Violins, Accordions, and the Koto: ‘Noise’, ‘Sound’ and the ‘Fusion’ Music of Meiji Modernity

Conference: The Kyoto Conference on Arts, Media & Culture (KAMC2021)
Title: Violins, Accordions, and the Koto: ‘Noise’, ‘Sound’ and the ‘Fusion’ Music of Meiji Modernity
Stream: Performing Arts Practices: Theater, Dance, Music
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Philip Flavin, Osaka University of Economics and Law, Japan


This paper examines the irruptive impact of Western music, notably perceptions of 'sound', on pre-modern aesthetics for the koto, and the new ensemble formats that appeared in the late-Meiji period (1868-1912) in which western instruments, notably the violin, were combined with the koto. Kikuta Utao I (1879-1949), a seminal figure in the Movement for New Japanese music, published a two-volume collection of violin parts for tegotomono, a genre of sōkyoku-jiuta (a chamber music for koto and jiuta shamisen) that was in the process of transforming into 'art' music. Kikuyoshi Shūchō (1869-1912) also experimented with the fusion of Western musical instruments, composing works for accordion and koto. Tateyama Noboru (1876-1926), an extremely important figure in the history of Japanese musical modernity, never composed for a 'fusion' ensemble, but nonetheless experimented with 'sound' and designed a new koto that used metal strings instead of the traditional silk. The focus on 'sound', I suggest, can be placed within the larger framework of Attali-ian 'noise', in this instance, a highly politicised 'noise' from the West that was profoundly changing the Japanese soundscape as the 'sound' of modernity. The intrusion of Western music into the 'traditional' musicians understanding of music forced them to reappraise not only their music output, but the quality of 'sound' through the lens of 'modern'. What type of 'sound' is modern and why?

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