Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe: The Reigakusha Ensemble

Japanese composer Sukeyasu Shiba leads his Reigakusha ensemble in a performance of original and reconstructed music for the ancient royal ensemble known as gagaku. A longtime member of the gagaku orchestra for the Imperial Household Agency, Shiba composes works that revitalize a highly ritualized musical repertoire rarely heard in the West. His ensemble features biwa (lute), koto (zither), shakuhachi (flute), ryuteki (flute), sho (mouth organ), hichiriki (double-reed), and taiko (drum). This performance was part of the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration of Music From Japan, based in New York City, and marked that organization’s twelfth annual program at the Freer Gallery. Recorded in concert February 24, 2010.


All works composed by Sukeyasu Shiba (b. 1935)

MAI FU JIN 35 (2008)

Washington, D.C., premiere
Reigakusha ensemble
Commissioned by Music From Japan


Washington, D.C., premiere
Takeshi Sasamoto, haisho; Mika Noda, gaku-so; Kahoru Nakamura, genkan; Katsuhiko Tabuchi, o-hichiriki

SHOTORASHION (1980/2010)

Dance: Washington, D.C., premiere; Music: U.S. premiere
Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble and dancers
Commissioned by Music From Japan for its thirty-fifth anniversary

Introduction and Mandala

Stephen Pier, dancer/choreographer

Kisshohoju (Kissho Ten’s Jewel)
Maya Sakai, mikomai dancer/choreographer

The Rage of Jikokuten and Finale
Stephen Pier, dancer/choreographer


Sukeyasu Shiba, music director, ryuteki
Yuko Hirai, shoko, kakko
Naoko Miyamaru, kakko, taiko
Mayumi Miyata, sho
Aya Motohashi, hichiriki
Hitomi Nakamura, hichiriki
Kahoru Nakamura, gaku-biwa, genkan
Mika Noda, gaku-so (koto)
Takeshi Sasamoto, ryuteki, haisho, shakuhachi
Katsuhiko Tabuchi, o-hichiriki, taiko
Ko Ishikawa, sho
Maya Sakai, ryuteki, mikomai dance/choreographer

Guest artist: Stephen Pier, dancer/choreographer


ryuteki (side-blown flute)
shakuhachi (end-blown flute)
haisho (panpipe)
hichiriki (double-reed)
sho (mouth organ)
gaku-biwa (pear-shaped lute)
gaku-so (koto; zither)
shoko (gong)
kakko (drum)
taiko (drum)

The Music From Japan Festival 2010 was made possible in part by public funds from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan, for the fiscal year 2008.


Written by Sukeyasu Shiba; translated by Sharon Nakazato and Music From Japan
Adapted from the program notes for the Music From Japan Festival 2010 in New York

MAI FU JIN 35 (2008)

Washington, D.C., premiere
Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble
Commissioned by Music From Japan

This work was composed specially to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of Music From Japan. It is divided into three parts: the Jo (introduction), the Ha (development), and the Kyu (climax), as found in classical gagaku form. The image is inspired by the great Rengeo-in Temple (Sanjusangen-do) in Kyoto with its myriad Buddhist statues. There, as if to protect the great throng of Buddhas, Fujin—the God of Wind—rides high on the clouds, his mouth drawn into a great screech as he squeezes his huge bag of winds with such fearsome power that it feels as though at any moment he will come swooping down on the intruder.

The work begins with the Taishiki tuning to introduce the mood of the Taishiki mode. The Jo evokes the atmosphere of the Rengeo-in Temple. It comprises six sections in free rhythm. Each section is introduced by the sounding of the taiko (drum) and shoko (gong). The Ha portrays the serene aspect of the ranks upon ranks of Buddhas as they have continued their prayers for the peace of the world since being lodged there in the Heian Period. In the Kyu, with its airy, lively rhythms and melody, I imagine the God of Wind leaping down from his seat in the clouds and lithely dancing about.


Washington, D.C., premieres
Takeshi Sasamoto, haisho; Mika Noda, gaku-so; Kahoru Nakamura, genkan; Katsuhiko Tabuchi, o-hichiriki

This is one of the twenty-five manuscripts for biwa (lute) that were recovered from Cave 17 of the thousand Buddhist caves at Dunhuang in western China. While most biwa music from Dunhuang is bright and lively, Chosa Join has a softer, more lyrical mood. The melody probably came from a song expressing a young girl’s longing for her home in Changsha after being called into the service of the Imperial Court. None of the four instruments in this quartet is part of the gagaku orchestra of today; the haisho (panpipe), the kugo (harp), the genkan, and the o-hichiriki have all been restored from instruments preserved in the seventh–eighth-century imperial treasury in Nara known as the Shosoin. I have arranged the work to echo the T’ang China music known as the Ri-en (Li Yuan), or music of the Imperial Pear Garden. [Translator’s note: This was named after the legendary Pear Garden planted by T’ang Emperor Genso (Xuan Zong), where the emperor himself is said to have taught music.]

SHOTORASHION (1980/2010)

Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble and dancers
Dance: Washington, D.C., premiere; Music: U.S. premieres
Commissioned by Music From Japan for its thirty-fifth anniversary

Taking the form of an improvisatory suite, Shotorashion evokes the almost unreal atmosphere one finds in an ancient Japanese Buddhist temple, with its distinctive assembly of Buddhist statues and implements installed reverently in their appointed places. The entire suite is composed of seven scenes. For this program, I selected four of them, three of which are accompanied by dance. The title Shotorashion originally designated only the second movement, but I liked the sound of the word so much that I made it the title for the entire work.

