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#20 Barbara Ruch

Interview with Barbara Ruch

Barbara Ruch is a Professor Emerita of Japanese Literature and Culture and Director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University. She has been awarded many prizes in Japan, such as The Imperial decoration, The Order of the Precious Crown, with Butterfly Crest. She is recognized as a leading pioneer of the study of Japanese medieval illustrated literatures such as Nara-ehon, and Etoki, “painting recitation.” We had a chance to ask her about her current dedication to Gagaku-Hōgaku, classical Japanese music, the upcoming Wagakki concert in March, and her further aims.


– As a Professor Emerita of Japanese Literature and Culture and Director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, what was your most remarkable interest in the past?


I began my interest in medieval Japanese literature, culture, and history, because it was the period that was neglected in the old days. When I was a graduate student, everyone studied “The Tale of Genji,” Kabuki, Chikamatsu, and Basho. I was a little stubborn, and didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. And I’m afraid that, in almost every project I have done since, I’ve begun looking for some area that is wonderful culture, but people are overlooking it. But the past 20 years, we’ve been working in Japanese music, which is one of the most neglected areas of all of Japanese glorious culture.

–Related to the previous question, how have your past interests motivated you to your current dedication to Gagaku and Hōgaku?


I didn’t know anything about Japanese music. But when I started to look into it, I realized the disaster that happened in Japan during the Meiji period: A big Tsunami of Westernization came in. Japanese people were tearing down their temples and throwing away their Buddhist statues. Some people found this terrible, so that they saved Japanese traditional art, but there was no one to save Japanese music at that time. Bureaucrats banned teaching Japanese instruments in high schools, because they thought Japanese instruments were primitive and inferior to Western ones. The curriculum of music became focused only on Western music. Today the Japanese government does not give any support to teaching Japanese instrumental music, although China and Korea have supported their traditional ensembles abroad. That’s a big problem that Japan has to solve.

Here in the U.S., our students of music in the 21st century want to taste every beautiful instrument in the world. It’s not just that little part of Euro-American music that they want to do anymore. So first we raised money to buy instruments like Shō, Hichiriki, Ryūteki, and so forth, and then opened the first Gagaku classes around 2006. We started with Gagaku, instead of some other genres of Japanese music, because Gagaku is the most difficult, the most fundamental of all of Japanese music, and it is the oldest orchestral music in the world, with a 1300-year history. We only allow students to play the classics, like Etenraku. By 2009, we had a very nice ensemble that could play very well. We held our first concert at Tokyo, at the Kyūsōgakudō at Ueno Park, and it was full. Funding is difficult because Japanese people think no one is interested in Gagaku and they themselves are not familiar with it. Little by little, however, we got funding from different places. Staring last September, we began Hōgaku, which is a broad term meaning secular art music and salon music of Japan, including Koto and Shakuhachi.

– Why do you think Japanese people are not interested in their own culture and traditions, unlike Chinese or Korean?


I think that one of the reasons is Westernization in the Meiji period, as I mentioned earlier. Maybe it is their loss of pride, which is understandable. I can see how Japanese would think “everything we’ve done must be old-fashioned, we have to change everything.” However, now there is a new attitude, which is not a good one either. Japan is a very tiny country with a huge gorgeous culture, but it has no bridges to other countries for others to easily see its marvelous culture. Mostly it worries what other people think of Japan. Japanese people think that maybe they should show a Noh play, or maybe a tea ceremony. But Americans and Europeans don’t want to see an exotic flower. They know that’s beautiful but they can’t touch or grow that. They want to see a culture that they can feel and want to take part in. Music is one of those things by which that they can “participate in Japan.” In the beginning, when Japanese played Western instruments, Westerners said “technically they are very good, but it’s just imitation, they don’t have the heart.” This is a huge arrogant mistake on the part of Westerners. But now, Japanese are making the same mistake because they are looking at our students with blond hair and blue eyes playing Shakuhachi and the Shō and they say “that is so good but you will never really know our culture.” There is this mutual prejudice we have toward each other. We have to get rid of that. We here in N.Y. have been working to globalize this wonderful music, which Japanese should be fully proud of.

–Your school is training American students to actually play those Japanese traditional instruments. What do you think is so fascinating about Gagaku to Americans?


I think it’s the wonderful voices of those instruments. So-called Neoto, or a special tone, the voices of the instruments, is magnificent and you cannot make such musical sounds with Western instruments. Shakuhachi or Ryūteki is nothing but a piece of bamboo while Western instruments are full of metal stops and keys which make them almost machines. Japanese instruments – none of them is a machine. Each piece of bamboo, each Shakuhachi, is an individual living creature. Each Shakuhachi has a special voice, just like each human has a slightly different voice. Every Koto comes from a specific tree, and each tree has its own vibration to it. The attraction is incredibly different from the attraction that one would get from picking up a clarinet, oboe, or a metal flute. Professional music students have the ears to hear that difference.

