When I have nothing better to do on a Monday, I get on my bike and follow the green lights. Eventually I run out of steam, take my bearings, and pick my way home. One week that moment of reorientation found me at the broad wooden gate of a Buddhist temple, listening to distant music in the shade of a cedar tree. This is how I found Gagaku.
Zozo-ji Temple is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, one of the main schools practiced in Japan. Every year, members of the sect from around the country assemble in Tokyo for their big meet-up. This was the week. The frankfurter and chocolate-covered banana vendors were there, along with packs of monks and kids groups in matching uniforms with sashes and pins like scout troops. In the courtyard before the main hall, a square platform was erected for dance performances: slow, nuanced motions performed by young women in bright red costumes. Accompanying the dancers was an ensemble of about 20 monks who played the heaviest traditional music I have heard in Japan.
Gagaku, or “elegant music,” is a form of sacred music performed only in Buddhist Temples, Shinto Shrines, and the Imperial Court. It originated in Persia and India, and arrived in Japan through China over 1,400 years ago. The core of the ensemble is a group of reed instruments called hichikiri, which play the stately melody that dominates the recording. In the actual performance, their entrance was preceded by a long flute introduction that meandered through an ambiguous tune. The hichikiri melody, brash and focused, was a shock to the ears. The piece suddenly expanded, and took form.
The melody hovers over dense chords played by the sho, a kind of mouth organ with 17 separate bamboo pipes. It looks like a miniature pipe organ wrapped in a circle, with each tube extending a different length. By covering small holes around the edge, the musician can control which notes sound. I asked a monk if it was difficult to play; he said it’s easy, like playing a harmonica. Far from the pleasantly tonal notes of a harmonica, the sho’s tones are dissonant clusters, like a whole box of harmonicas in different keys being played at once. They give the song awesome tension with their always shifting, never resolving chords that drone through the entire piece. I was immediately drawn to the sound. I crouched just behind the group of sho players, soaking in their dense chords and doing my best to shield the microphone from the wind that whipped through the monk’s moss-colored robes.