Introduction and Mandala

Here is the solemn magnificence of the old Buddha Hall, shadowy with a slight chill and the fragrance of incense hovering in the air. And the hanging mandala scroll with its faded colors bespeaks the weight of the years gone by.


With names like Gubira (Sanscrit, Khumbira), Bakira, and Ganira—similar to the names you might find among the Juuni Shinsho (the twelve Divine Generals) who surround and protect the Medicine Buddha Yakushi Nyorai—these characters might well have stepped out of a monster movie on television. Each “General” is characterized by a particular color; a pale purple identifies Shotora. I have depicted the facial expressions of the various “Generals” through a combination of 3/8 + 2/8 + 3/8 with 4/4 rhythm patterns.

Kisshohoju (Kissho Ten’s Jewel)

The benevolent Deva Kissho Ten bestows abundance on all sentient beings. Of gentle mien, she wears heavenly garments and a jeweled crown and carries a large jewel in her left hand. I was reminded of the peaceful melody from an ancient folk song of the type known as saibara, one of two types of gagaku song. Its origin is still contested, but it may have come from China or it may have its roots in early sacred music. Taken up from the common folk by the court in the Heian Period, it remained popular from the eighth century onwards, for about four hundred years, and then faded away.

The Rage of Jikoku Ten and Finale

With his demeanor one of chilling rage, Guardian of the East Jikoku Ten is depicted trampling on a demon. His entire aspect brims with action. To embody this mighty energy, every instrument must cry out in fortissimo, in 3/4 time. At length the scene shifts back to the old Buddha Hall and its aged mandala scroll. There is quiet chanting of a sutra and the work comes to an end.


Sukeyasu Shiba (composer, gagaku performer, and music director of the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble) was born in 1935 into the Shiba family, a branch of the Koma clan of gagaku musicians associated with the temple-shrine complex of Kofuku-ji/Kasuga Taisha in Nara for more than a thousand years. He served as a gagaku performer at the Department of Music of the Imperial Household Agency for twenty-seven years before leaving the post in 1984. In addition to performing, Shiba has pursued the revival of ancient Japanese musical forms, pioneering the reconstruction of lost parts of the gagaku repertory. Since retiring from the Imperial Household Agency, he has appeared at the Festival d’Autumne in Paris, the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, the Tanglewood Festival, the Vienna Modern, and the Ultima Festival in Oslo. Formerly professor of music at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he is currently guest professor at the Kunitachi Music College, as well as music director of the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble. The Ministry of Education of Japan designated him as a Leading Artist of Traditional Japanese Music and he received the Idemitsu Music Award in 1997. In 2003 Shiba received the Japan Art Academy Prize, as well as the Imperial Award from the same organization. In 2009 he was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.

The Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble, established in 1985 under the aegis of Sukeyasu Shiba, is dedicated to the study and performance of the classical gagaku repertoire and the creation of new music for ancient instruments. The company’s repertoire includes more than sixty classical gagaku works, thirty new works in the classic tradition, and twenty works lost to present-day performers until Shiba reconstructed them. The ensemble has also commissioned new works by such composers as Toru Takemitsu, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Maki Ishii. In 1995 the group presented an outdoor performance of Takemitsu’s In an Autumn Garden at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. A 2001 performance of the same work in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall earned a Nakajima Kenzo Special Music Prize, and the live-performance CD (Sony Classical) was an award recipient at the 2004 Geijutsusai Arts Festival. Reigakusha was honored by the Geijutsusai again in 2005 when it premiered Toshiro Saruya’s A Revival of the Most Wonderful Assembly at Yakushiji Temple. In 2009 Reigakusha commissioned and performed Ouju Gaga by Shin-ichiro Ikebe at Kioi Grand Hall in Tokyo.

Takeshi Sasamoto (shakuhachi, vertical flute; ryuteki: transverse flute; haisho: panflute) is the son of the headmaster of the Chikuinsha School of kinko-style shakuhachi. He studied under Soshu Sasamoto, Wakyo Hatsumi, Reibo Aoki, and Goro Yamaguchi. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Tokyo University of the Arts and studied ryuteki under Sukeyasu Shiba. He taught himself to play and build the haisho and gagaku-style shakuhachi. Sasamoto joined the Reigakusha ensemble in 1991. His publications include Hajimete no Gagaku [Gagaku for Beginners] (2003) and Zusetsu Gagaku Nyumon Jiten [Illustrated Dictionary: Introduction to Gagaku] (2006). His own compositions appear on the CDs Edo-komachi/Takeshi Sasamoto Works 1 (1994) and Mankashu/Takeshi Sasamoto Works II (2000).

Music From Japan (MFJ) is the leading presenter of Japanese traditional and contemporary music in the U.S. Since 1975 MFJ has brought Japanese performers, composers, and educational programs to U.S. and international audiences. Under the guidance of Artistic Director Naoyuki Miura, MFJ has presented nearly four hundred works by Japanese composers, including fifty-one commissions and seventy-one world premieres, presenting concerts throughout North and South America, Central Asia, and Japan. More than 130 Japanese composers have been showcased, as well as many traditional Japanese works. In 1994 Music From Japan established the Resource Center for Japanese Music, including the Japanese Composer Database available through MFJ’s website, which provides information on Japanese composers and their music. In 2007 the organization received the Foreign Minister’s Commendation, and Miura was recognized for his work with the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Award.


Podcast coordinated and concert photographs by Michael Wilpers, concert manager. Audio engineering by Andy Finch. Thanks to Neil Greentree for assistance with art-object photography; Andrew Hare, conservator of Japanese art, and intern Yumi Shintani for consulting on artwork captions; and intern Moonsil Lee for helping identify music-related artwork in the Galleries’ collections.

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