Gagaku: Imperial Court Music and Dance of Japan

The Arts Journal, 23 August 2012

Four Stars

Gagaku is the world’s oldest living orchestral tradition

The court music of Japan is an art form dating from the 5th century, performed in the Imperial Palace by a select group of musicians, many of them descended from families with centuries of musical heritage. Ritualised, decorative, strictly choreographed and austere in its execution, Gagaku is a living, unbroken musical tradition.

Wednesday night offered a rare chance to experience a programme of music and dance performed by the Musicians of the Imperial Household Agency, the Tokyo group’s only performance in the UK.

The capacity audience at the Festival Theatre might not have known in advance what to expect from Gagaku which translates as “elegant music” but they looked on in silent wonder as the musicians, dressed in burnt orange robes and sitting cross-legged on a green silk carpet, plucked, struck and scraped an intriguing mixture of ancient musical instruments, including a bamboo mouth organ, and a four stringed lute strummed with a large plectrum.

If the music and movement of Gagaku and the accompanying Bugaku dance can be austere, the stage was a feast for the eyes, festooned with embroidered silk hangings and large, elaborately decorated ceremonial gongs.

The static but hypnotic instrumental pieces of the first half gave way to a series of elaborate and tightly choreographed dances after the interval. Dressed in silk pantaloons, masks and fringed tunics, the dancers performed traditional dances representing mythical creatures including a phoenix and dragons. Japan’s martial history was referenced in the final dance, Bairo, traditionally performed before battle, in which the dancers staged an elaborate clash of halberds, shields and swords.

If one of the purposes of the Festival is to expose audiences to art forms which emerge from radically distinct artistic traditions, then the strange, ritualised world of Gagaku succeeded in presenting a powerful impression of a complex and self contained artistic world.

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