The shamisen (also called the sangen), a three-string lute with a fret-less fingerboard (about 38 inches long in Jiuta style), is one of the main instruments used in many Japanese musical traditions. Its construction is elegant and refined, consisting of a long narrow wooden neck, a resonating wooden box covered both sides with animal skin, and a set of woven silk strings stretched over a water buffalo horn, tortoiseshell or wooden bridge.
The sound, percussive in nature, is produced by plucking strings with the sharp edge of a large plectrum made of ivory, tortoiseshell or wood, called a bachi. The 'thwacking' sound quality forms the backbone of ensemble compositions, providing a foil for the other instruments to weave their melodies around.
The shamisen is believed to have been imported into Japan from the Ryűkyű Islands in the mid-16th. century. It found its way into many genres of music including folk and popular music as well as the art music of the Edo period (1603-1868). During this period, music for the jiuta shamisen evolved into ensemble music with koto and shakuhachi (Sankyoku). The shamisen is found in almost every genre of Japanese performance, from Kabuki and sankyoku to storytelling, Bunraku puppet theater, Nihonbuyo dance and the many folk music genres.
One of the more recognizable instruments of Japan, the koto consists of a 6 foot long shallow resonating box (made from Paulownia wood) with a set of thirteen strings stretched over movable ivory bridges. This arrangement creates a harp-like instrument which is traditionally played at floor level by a kneeling musician. The player has tsume (plectra) attached to three fingers and strums and plucks the strings. Higher pitches can be created by pressing down to varying degrees on strings behind the bridges.
Introduced from China in about the eighth century AD, the koto was originally part of the court orchestra called Gagaku. The oldest existing repertoire for the koto outside of Gagaku dates back to the end of the 16th century. Later in the Edo period (1603-1868) the koto joined the shamisen in small chamber ensembles. This was a tremendously active period in the arts and many parallel genres of music evolved. Music making was one of the allowed professions for blind people and was partially subsidized by the government.
Since the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), and with the new influence of Western musical thought, the koto has proved to be very versatile as an instrument with which to explore new musical forms. Thus a large body of fine contemporary Japanese compositions now exists for the instrument.
The shakuhachi is Japan's vertical bamboo flute with five finger holes, four in front and one at the back. It is an ancient instrument and yet, due to its versatility, it has a uniquely contemporary appeal. Related to similar flutes found in China, India and the Middle East, The shakuhachi was first introduced into Japan around the end of the 7th century AD and evolved through a series of modifiations until it reached its present form during the 17th. century.
During the 17-19th centuries, the shakuhachi was played by Zen monks as a form of 'musical Zen meditation'. Called Komuső (literally, 'Priests of Nothingness'), these men, often ex-samurai warriors, traveled throughout Japan, collecting alms and playing the shakuhachi, their identity hidden behind deep straw hats called tengai. The tengai was symbolic of a wall between the spiritual Buddhist world of the Komuső and the mundane world of everyday life through which they traveled.
During this period the shakuhachi was almost uniquely a Zen instrument, and in temples all over Japan, haunting solo meditative compositions emerged as a result of the monks' 'blowing meditations'. This genre of composition is called honkyoku (meaning original music). Towards the end of the Edo period (middle to late 19th century, the shakuhachi began to appear as a secular musical instrument, in ensemble with koto and shamisen. Thus, alongside the honkyoku body of compositions arose high art compositions for small chamber ensembles.
In the modern era the shakuhachi has travelled far beyond Japan's shores. It is being used in an ever-widening and diverse variety of musical applications, ranging from the classical traditions through jazz, popular and new age music, to the avant-garde.
The flute itself is deceptively simple: a stalk is cut from the root end of a bamboo tree. Its inner nodes are removed to create a tube, and its upper end is cut off at an angle to create a blowing edge, or utaguchi. Five finger holes are then cut into the tube. The material from which it is made comes in a rich array of natural colorings. The culm or root-end of the bamboo plant, where the roots splay outwards horizontally underground, is retained in the finished instrument and contributes greatly to the beauty of the flute. The inside of the shakuhachi is an empty tube. Sound is made by blowing across the utaguchi with varying breath pressure, and tilting the head or half-covering the holes in order to get different pitches. The tone colors and microtonal pitch control possible in the hands of an adept player are truly astonishing. This rich expressive potential continues to inspire and capture the imagination of composers, musicians and audiences around the world. Even today, a performance by the late Living National treasure, Goro Yamaguchi travels through space aboard Voyager 2 as part of a message from earth.
The biwa (lute) arrived in Japan from China and Korea approximately 1300 years ago, with what is still Japan’s orchestra of the court, Gagaku. There is also evidence that other biwa instruments came from the Indian lute tradition. In the 9th century the Mőső (blind monks') biwa began to be used by blind musicians as an accompaniment to chanted religious texts and sutras. At the beginning of the 13th century, Heike biwa players began telling of tales of the rise and fall of the Taira clan in 12th C Japan.
Its performance style has been refined over the years so that it can create scenes and enhance imagery in such a manner as to bring stories to dramatic life before the audience. It has a uniquely expressive sound with the potential to create drama by powerfully plucked sets of notes interspersed with quieter passages. Often, performance traditions use biwa music as interludes inserted between passages of sung narration. The traditional instrument (about three feet long) is commonly made of mulberry (or rosewood, quince) and paulownia woods with silk strings stretched over fixed wooden and bamboo frets.