Many people have chosen a hobby or tried to learn a skill during the pandemic. Fabio Rambelli and Rory Lindsay recorded a digital album with ancient instruments used in Gagaku, the millennial music of the imperial court of Japan.
Esoteric? Sure. But Rambelli, professor of religious studies and cultures of East Asia at UC Santa Barbara, and chair of the International Shinto Foundation in Shinto studies, and Lindsay, visiting scholar in the department of religious studies, were more that ready for the task.
Rambelli has played the shō, a reed instrument that has been used in Japan since the 8th century, while Lindsay has been playing various stringed instruments since she was a teenager. For the recording, Lindsay learned to play the biwa, a lute-like instrument that came from China to Japan around the time the shō arrived.
The album is an offshoot of Rambelli Gagaku Project, which he developed in early 2020 after acquiring 14 instruments on loan from UCLA. After 17 Gagaku masters held workshops and performed on campus in early March, Rambelli wanted to keep the music momentum going.
“Rory and I are both very passionate about these two instruments,” he said, “and we wanted to try to make original music using the sounds of Gagaku and some of the traditional techniques and styles, but also by adding our own sensitivities. “
Their album, “Neo Archē”, mixes the old and the modern.
“Rory comes from rock (as a guitarist) and many years of studying stringed instruments from the Middle East and India,” Rambelli explained. “I come from progressive rock (especially jazz-rock), jazz and free improvisation. We’re both interested in ambient and minimal music.
“The sounds and structures of Gagaku have become the framework that brought our musical sensibilities together and that allows a ‘fusion’ of these many tendencies,” he continued. “Our music doesn’t sound like classical Gagaku at all, but experts will certainly recognize a few elements here and there. Others will find echoes of Terry Riley, Arvo Pärt, Tangerine Dream, Robert Fripp and others.
Lindsay, a Tibetan studies scholar who played stringed instruments from India, Turkey and Greece, said learning to play the biwa, which is said to be from Persia, was not particularly difficult.
“It was a real pleasure to play the biwa,” he says, “because I had never played an instrument with silk strings before, nor an instrument with so few frets. It only has four frets! A fairly short neck compared to all the other instruments I play. It’s limiting, but it forces you to use alternate chords and get creative with the notes you have.
“It was totally amazing how quickly he was able to grasp the intricacies of biwa playing,” said Rambelli, “and deliver his very unique sound, which mixes the classic Gagaku biwa sound with more Middle Eastern flavors.”
The mostly improvised songs were created after choosing elements such as tempo, level of dissonance and sound density. For each song, Rambelli wrote a few segments, all based on classic shō gagaku pieces that he recovered from manuscripts dating back to the 12th century.
“I should also mention that the very nature of our instruments is also difficult,” said Rambelli. “The shō can only play 17 sounds, and the biwa 16! In this recording, I also created a new mode based on a classic Gagaku mode, which imagines its original Middle Eastern flavor long lost. To add variety, but in a subtle and non-intrusive way, Rory also added some samples of well-known Gagaku pieces, and I played some parts in a very dissonant way.
Because the campus was closed when the album was created, each player recorded their part at home while listening to the other on headphones. Lindsay then mixed them together before the collection was sent to England for mastering.
“Neo Archē” can be heard on Bandcamp, a major venue for independent artists. It is also available for purchase and download in various formats.
“I think the music that we were able to create and its sound is quite amazing – soothing and at times solemn but also full of depth and energy,” said Rambelli. “We wanted to use the ritualistic sensibility and solemnity of Gagaku but place it in a more introspective and domestic environment, something that would be soothing and invigorating at the same time.”