Migration Streams - Dr. Fabio Rambelli on Gagaku

Migration Streams - Dr. Fabio Rambelli on Gagaku

Dr. Fabio Rambelli: Music, Religion, and the Preserved Tradition of Japanese Gagaku

Fabio Rambelli is a professor of East Asian and Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose research mainly surrounds Japanese history and religion within the traditions of Shinto and Esoteric Buddhism. Originally from Ravenna, Italy, he also spent time teaching at Sapporo University in Japan. Currently, Dr. Rambelli is engaged in a collaborative project concerning Gagaku and Bugaku, the music and dance of the Imperial court of Japan. He is doing considerable work with the shō, a traditional Japanese mouth organ.

Alice Taylor, impactmania and AD&A Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) student speaks with Fabio Rambelli to delve into many of the unique aspects of Gagaku and the shō, how the style of music has spread via globalization and migration, the interaction of music and religion, among other topics involving music’s role in the world.

By Alice Taylor

All photos courtesy of Fabio Rambelli

Where did your interest in religion and music begin? Was there some sort of event or person that inspired you?

I'm interested in religious studies because I'm interested in how different cultures conceptualize certain things, especially in Japan. Music is a passion of mine that I’ve had since I was a kid. There was an interesting way for me to intersect the two because of the ritual functions music has in history and its connection with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and the ceremonies of the Imperial court.

Fabio Rambelli

I agree, it seems like there’s a fascinating relationship between the two, and you mentioned that you play the shō too. Do you want to talk a little bit about your experience in learning that? 

The shō is an instrument that has always been fascinating to me. It's a reed instrument and mouth organ that plays multiple sounds together. There is a reed at the bottom and little holes you close while you blow in. You can play as many fingers as you can put on the holes. 

It's basically all made of recycled materials. No trees are cut to make these; they use parts and pieces that are available in different ways. The instrument uses lacquered cherry tree and bamboo reeds which are made from old gongs that have been flattened out and cut very thinly. The reeds are boiled for several hours, and sometimes they let them sit for years before they're ready to make the instrument. 

Its construction is one of the fascinating aspects of this very unique instrument. There's been no technological innovation, whereas most Western instruments have changed dramatically in the last 200 years: think about the harpsichord becoming the piano, and then the grand piano. The shō hasn't changed for more than 1,000 years, so it's a relic of the past that I have the privilege to hold in my hands and to play based on notation sheets dating back to the late 1400s.

Fabio Rambelli playing the shō

Fabio Rambelli playing the shō

Is there a certain reason that this instrument was preserved for so long in its original form?

None of the Gagaku instruments have gone through any transformation because of the association of this music with the Imperial palace and the most important temples of Japan. Families of musicians in charge of the instruments did not spread it beyond their control. In Japan, as well as other cultures, the people in charge of traditional arts want to preserve them.

You also mentioned that although the shō and these other instruments haven't changed, they have influenced Western music?

Yes, that is another fascinating aspect. Among all the instruments of the orchestra, the shō is the one that has attracted the most attention in Western composers. I think the reason is because of the peculiar, dissonant kind of chords the shō plays in the traditional repertoire. In fact, it sounds like Western contemporary, avant-garde music. Several composers have been attracted by its particular sound and introduced it in their compositions.

Do you have any examples of Western composers that were influenced by this type of music?

The first one who comes to mind is John Cage, who wrote solo pieces for the shō. Toward the end of his life, he wrote two very interesting pieces where he was aware of the traditional techniques, and was trying to reverse them in a way. Cage's aesthetics of music include the idea of silence, happening, and eliminating all the emotional aspects of music, turning it into something more ritual. It feels to me that Cage was able to give shape to his ideas by writing for this instrument. One of his pieces is called “One Nine” (One9).

I'm also finding out that Los Angeles, and even Santa Barbara, were some of the centers where Gagaku was spread. 

It's fascinating to see the distances that music can reach.

Yes, and very unusual. For example, the instruments that I have here at UCSB used to belong to UCLA, which had an ensemble there from the ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Architect Frank Gehry was one of the members of the ensemble. He was playing Gagaku and wrote that when he built the Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, he was hoping to have a Gagaku ensemble perform there, which they made happen. In one interview, he said that he looked at different types of music as inspiration for his architecture, and Gagaku was one of them. As you can see, this music comes and goes in so many unexpected ways, and its influence can be incredibly big.

Do you find that when these styles of music have moved to other places, there are certain traditions that are lost, especially through globalization?

The ancient traditions are lost everywhere. For example, music masters will say a particular piece came from India in the fourth century, or was written by an Emperor of China in the 600s. Yet, the original music is completely lost if you hear it now: it doesn't sound Chinese or Indian.

A lot of transformations have occurred, but the reclaim of distant, foreign origins is interesting. There are some kinds of music, dance or instruments that have been preserved. In that sense, you can see changes, but also various attempts at preventing them. Even though a lot of composers have been attracted by this music and are bringing it into the wrong composition, there are movements to counter globalization at the same time.

