A Fusion of Religion and Artistry as Narratives: Buddhism in the Modern Works of Shōmyō
This paper tries to answer the following question: where does Buddhism exist in the newly composed modern works of Shōmyō？Shōmyō is a musical concept that includes all vocal music for Buddhist ceremonies. When National Theatre Japan was opened in 1966, Toshiro Kido created this concept to indicate traditional music that is distinct from religious music. Shōmyō itself came from ancient India and was transmitted to Japan with Buddhism via China. Although the word’s significance has changed at various times and places, Shōmyō has always been closely tied to religious ceremonies, and even now only monks are allowed to perform it.
Since the 1980s, the National Theatre Japan has commissioned new compositions of Shōmyō from modern composers, mainly to foster a fusion of not only traditional and modern musical style, but also of religion and artistry. Because of the separation of politics and religion, the texts of these newly composed works do not have a direct relationship to Buddhism and they are written in the vernacular. However, only monks perform these compositions, and they apply many musical vocalization methods from Buddhist ceremonies.
This paper focuses entirely on the Shōmyō works composed by modern composers primarily in the 1980s. Especially, in Maki Ishii’s works, not only traditional musical conventions, but also Buddhist concepts of impermanence and the wheel of life appear in the lyrics. “Frogs’ Buddhist Chant No. 2, Based on a Poem by Shimpei Kusano,” for example, depicts a world in which a hellish bomb has killed off human beings and only a frog family remains. Here, Ishii constructs new stories that could be called new Buddhist narratives. By analyzing the modern works of Shōmyō in 1980s, this paper pursues the method in which Japanese composers realized the possibility of fusion of religion and artistry and the stylistic influence of religion in contemporary art.
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