The family of Gagaku player, Hideki Togi, has played Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music) for 1300 years. He served at the music department of Imperial Household Agency as a player of ancient Japanese instruments including Hichiriki and Biwa. He is devoted to introducing traditional Japanese culture not only in Japan but also abroad. His creativity lets him perform contemporary Gagaku music and he has gained popularity all over the world. In our interview, he talks about how fascinating Gagaku is and his passion for Gagaku.
Interview with Hideki Togi
– You spent your childhood in Thailand and Mexico due to your father’s work. Do you remember when and what kind of music did you start to listen to?.
I grew up by listening to various kinds of music. My father enjoyed listening to classic music, and I often heard Beethoven’s tunes at home. On the other hand, my mother listened musical songs and sound tracks, and sang nursery rhyme to me. Beetles’ songs were popular at my elementary school in Bangkok, which was uncommon at Japanese elementary schools. As such, I was surrounded by many kinds of music. Although I eventually became a musician, I have never learned to play instruments. All I have done so far is just enjoy music.
–The French ambassador in 2011 and your first performance abroad in Moscow in 2003 gave you chances to debut in Europe and Asia. What made you want to debut in the USA in 2012?
The year of 2012 marked the 100th anniversary since Japan gave cherry trees to Washington D.C as a token of friendship. Officials at the annual cherry blossom festival at Washington D.C. wanted to have an artist who represented Japan to play at the festival. I was nominated as a candidate through many connections, and was finally chosen. Apparently, one of the officials had seen and liked my performance of “Imagine” on YouTube.
I started to think that it would be a good idea to release my CD in the USA at the same time so that the audience at the festival could enjoy my music after the event. This led to my debut in the USA with my CD album “TOGI” in March 2012, which was a genuine debut in the USA since my CD was produced by Universal Music instead of an independent company or Universal Music Japan.
– What did you like to show and tell to Americans at your first concert in the USA?
Music has various styles, and the tunes and types of instruments of Shou (*1) and Hichiriki (*2) that I’m playing have not changed since 1300 years ago. I wanted Americans to recognize the power of Japanese culture and music, which have been preserved for such a long time.
When they think of Japanese ancient time, Japanese and Americans tend to think of the Edo era. However, the ancient time also includes various periods such as the world of myth, the life of aristocrats at Heian era and so on. Since Gagaku (*3) was started by aristocrats during the Heian era, their sense of beauty had a direct impact on Gagaku, which became the part of the origins of Japanese sense of beauty and Japanese mindset. I would like more people to know such a deep aspect of Japanese culture. Classic Gagaku occupies the most authentic part of Japanese traditional music, but I think it is hard to start listening to it due to its complexity although I love it. I perform contemporary music, of which the tunes of Shou and Hichiriki would be easily comfortable to your ears. So you can start listening to them before moving to the classic Japanese music.
My unique music was born through learning only Gagaku, although I have enjoyed listening to various kinds of music. Music does not bind anything, and I want my audience to enjoy it as a way to communicate with non-Japanese people.
(*1) Sho has seventeen bamboo pipes and is thought to resemble a phoenix at rest with its wings upright. It is capable of playing multiple tones simultaneously. It can be played either by blowing or inhaling. People of ancient times are said to have believed that the sound of the sho expressed a ray of heavenly light.
(*2) Hichiriki is a bamboo flute with a reed and nine finger holes, similar in many ways to the oboe, which traces its roots to the Hichiriki. It has a range much like that of the human voice. It is said to express the voice of those who live on earth – in other words, humans.
(*3) Gagaku (literally “elegant music”) is the oldest Japanese classical music that has been performed at the Imperial Palace for 1300 years.
–Are there differences in the reaction in Japan and in other countries due to cultural difference and different ways of thinking?
Now I’m not surprised at all but it is interesting that I receive the same reaction from Japanese and non Japanese. Both of them wonder why they feel so nostalgic to my tunes although they hear it for the first time. Some Japanese say that it is familiar to Japanese due to Japanese music. I do not think that the origin of this music affects your first impression. This music can be traced back to the Silk road as old as 2000 year ago. Since there was no boundary between Eastern and Western culture at that time, harmony that can make people feel comfortable on a global scale was the same. I am proud of being able to inherit it.
– What kind of Japanese minds and tradition would you like to inherit as a musician playing all over the world?
Gagaku is complex music in that it does not only indicate one type of music but also imply the idea of ancient philosophy, cosmic view, Chinese philosophy such as the way of Yin and Yang, which goes deep into your mentality. Subtle sounds by Hichiriki go along with them. I would like to perform Gagaku not by precisely following music scores but by adding the sense of season and geographical nature that are particular to Japan. There are no differences of people’s minds from North to South and East to West since Japan is such small islands located in the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to the geographical location surrounded by the ocean, Japanese can peacefully lead their lives without any threat of being attacked by others. This location enables people to enjoy distinct four seasons, which make people’s minds rich and have also influenced Japanese literature, arts, and music. Mesmerizing Japanese traditional music and preserving Japanese senses lead to valuing something that has developed in Japan without being changed for centuries.
–You are exploring new areas of Gagaku by collaborating with a violinist Iwao Furusawa etc. What is the definition of Gagaku to you?
It is hard to answer. Some people say that my original music is included in Gagaku, but others do not. I do not care about this debate. I pay extreme respect to traditional Gagaku since it is highly matured as music. You generally listen to music because you like its melody or chorus, but traditional music does not have them and you feel the music not with your ears nor in your head but from inside your body. My admiration of traditional music is so high that it makes me think there is music, such as Gagaku, that can affect the cell inside our bodies. There is also music that can’t do this, such as pop music. By playing pop music with traditional instruments, however, I might be able to mix the essence of traditional music with my pop music, which I believe is my originality.
–What kind of music would you like to create? What is your goal and dream in your life?
I do not have anything like that. I have not lived to be where I am now. I have kept picking up whatever I thought to be interesting. I have many hobbies such as driving cars and bikes, scuba diving, skiing, skating, horse riding, skeet shooting, pottery-making, photography, drawing, etc. I would rather let interesting things come to me even if I do not expect them. I do not want to miss a chance of getting them by setting up goals and just following it. I would like to know how I will change by working on things as they come. If it works, I can move forward without a specific goal, and I prefer to choose a life like that.
Profile of Hideki Togi
Gagaku player, Hideki Togi, was born in Tokyo. The Togi family has a tradition of Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music) which can be traced back to the Nara period (1300 years ago). After graduating from high school, he joined the music department of the Imperial Household Agency. His main focus there was the Japanese instrument, the Hichiriki; however, he also gained experiences with the Biwa, Tsuzumi and the cello; he also sang and danced. By participating not only in the ceremonies at the Imperial Palace, but also in the overseas performances, Hideki has played an important role in introducing traditional Japanese culture both at home and abroad, and promoting international friendship. In addition, he passionately creates his own music by combining the natural flavor of Gagaku with piano and synthesizers. Since moving into the limelight in 1996 with his debut album “Togi Hideki”, he has continued to generate one album after another. He has also held an Album Release Japan Tour every year since 1999. His 2000 album “TOGISM2” received a Japan Record Award for best project. He has also won Gold Disc Awards for Album of the Year in traditional Japanese music eight times since his 2000 release Gagaku. In 2012, he debuted in the USA by the release of “TOGI.”