A rare chance to hear music from Japan in London

Geisha playing musical instruments - Utagawa Kunihisa hanging scrollIf you’re interested in Japanese music, I’ve got some good news for you. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is doing a Sounds from Japan week, including a concert of traditional music from Japan on 31st January and a whole day (2nd February) at the Barbican devoted to the music of Japanese composers, featuring Toru Takemitsu. Don’t know Toru Takemitsu?

Well, you’ve probably heard his work – he composed the scores for hundreds of films, including Kurosawa’s Ran and Dodes’ka-den, Oshima’s Empire of Passion, plus Woman of the Dunes, Kwaidan and plenty of others.

Takemitsu was born in 1930; he encountered western music during the American Occupation. In his early career he rejected Japanese traditions and composed in the western style. He was influenced by John Cage, and it was Cage’s interest in Zen and Eastern music that led Takemitsu to return to his roots and use traditional instruments in his later work, producing a fascinating fusion of east and west.

Toru Takemitsu

Here’s some of his score for Ran:

The concerts feature traditional Japanese instruments, the sho, the koto, the biwa and the shakuhachi. Here’s a quick introduction.

The sho is a wind instrument made up of seventeen bamboo pipes, each with a copper reed attached to the bottom end. When you blow into it the reed vibrates, rather like a harmonica. There are holes in the pipes and a complicated fingering system. Two of the pipes are silent, though they probable were used in the past. The sho is supposed to imitate the call of a phoenix, and the two silent pipes of the sho make the two wings. Or that’s what they say.

Japanese sho

The koto looks a bit like a zither. It has thirteen strings strung over thirteen movable bridges, which can be moved to adjust the string pitches. You pluck the strings using three finger picks on your thumb, index finger, and middle finger.

Japanese KotoThe biwa is a stringed instrument too – a short-necked fretted lute. Nowadays people mostly use the five-string version.

Japanese biwa

A shakuhachi is an end-blown flute, a bit like a recorder, except that instead of blowing straight into it you blow across the end, liking blowing across the top of an empty bottle. It has five finger-holes and a range of two full octaves.


And here’s what a shakuhachi sounds like:

The 31st January concert is at 7.00pm at the BBC Maida Vale Studios. Tickets for the live performance are sold out but I imagine it will be on the radio, though I can’t find it in the schedules yet. It features traditional music from Japan performed by Kifu Mitsuhashi on shakuhachi, and Kumiko Shutou on biwa.

Animals with musical instruments, dancing round Shintoist frog - Kawanabe Kyosai Ink and colours on paper

The Barbican day includes two documentaries and three concerts. Here’s the lineup:

10:30 am Film – Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu. It includes interviews with Takemitsu and clips from some of the films for which he wrote the score. Barbican Cinema 2. Tickets £6.

1.00 pm Concert – BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble. Takemitsu’s Rain Spell and Tree Line, Jo Kondo’s Surface, Depth and Colour and Dai Fujikura’s Secret Forest. St. Luke’s .Tickets £12.

3.00 pm Film – Thirteen Steps Around Takemitsu, a portrait of Takemitsu filmed at his country home and in Tokyo. Barbican Cinema 2. Tickets £6.

5.00pm  Concert – Japanese traditional music for sho, koto and shakuhachi. BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Robin Thompson sho, Melissa Holding koto, Clive Bell shakuhachi. Barbican Hall. Tickets £12.

7.00pm Free Event, Barbican Foyer.

7.30pm, Concert – Works by Japanese composers including Takemitsu and premieres of works by Dai Fujikura and Toshio Hosokawa. Barbican Hall. Tickets £24 £20 £16 £12 £8.

Or you can buy a day pass for the whole thing – prices £48 £45 £42 £38 £35.

More information and booking here.

Young man in hakama playing flute - Isoda Koryusai woodblock print

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