– You are having “A New York Summit: The Future of Japan Music in the 21st Century” in March. What made you plan for this summit? Also, what kind of influence you would like to have on audiences in this coming summit?


This summit is neither a workshop nor an academic conference about Japanese music. What it is is we have brought together musicians and composers who are already deeply involved in playing Japanese traditional instruments or composing new music for these instruments. With a limited amount of budget, we are bringing in a small group of professionals and people who can express and discuss the global problems of Japanese music with each other.

We are going to define what are the biggest problems facing Japanese music in the 21st century. We already know one of them is a Ryūha, or the school system which has secret scores and different teaching methods. We don’t want to destroy the traditions of these different houses, but we want to encourage more students. Another problem is how we are going to encourage new compositions. A great model for Gagaku is Shiba Sukeyasu, who belonged to the Imperial Household agency Gagaku Orchestra, which is allowed to play only the classical repertory. He established the Reigakusha Orchestra, which plays the classics but also plays new music for all of those instruments. You need new music for instruments to fly like a butterfly. Another serious problem is to make it global in terms of marketing. In Japan, all traditional music CDs and DVDs are labeled only in Japanese, so that people from other countries can’t buy them. It is not that difficult to make the labels bilingual. We need to revolutionize the labeling and marketing of Japanese traditional music by taking these simple steps. Japanese people should realize there is a huge demand in the market around the world for their wonderful music.

– Please introduce us to the upcoming events in March.


The concert of our ensembles at Columbia will be held on March 8th at the Miller Theater. It’s right in front of the 116th St. subway stop and so is easy to stop by, and it’s free of charge. The first part of the concert will be our ensembles together with Japanese master musicians from Japan. The New York masters who have been teaching our students will also play the classic pieces. Then, the second half part of the program, we are having all new music for these Japanese instruments composed by students from the eminent music department of Columbia who got doctorates in composition. It’s doubly happy for me to hear new music for these instruments but also to hear Columbia’s composer program producing composers for these instruments. The next day, March 9th, we are holding the symposium at the Scandinavia House. It is open to the public. The panelists will all be professionals and they will talk about the real problems of Japanese music in the 21st century.

I hope people will come, and I hope there will be some millionaires who will say “this is the best thing to invest in since Silicon Valley, and we want to give you some money to make this live forever!”

– Please let us know about your future plan to establish a Japanese traditional music institution in Tokyo.


Students are now studying Japanese instruments abroad in countries like Czechoslovakia, Germany Australia, Poland, and New York for 4-5 years, but there is no place in Japan where we can send global musicians for the next level superb training for these students. There are many universities of music in Japan, but they are not open to foreign musicians in terms of the language barrier. We must have a Juilliard-like school in Tokyo for the superb training of Japanese instruments. The Juilliard School is now a huge famous music institution, but it’s only a hundred years old and it began from a couple of rooms. We are working on this and we’ve already got a planning office in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo and many Japanese master musicians are ready to teach. But we still need great patrons to help to pay for this.

Our next step is to announce recruitment of music students from all over the world for this school. In December of this year, 2013, the Japanese emperor will come to eighty years old. For his birthday, we would like to declare the opening of recruitment for this first school. We can start training around January, 2014. Then in October of 2014, we would like to have a concert by these students from this new conservatory school of Japanese music in Tokyo, for Empress Michiko’s birthday party for she then becomes eighty years old. This is a very small start but it will be the beginning of something that cannot stop. It must start, because it’s inevitable, for this beautiful music belongs to the world and will become global.

– What is your dream and hope in terms of the future of Gagaku and Hōgaku??


We’ve been using the words, Gagaku and Hōgaku, but they are not really good words in terms of what we are doing. Gagaku is very special religious music offered to deities. Also, Hōgaku is such a broad word. However, what we are really focusing on is Wagakki, “Japanese instruments” which are born and raised in Japan, including Biwa, Gakuso, Shō, Ryūteki, Hichiriki, Koto, Shakuhachi, Shamisen, and so forth. Wagakki is the word that the world should learn, like Sushi or Manga.

My dream is 10 years from now, New York Philharmonic will not have to import traditional Japanese instrument players from Japan when they wish to play Takemitsu Toru’s “November Steps.” They will have professional members of the orchestra in New York able to play the Shakuhachi parts or Biwa parts. And many young composers are now writing for combinations of Shakuhachi, Shō, etc. and Western quartets. I hope we will have New York Wagakki ensembles that tour the world. It should be the natural thing. In the future, I want these beautiful instruments to be main stream globally with wonderful ensembles containing performers of various races and nationalities.

Barbara Ruch

a Professor Emerita of Japanese Literature and Culture and a director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University. She has been awarded many prizes in Japan, like The Imperial decoration. We had a chance to ask her about her current dedication to Gagaku-Hōgaku, classical Japanese music and an upcoming Wagaku concert in March, and her further aims.

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