Kakushin Nishihara playing satsuma biwa, © Muga Miyahara

Defining Tradition of Sound Culture: Questioning The Importance of Authenticity | Essay by Guoda Dirzyte

“In the future varying cultures will be unified and, assisted by technology, eventually we will have a global culture” [1]

It is difficult to talk about contemporary sound culture or cultures in general, their traditions and heritage while living in the age of post-globalization. Every culture has in one way or the other adopted different aspects of other cultures, and by slightly transforming them, made them part of their own heritage. Japan is one of the best examples for such a phenomenon, since this country already has ages worth of history of adopting cultural elements from other Asian countries and the west, transforming foreign ideas and making them part of their own unique heritage.

With the never-ending exchange of cultural heritage in the age of today’s global world, is it actually possible to define tradition and boundaries between? It also raises a question about the cultural identity, if all cultures borrow different aspects from other cultures and add to their traditions, do they automatically become their own heritage?[2] Or maybe Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was right, and we are already living in a global culture where ancient traditions as we understand them do not have any meaning anymore, and exist just as a tool to tell nations apart.

An interesting aspect of Japanese culture is that it is like a sponge which absorbs other cultures’ heritage. Japanese borrowed many of Korean and Chinese traditions and adopted as their owns. At that time Japan was a closed country and no one from the West could go there. After the Second World War Japan was invaded by the United States of America, and the Japanese people started to think of the USA as the new center of the world. They started borrowing cultural elements from the states and using them to expand their own culture, e.g. J-pop and the avant-garde movements which influenced Japanese composers and experimentalists. The Japanese viewpoint to their own heritage (which from a western point of view is very unique) and its transformation within years puts into the consideration that nothing is original and all of the ideas are taken from somewhere. As Jean-Luc Godard once noted: “it’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”[3] The acceptance of such a fact becomes one of the key differences between Japanese and Western cultures approach to sound.

In Western cultures there is a concept of the genius creator that just magically gets an idea and makes a piece of music that it is completely his/her own. The fact that humans are influenced by environment is ignored most of the time. This leads into exploration of different ways of how Asian and Western cultures see music and its tradition. In West cultures, traditional music is seen as recreation of the past, it is completely separate from the present which is represented by a variety of modern music. In Japan modern music is played in the same way as the traditional music, using the same approach and understanding that music is not meant to be appreciated but to transport one to another dimension; to overcome our physical limitations and understand that everything is part of everything else and is constantly interlinked.[4]

An interesting collaboration called Kintsugi happened between Kakushin Nishihara, Serge Teyssot-Gay and Gaspar Claus, where west and east tried to come together as one global culture and explore boundaries between modern and traditional music. The base of this project – Kakushin Nishihara does not meet expectations of traditional Japanese musician. She is an exceptional traditional Japanese vocalist and biwa player. She also has lots of tattoos, has a very free style of dressing, and she is a child of our times. As Gaspar Claus described her, she is a reincarnation of this modernity and tradition process, but the best thing is that she is not even conscious of this, she does not represent something, this is what she is.[5] The instruments that are used in this project are cello, guitar and satsuma biwa. This set up is not as unusual as it may seem at first. Since nowadays it is quite popular to use exotic instruments in western music. However what makes this case slightly different is the way that the instruments are used. There is no strict score provided; it is more a group improvisation based piece rather pre-composed. It is very close to Japanese approach to music, where the freedom is given to the performer to improvise within the frame of a composition instead of empowering the composer.

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Japanese music gave freedom to a performer in the form of graphic notation. These ideas would be difficult to sew into a classical score, as this would allow a pristine repetition of the piece. Music notation can be seen as another major difference between Japanese and Western approach to sonic culture. “Western music is all about searching for perfection while repeating successful composers; meanwhile Japanese music is all about creating new things by yourself.”[6] A classical score is a great, time-checked way to preserve music for the future generations. Of course, currently there is a variety of advanced recording technologies which allow people to hear recorded sounds exactly the same way countless times. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that the first sound recording device was invented just by the end of the 19th century. This means that without classical or traditional scores current cultures would not have an opportunity to reproduce and hear works of such renowned composers like Mozart, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Still, this poses a series of questions: why is it important to seek a complete perfection and precision to repeat a composition which has been played multiple times? Why is it so important to write notations which are strict and hardly leave freedom to the performers to improvise? The answer to these could be that in Western cultures people with power generally want to have authority over others, and in this situation the composer is the one who is in power and takes control over the performers as all that is needed is an instrument to produce a piece.

In the Japanese music, and oriental music in general, there is an opposite side. A notion of dominating music is for performers rather than for composers. Scores are not that precise and give improvisational freedom to a performer. Graphic notation in Japan has existed for ages. The oldest music style is called Gagaku and it is still to this day written by using shodo [7] and graphic notation which is not as mathematically based as Western notation. [8] Even though gagaku could be seen as too anachronistic for our contemporary world, some ideas are worth borrowing, for instance, sounds should be free from rules of music which contain formulas and calculations; music should have a freedom to breathe. “Rather than on the ideology of self-expression, music should be based on a profound relationship to nature – sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh.”[9] Music suffers when sound is refined by ideas rather than having an identity of its own. Since “music is shaped by many environmental conditions, collective movements of thought and theory, political events and cultural shifts, not simply by a lineage of narrow musical influence”[10], flexible graphical score makes that music always relevant for narrative time. There is a need to start valuing quality of sound, nature and spirituality more than an economic profit, fame and perfectionism. Oriental music provides a mirror that allows Western music to reconsider itself.[11]


1. T. Takemitsu, Confronting Silence: Selective Writings. Tr. Yoshiko and Glenn Glasow. Berkeley:
Fallen Leaf Press, 1995, p. 59.
2. S. Tanaka, Japan’s Orient: Rendering Past into History, Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1995, p. 112.
3. J.Jarmush, Things I’ve learned: Jim Jarmush. 13 June 2013, https://www.moviemaker.com/archives
4, 5. G. Sedita, Vincent Moon, Filmmaker and Explorer of the Invisible, 30 November 2016,
Vincent Moon, Filmmaker and Explorer of the Invisible
6. Conversation with Benas Sarka by author, 2016 December, Vilnius, Lithuania.
7. Shodo – Japanese calligraphy.
8. B. C. Wade, Music in Japan: Experiencing Music. Expressing culture, New York; Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2005, p 34.
9. T. Takemitsu, Confronting Silence: Selective Writings. Tr. Yoshiko and Glenn Glasow. Berkeley:
Fallen Leaf Press, 1995, p. 4.
10. D. Toop, Into the Maelstrom: music, improvisation and the dream of freedom, New York: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2016, p. 151.
11. J. Corbett, ‘Experimental Oriental: New Music and Other Others’, in Georgina Born and David
Hesmondhalgh, Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music,
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000, p. 169.

About Guoda Dirzyte

Guoda Dirzyte is a Lithuanian-born experimental musical instruments designer, composer and sound artist. Guoda’s work is mainly orientated towards exploring world music and sound culture. It focuses on the approach to life and communication rather than cultural industry, and critically examines the Eurocentric approach towards musical culture traditions.


Maria Papadomanolaki

Sound artist, researcher, writer.