Do these instruments or styles of music convey the collective experiences of their culture? Do you have any specific examples of the way these instruments reflect their history?

In the instrument itself, probably not. But if you look at the way it is made, taught, and used, then you see aspects of a traditional culture that is mostly lost, but continuing in little bubbles. 

I talked about the construction method, which still implies that artisans do this work using particular technologies in certain, pre-modern ways. There is even a certain way in which it is handled. When you play it, you sit on the ground on a tatami mat; you don't play it standing. This brings you to a certain way of living in the architectural space, which tends to be lost in Japan today because of the introduction of Western furniture. However, with this particular kind of music, tradition is still present.

It’s also about the way in which the body behaves. The movement of the fingers must be as small and controlled as possible. This is to not let the bodily component overflow, whereas in Western tools, for example, how they play instruments like the piano is not acceptable in restrained Gagaku music due to the Confucian philosophy behind it.

We also tend to believe the musicians use and are in control of the instrument. When you play the piano, you own the piano. But in fact, it's not that simple. The piano, saxophone, or shō tells you how to use it. I cannot use it any way I want. The keys are there, the holes are there, and the breath works in a certain way. I can try to make innovations, but that would not be traditional, it would be my own arbitrary way of using the instrument, and the instrument has limitations to what I can do to it. It is even more obvious in traditional instruments that we are not in total control. That changes the way in which the subjectivity of the musician emerges.

As someone that understands these instruments and how they're meant to be used, and also as a professor, do you foresee benefits in sharing your knowledge and experiences with others in the growing, interconnected world?

Yes, I do. In fact, I started this Gagaku project with some students. The first thing that comes to mind is the privilege of having and sharing a precious relic from the past that has survived all kinds of historical oddities, like civil wars, fires, or a loss of repertoire.

Some lost music has been reconstructed, but it is still dwindling and very few members of these hereditary families remain. It could disappear anytime, so it’s something precious from the past that some people think is important to preserve.

It is also a unique sound and way of using your body and your mind that I think has worth in itself. 

The tendency today is to eliminate the smaller things and to go with the mainstream, especially if you think about the amount of downloads that certain artists have in comparison to other genres. I think we should train our ears to listen to scales, dissonances, and timbres, rather than digital music with three chords. This is just my perspective, but it would be a contribution to the diversity we had in the past and should preserve moving forward.

Flyer for Gagaku Workshops at UCSB in 2020

Flyer for Gagaku Workshops at UCSB, 2020

Flyer for Gagaku concert

Flyer for Gagaku concert

I have a question that I've been trying to ask everyone I interview because I find it really interesting. I've often heard of music being called the “universal language.” Obviously there are cultural differences, but do you think this term applies?

No, I don't think that we have a universal language in any way.

Still, one of the reasons why Gagaku has been so interesting to Western musicologists and composers is the fact that Gagaku still uses the Pythagorean scale, introduced by Pythagoras in Greece in the fourth century BCE. Before the well-tuned piano was invented, this scale was used in both Europe and Japan. The Pythagorean way to create a scale is similar to Western music and what Bach was using. In that sense, there seems to be a common language or structure across Eurasia, because we find it in Europe from ancient Greece, as well as in China and Japan. Yet, the sounds are very different. We all share the same body and minds, but the ways in which we use them are different. I think we always have to distinguish between the structural element and the actual manifestations of the structure.

When you talk about the structural element, I’ve sometimes found that music can be almost mathematical, especially in the scales that you just described. Do you think there's a certain balance between the mathematical side and the more creative or expressive side of music?

I think there is some kind of balance, but with the non-mathematical side more important. That said, I've been finding sources from the 1600s in Japan that argue the systems of weights and measurements in ancient China were preserved in Japan after the Chinese had abandoned them.

The system of weights and measurements was based on the fundamental sound, similar to the Western A. There was a bamboo pipe cut in a length to produce the fundamental sound. Its length is the equivalent of what we would call a foot. If you fill it with rice, it would be the equivalent of a pint. So you have the A sound, and the pipe that makes it is also the basis for measurements of length and volume. 

To me, that's totally fascinating because there seems to be this universal system of measurement and interconnectedness that is based on music. In Greece, this is what Pythagoras and other philosophers in the Middle Ages were striving for: to find how music could be related to all orders of reality. I just told you music is not a universal language, but there are attempts at making it more universal, even cosmic. In all the arts, the art is an attempt at making one particular work a microcosm.

I'm still curious about your two disciplines, especially with the intersection of religion and belief with music. Do you have more examples of what music can mean to people in a religious context?

The first thing that comes to mind are the shamans that provoke a trance through instruments and these kinds of repetitive sounds that help them communicate with other realities, or talk to the gods or the dead. In that sense, music is a threshold mechanism that allows a passage from the visible reality to the invisible.

