Musical Instruments

The music for our operetta is a fusion of traditional Japanese and European styles. GAGAKU is the ancient style of orchestral music which was performed in the Imperial Court, the origins of which date back to the 5th or 6th century.
Aesthetically Gagaku, with its slow even tempos, is meant to be like the broad, majestic and graceful Yangtze river. In our concert we are using Wagakki instruments which have been developed from Gagakki.

At the source of Japanese music are the Eight Sounds.

The Eight Sounds (八音)

Most instruments fit into one of the eight categories: silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd and hide although there are some which may not fit these classifications exactly


 Gakubiwa The body of the instrument is made with rosewood, mulberry or Chinese quince for the rounded part of the body (cherry and zelkova wood is also used) and chestnut for the face of the instrument. If the rounded part of the body is made from one piece of wood it is called "hita ko" and if it is made from two or three pieces of wood it is called "hagi ko." Hita ko instruments are considered to be the most valuable. There is a strip of leather about 10 - 12 cm. wide across the lower part of the face of the instrument. This is struck with the plectrum when the instrument is played. Often beautiful pictures are painted on this strip of leather. The upper part of the body is called the "shishi kubi (deer neck)" and is made from hard imported wood or mulberry. The top part is called the "kairobi (shrimp tail)" and is made of boxwood or sandalwood. The plectrum is made of boxwood and around 20cm long The four strings are made of silk.

San no Tsuzumi

San no Tsuzumi The tsuzumi( ) is a Japanese drum. It consists of a wooden body shaped like an hourglass, and it is taut, with two drum heads with cords that can be squeezed or released to increase or decrease the tension of the heads respectively. This mechanism allows the player to raise or lower the pitch of the drum while playing.

The tsuzumi is the only Japanese drum that is struck with the hands; all other drums are played with sticks called bachi. The tsuzumi is played while being suspended over the shoulder by its cords. A single drum head is struck with the tips of the fingers of one hand to produce a distinct "pon" sound, while the other hand holds the drum by its cords, squeezing or releasing them to change the pitch of the drum. Depending on how the player tightens or releases the cords of the tsuzumi, and how hard or soft one strikes the head with one's hands, the tsuzumi can produce a range of sounds.


Shou/shoAnother very distinctive sound of Gagaku is the harmonica-like shou, which provides a kind of cloud of sound. The shape of the instrument is supposed to suggest the mythical bird, the phoenix. The sound is said to express the feeling of light shining from the heavens. The shou is used in instrumental music and dances of the left and usually plays chords to provide harmony, a technique called "aitake (combined bamboo)." However, in Saibara and Roei a technique called "ichichiku (single bamboo)" is used to play melodies.


Kakko The kakko (羯鼓 or 鞨鼓) is a Japanese double-headed drum. One way in which the kakko differs from the regular taiko drum is in the way in which it is made taut. Like the Shime-Daiko and tsuzumi, the skin of the heads are first stretched over metal hoops before they are placed on the body, tying them to each other and tightening them making them taut. Kakko drums are usually laid on their sides on stands so that it can be played with sticks called bachi on both heads. Kakko drums have been used in taiko ensembles, but they are also used in older Japanese court music called gagaku.


Flutes Ryuteki: The ryuteki, or dragon flute, is of Chinese origin and came to Japan via Korea during the Nara Period (710-794). It was said that its tone was like the cry of the dragon. The ryuteki is used in Gagaku dances. It is quite thick, has seven finger holes, a 2cm mouth hole and is around 40.2 cm long.

 Komabue: This flute is used in Komagaku, a type of music used for dances in Gagaku imperial court music. It has six finger holes and is 36.8 cm long, very similar to the kagurabue, but much thinner.

 Hichiriki: The hichiriki (篳篥) is a double reed Japanese fue (flute) and was used as one of two main melodic instruments in Japanese gagaku music, the other being the ryūteki. The hichiriki is difficult to play, due in part to its double reed configuration (similar to an oboe), however with its cylindrical bore its sound is similar to that of a clarinet. Pitch and ornamentation (most notably bending tones) are controlled largely with the embouchure. (the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece) The hichiriki is one of the "sacred" instruments and is often heard being played at Shinto weddings in Japan, it is often said to have a haunting sound. The hichiriki is the most widely used of all instruments in gagaku and it is used in almost all forms of music. It has seven finger holes on the front and two on the back is 18 cm.long and 1.5 cm. in diameter and it is relatively elliptical.


