Thousand year old world music

NaxosI have recently been trawling through the libraries recently acquired Naxos Music Library. To be honest there is far more here than I can envisage being able to digest. It’s rather a daunting wealth of music and if your character isn’t properly steeled it may have you crawling back to the closeted warmth of your desert island discs.

Determined to fight off the familiar … and take on the world. I’ve been getting into world music (ugh, just feel like someone puked on my grave). An irksome term, “world” hardly being a very useful qualifier. And it inspires connotations of background music that some miscreant has assaulted and masticated with a rhythm track, or drawled reverb over; making it sound sleazy, but presumably more palatable … all though I’m not sure if anyone has similar connotations to this term.

The music I’m wanting to push, curiously sounds like music not of this world … I mean this in the most positive way possible (miserable planet). Gagaku is Japanese court music from the Heian period, roughly a thousand years ago – and to the best of my knowledge is the world’s oldest living orchestral music.

This music seems to have changed little over the span of it’s thousand years and its an odd feeling to be listening to sounds that are a thousand years old. In thinking of classical Japanese music, usually the sparse and austere sound of the koto or shaimsen come to mind. Gagaku shares some of this sense of severe restraint but is also has an immense tonal richness and density; it fact it sounds remarkably modern with its cacophonous drones, again I mean this in the most positive way possible. It is hard to imagine what kind of acoustic instruments could make such a sound. This music is strongly indebted to musical imports from China and Korea at the time and its interesting to compare these works with that of the Korean of the court music, also accessible through Naxos.

I used to feel smug about my gagaku records, they were very difficult to get but now there are four gakaku recordings for you to freely access, all recorded with out sleazy studio augmentation. You can find these recordings in the World/Folk section of the Naxos catalogue, under J for Japan.