This is also what rave parties are about. There have been studies by anthropologists in Europe that point this to the same idea as the ancient shamans, especially with the repetitive and powerful beats that make you lose your sense of self-awareness at raves. There is this kind of connection with music as a shifter between one dimension to the other which seems to be common.

In many cultures, Japan in particular, music is also an offering to the gods. In Japan, it probably comes from Buddhism, which took it from other Indian traditions, but this was also important in the masses of medieval European Christian churches. Playing the organ or singing was a way to enhance the spirituality of the congregation. It was a celebration to give to God and the saints.

Music, although related to dance and liberation, is not just something you do for fun. There’s this other aspect of a threshold to a different dimension of reality, and you find that manifested in different ways among different cultures.

You also study the relationship between music and dance, such as between Gagaku and Bugaku. How are those connected?

Yes, Bugaku is a unique form of dance very different from other traditional forms of Japanese dance. It has its own history, which, similar to the music, comes from many countries in ancient Asia. In Bugaku, the same piece of music can be played purely instrumental, or as an accompaniment to a ballet, in which case it is played differently. When it is played to accompany a ballet like a Bugaku, you need stronger rhythmic components.

It's interesting to see how music is related once again to the body, in this case in dancers.

I want to ask you a little about your shared album that you made with Rory Lindsay. I know The Current wrote an article about this already, and when I was reading it, I was surprised how complex the music actually is. Do you have any additional thoughts on this album?

That was an experiment. We wanted to use these two instruments and a few of the elements and their music in Gagaku, like the tuning of the biwa, but aside from that, it’s totally improvised. Each of us is bringing our own musical background and tastes. We're trying to use our instruments, the shō and the biwa, as traditionally as possible, but at the same time, making a sound that is different. It’s using tradition to make something new.

Almost like a blurring of the past and the present.

That was the idea. The instruments have this complex history, but themselves are very simple. The shō only makes fifteen sounds, and the biwa makes sixteen. It's a challenge to play something interesting with so few raw materials. I think that, because of the pandemic, it's what we need. We don't need a lot of complexity, we need to go back to the basics and what is really important. I thought that the combination of these two instruments was a way to achieve that. Focusing on limited repertoire is something solid that has survived all kinds of historical accidents. I’m not saying we should go back to the past, but there are some things we already have that we should cherish.

Beautifully said. I'm also interested in you as a migrant yourself. Have you ever experienced culture shock, or has your movement also affected your view of the movement of music and culture?

For culture shock, I cannot think of any cases, but there are things that are annoying or surprising, especially in the beginning. When you first move, you find yourself asking, “What is this? Why are we doing this? Wow, this is great, why aren't we doing that?” But after a while you get used to it. One thing I noticed going between Italy, California, and Japan is that you wonder where you belong. If you keep moving across different spaces, then it becomes, “How Italian am I? How Californian am I? How Japanese am I? What is the percentage?”

In Italy, even going from my hometown to Venice, which is only a hundred miles away, was a shock. The city, the food, and even the language are all different. In Italy, each region has its own things, and when you go somewhere else, you really don't understand the dialect. Going from Ravenna to Venice, or going from Venice to Tokyo, were not dramatically different experiences. There is one threshold experience that you cross when you say, “Wow, this is different.” But after that, you get used to it.

I have one final question for you that I always like to ask. Do you have any advice on respectfully learning the music of another culture?

This may sound obvious, but you have to find a teacher, respect them, and do what they tell you to do. You have to be careful not to overstep. There are levels, barriers, or conventions that I think you should respect until the master tells you you're on your own. That is an important way to be respectful of the tradition.

Dr. Rambelli collaborates with several other individuals to study Japanese Gagaku. Attached is a statement from Mariangela Carpinteri, a student working on the project:

“Before starting this experience with the Gagaku project, I had never thought to learn a musical instrument, especially as part of my Ph.D. program. It was something completely new. Professor Rambelli asked us which instrument we would like to learn (between the ryuteki and the hichiriki). When I heard the sound of the ryuteki on YouTube, I loved it, but I was skeptical that I could really play it. The ryuteki is an instrument that discourages you at the beginning because you cannot even make a sound. Then you improve and start really playing, and I remember my enthusiasm when I finally learned how to play the first song. I had the feeling of being a different person since I was learning something so different from ordinary academic things. 

“With this Gagaku project, we are having many opportunities, not only to learn how to play instruments but also met the official Gagaku orchestra last year, which I felt thrilled about. On that occasion, not only did we have the chance to talk to professional musicians and attend their classes, but we also filmed and recorded; I felt as if I were part of a big, growing project. In general, I have grown fond of the ryuteki. Sometimes, practicing the instrument helps me relax and shut out all the hectic thoughts, almost like a meditation. I think that, even beyond the Gagaku project, I will really keep practicing to become a confident player.”