Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

(ii) Repertory and social context

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(ii) Repertory and social context.

Although modern sōkyoku (‘koto music’, i.e. music in which the koto has a solo role) has developed in an unbroken line from gagaku-based traditions in the Heian period, the existing non-court repertory can be traced back no further than the last decades of the 16th century. Throughout the Edo period (1603–1868) sōkyoku was one of the most common genres, and it was only during the last years of the 19th century that increasing Westernization began gradually to transform the tradition. Two main subdivisions may be distinguished: tsukushi-goto, the older tradition, once the privilege of high social classes, with characteristics still close to those of older forms of ‘elegant music’; and the more recent zokusō (‘popular koto music’), limited to low-class professional musicians and the bourgeoisie. Because tsukushi-goto is almost extinct, sōkyoku, for all practical purposes, may be identified with zokusō.

The development of zokusō through several schools, as a typical product of the Edo period, reflects the social situation of the time, which, because of the country’s almost complete seclusion from the outside world, is considered to be one of the most specifically ‘Japanese’. The feudal system with its four-class structure is reflected in the direction of sōkyoku towards one specific social group, the bourgeoisie (mainly belonging to the merchant class, officially the lowest of the four classes); in the organization of koto and certain groups of shamisen players into a guild of professional blind musicians, the shoku-yashiki, which had a strictly organized system of professional ranks; and in the teacher–student relationship, which mirrored that of the lord–vassal. The combination of these factors resulted in an authoritarian system characterized by strong reciprocal obligations, which discouraged the development of individual initiative in younger musicians. This suppression of initiative, combined with the exclusion of a good deal of available talent by the practical limitation of professional koto musicians to blind men, is undoubtedly largely responsible for the striking homogeneity of the repertory of the various schools; to a lesser degree aesthetic considerations have also been responsible. Homogeneity eventually led to stagnation, which could be broken only by the emergence of a musician of exceptional talent who might initiate a new style of composition and thereby a new school. This inevitable sequence (creation of a school–stagnation–eventual revolt and creation of a new school) was repeated several times during the Edo period. Disregarding sub-schools, three main ryū (schools) of zokusō were created and maintained in the Edo period: the Yatsuhashi-ryū, the Ikuta-ryū and the Yamada-ryū. Beginning in the Meiji period (1868–1912), gradual Westernization of sōkyoku led to innovations within the Ikuta- and Yamada-ryū, as well as to the formation of new schools.

The limitation of sōkyoku to the lower social strata was responsible for the almost total absence of contemporary scholarly writing on this subject. Because scholarly pursuit during the Edo period was primarily the concern of the higher classes (especially samurai), zokusō was rarely considered worthy of the attention of scholars. Contemporary publication in the field of sōkyoku was limited almost entirely to collections of song texts and, rather exceptionally, collections of tablatures. Among the latter, the most outstanding is the Sōkyoku taiishō (1799) by Yamada Shōkoku: this collection of kumiuta and danmono of the Ikuta school is preceded by the (relatively) most scholarly introduction to the subject in the Edo period.

Japan, §II, 4: Instruments and instrumental genres, Koto.

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