shell that none of us were really practiced at blowing. It looked artificial and untrue in some senses, but it was interesting to us. With avant-garde musicians of that time like John Cage, it was clearly a world where “anything goes.” I think it was fortunate that that was our initial introduction to music.

What do you think was the attraction of shomyo for these contemporary composers?
I think it is the fact that there is a “voice” that is different from anything in the West. It wasn’t that they were out to create finished musical compositions with their new shomyo works, but that they needed “the voice of shomyo” with its background of Buddhist thought in order to give expression to an abstract world such as “the sound of the universe.”
The word anahata that Eloy used in the title of one of his works apparently means “vibration of the universe” and the instruments he used in that piece were ones with very unstable sounds, like the oshichiriki of gagaku. It is a historical coincidence that shomyo remained in Japan, but there is nothing uniquely Japanese about the voice of shomyo. I believe it is a pan-Asian sound with a rich expansiveness that is based in the culture of Buddhism that spread throughout Asia. The combination of the sounds of a number of priests with different individual voice qualities creates a unison characterized by slight discrepancies in tone, which in turn creates harmonic overtones. I believe that this unique resonance of shomyo has been the biggest attraction in shomyo for these composers.

In 1997, you and the other priests who had performed at the National Theater formed the group named “Shomyo Yonin no Kai.”
This was the result of desire to expand our range of activity and we had the backing of Mr. Kido’s successor, the director Hiromi Tamura, so we said, “Let’s do it.” The members of the group are the same ones who performed at the National Theater in 1973, including myself and Yusho Kojima of the Shingon sect and Koshin Ebihara and Jiko Kyoko of the Tendai sect. If shomyo is seen purely as a religious activity it is difficult to cross the boundaries between the sects. But taking advantage of the theater performance environment to work with members of other sects gives us a chance to brainstorm and develop our thinking about shomyo and to carry out activities more openly outside the religious realm.
In 2003 we added some of the younger priests who had performed with us and changed the group name to “Shomyo-no-Kai – Voice of a Thousand Years.” As the original four of us get older and our growing responsibilities in the temple make us busier, and the younger priests skills rapidly improve through participation in our regular concerts, this move is also serving to hand over the leadership to the next generation.
At the concerts we also do things to help people become more familiar with shomyo, such as giving lectures for those listening to shomyo for the first time and giving demonstrations to let the audience hear the difference between the voices of the different sects. As new works of contemporary shomyo we have performed the works A Un no Koe and Sonbo no Aki by Ushio Torikai and new works by Atsuhiko Gondai, Rikuya Terashima and others. This encounter with contemporary composers and musicians exposes us to new ways of thinking and new forms of expression that we are grateful for.

Finally, please tell us what you foresee for shomyo in the future.
It can be said that Japanese shomyo is the traditional music with the largest geographical and historical spread of all Japanese music forms, because it includes elements that came from India and China. When you look at all the shomyo chants we are keeping alive and preserving today, it amounts to a veritable living history of music. Furthermore, shomyo is involved in all the ceremonies that take place at our temples during the year, which means that the tradition is being carried on as the chants are sung year after year. Shomyo possesses this built-in mechanism to successfully keep the tradition alive. On the other hand, when you consider the fact that the chants of the shomyo repertoire that were created in the Kamakura period and are now considered classic were in fact new pieces at the time they were composed, it is natural that we today should be making new pieces to add to the repertoire. I want to see us continue the challenge of pursuing the possibilities of shomyo as a precious and unique asset of Japanese music.
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