February 22 2023
DJ and electronic musician Taro Nohara pics out some essential way-markers in Japanese traditional music
As renowned for his hip-hop production and rapping as he is for his DJing, remixing and diverse catalogue of electronic music releases, Taro Nohara (also known as Yakenohara) is a particularly playful, capricious, restive sort of musical polymath.
The first of Nohara’s 2022 releases, Hyper Nu Age Tekno (read our full album recommendation here), jested with techno’s conventions, displaying thorough knowledge of the dance music’s origins and conventions while audaciously twisting its formula. Nohara’s take was marvellously abstract, as much indebted to IDM, plunderphonics and ambient music as it was to techno itself.
Nohara’s playlist for The Glow mainly concerns his second album of 2022 and most recent work, Poly-Time Soundscapes / Forest Of The Shrine. Primarily an ambient and new age piece, Nohara aims squarely at helping listeners better appreciate and understand its second disc. Forest Of The Shrine heavily incorporates elements of traditional Japanese music into its sound – by way of an introduction to those sounds, Nohara’s playlist picks out certain artists and songs that left their mark on his work.
I’d like to start by introducing some traditional Japanese music (and music derived from it). Michio Miyagi was a blind koto player who lived in the first half of the 20th century. His modern style, influenced by modern French music such as Debussy, is a colourful and pure kind of Japanese music. His piece “Haru no Umi” [Sea of Spring] has become a standard Japanese New Year's tune.
Hōzan Yamamoto was a shakuhachi player and composer who broke the boundaries of traditional music, which tends to be closed-off, with interesting activities such as collaborations with jazz. His performances have rich tones and pauses.
Toru Takemitsu is a great composer mostly renowned for his contemporary music, but also for his soundtracks and electronic music. Takemitsu's well-known approach to traditional Japanese music can be found in his piece “November Steps”, but in contrast to the contemporary music style of “November Steps”, “Akiba Uta Ichigu” is based on a more authentic gagaku style. Compared to existing gagaku music at the time, it was new and interesting.
Gagaku is said to have been introduced to Japan from China and the Korean peninsula during the Heian period (794-1185). Over the years, it transformed into a uniquely Japanese form of music with more emphasis on resonance and intervals.
Today, the national orchestra of Japan is called Kunaichō and it performs Japanese court music at events – though there aren’t many private performing groups, partly because many rare instruments are required for performances.
The Reigakusha is a private gagaku performance group that was founded in 1985 and has released an album in collaboration with Brian Eno.
Cosmic Gagaku (1979) was a collaboration between synthesiser player Frank Becker and gagaku transverse flute player Michiko Akao. It uses the technology of the time to recreate the breathing rhythms of gagaku, but it also has a slightly progressive rock feel and an interesting mix of eastern and western values.
Gagaku is court music, while folk songs are for popular enjoyment. Each region of Japan creates its own local songs and competes against each other in singing. In this sense, I think that it is a system similar to reggae, dance hall and hip-hop (I also feel that it is an approximation in terms of musical structure, with the voice over a simple rhythmic piece of music).
Listening to folk songs from different regions, I noticed that folk songs from warmer regions, such as Okinawa and Amami, have a unique feeling that is different from other regions. It is an indescribable, laid-back feeling, like the slack-key guitar of Hawaii or the music of the Caribbean. Like Jamaican reggae, you can especially feel that feeling when you hear it on original old records.
Danceries is an antiquarian ensemble whose repertoire includes Western medieval and Renaissance music, but they also perform a wide range of music, including Japanese folk songs. Listening to the music, one has the feeling of losing track of when and where the music is from.
They are also famous for their later collaboration album with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Though I couldn’t find anything of theirs on YouTube featuring Japanese music, this video sees them performing a medieval Italian piece.
For most modern Japanese people, who are heavily influenced by western culture, traditional Japanese music is not something they are exposed to on a daily basis. However, taiko music is commonly played during festivals and so everyone has heard it.
Suwa taiko is the traditional taiko music of the Suwa region of Nagano Prefecture. After the Second World War, Daihachi Oguchi, who was also a jazz drummer, organised the Osuwa Daiko Hozon-kai [Suwa Taiko Preservation Society].
Author: Ed Cunningham
Artist Tags: Taro Nohara