Koto The Koto is the national instrument of Japan. It is about 180 centimetres (71 in) long, and made from kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa). Koto generally have 13 strings, strung over 13 movable bridges along the length of the instrument. The strings are traditionally made from silk although plastic strings are becoming popular. The bridges (ji) used to be made of ivory, but nowadays are typically made of plastic, and occasionally made of wood. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing. Koto-zume (zume means nail) are attached to the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of right hand and used to pluck the strings. In Japanese literature the Koto is considered a romantic instrument, providing imagery and music of 'extra significance'. The history of the koto, or 'so', in Japan, dates back to the 16th Century when a Buddhist priest by the name of Kenjun (1547-1636) began to compose for the koto, calling the style “tsukushi goto.” Perhaps the most important influence on the development of koto was Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685), a gifted blind musician from Kyoto who changed the limited selection of six songs to a brand new style of koto music which he called kumi uta. Yatsuhashi changed the Tsukushi goto tunings, which were based on gagaku ways of tuning; and with this change, a new style of koto was born. Yatsuhashi Kengyo is now known as the “Father of Modern Koto.” The Koto is still developing as an instrument, and experimental music and jazz pieces are being written for 20- and 25-stringed kotos and 17-string bass kotos.


Shamisen The shamisen or samisen (味線, literally "three taste strings") is one of Japan's most popular classical musical instruments and can be traced back to the middle of the sixteenth century. The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more recently, of nylon and, in most genres, are plucked with a large weighted plectrum called a bachi made of ivory or tortoise shell in the shape of a ginkgo leaf. The lowest string is kept off the small upper bridge near the pegbox so that it generates a buzzing sound, creating a characteristic known as sawari (This is a little like the "buzzing" of a sitar). The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and without frets. The body is made of four boards of Chinese quince or oak and its neck is from red sandalwood or Indian redwood. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body, known as a dō, is covered with skin, similar to the banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat, but in the past a special type of paper was used. The instrument is tuned using three tuning pegs on the head, similar to a guitar and there are three basic tuning settings depending on the style of music played. Shamisen are used in many musical genres including folk music, in narrative and lyrical styles and in musical theater.


Taiko Japanese Taiko drums have been developed into a wide range of percussion instruments that are used in both Japanese folk and classical musical traditions. Taiko, in general, are stick percussion instruments. They have heads on both sides of the drum body, and a sealed resonating cavity. With the exception of the kotsuzumi and ootsuzumi, all taiko are struck with bachi. The sound produced by the Taiko has a relatively high pitch for its body size due to the very high tension applied to the drum heads Taiko are categorized by their type of construction. Tsukushime-daiko (付締め太鼓) have heads sewn onto iron rings, which are then laced to each other around the drum body. Byou-uchi daiko (鋲撃ち太鼓) taiko have heads nailed to the body and are generally hollowed out of a single piece of wood. With its high density and beautiful grain, keyaki (欅) is the prefered wood but other woods are sometimes used. This type of Taiko cannot be tuned, and their sizes are limited by the diameter of the tree they are made from. The Byou-uchi daiko is a family of drums from the small sumo-daiko and hayashi-daiko, through the medium size nakado-daiko (upto 3' in diameter) to the ōdaiko (大太鼓 great drum) which is greater than 3' in diameter


Schakuhachi The shakuhachi is a range of five finger hole flutes varying in length from 40cm to 1m. They are usually made from the root end of a bamboo culm and are extremely versatile instruments. The shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across the top of an empty bottle (the shakuhachi has a sharp edge to blow against) and has substantial pitch control. The five finger holes are tuned to a pentatonic scale with no half-tones, but the player can bend each pitch as much as a whole tone or more, using techniques called meri and kari, in which the blowing angle is adjusted to bend the pitch downward and upward, respectively. Holes can be covered partially (1/3 covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by changing the blowing angle. Professional players can produce virtually any pitch they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original Zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa and shamisen, folk music, jazz, and other modern pieces. Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone colouring. Different playing techniques can produce notes of the same pitch, but with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. During the medieval period, shakuhachi were used by the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō ("priests of nothingness," or "emptiness monks"), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called "honkyoku") were paced according to the players' breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.


Shakubyoshi The Shakubyoshi is a percussion instrument. The paddles are made of wood, in pairs, about 26cm long and finely decorated. The flat side of one of the paddles is struck with the edge of the other paddle in a steady rhythm to set the timing for the piece of music.

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