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Exhibition of Traditional Asian String Instruments: Storytelling through Melody

Satoru Ishii
Research Associate, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum is holding the “Exhibition of Traditional Asian String Instruments: Storytelling through Melody” from October 29th (Wed.), 2014 to February 4th (Wed.), 2015.

Overview of exhibition

A wide variety of string instruments are played throughout Asia. Like the gakuso (ancient type of koto with 13 strings) and wakon (six-stringed Japanese zither), some instruments were established as part of Shinto rituals or national systems. Others, like the shamisen (three-stringed instrument) and erhu (two-stringed instrument), helped cultivate artistic styles among the general public. The guqin (ancient Chinese string instrument) is an example of an instrument which has been refined while depending on the spirituality of literary scholars. In any case, all of this string instruments have fostered a unique culture in their respective regions.

On the other hand, many traditional string instruments in Asia have a similar shape. When tracing the origin of these instruments, one encounters regional interaction that spans centuries. Discussions of origins for each instrument involve hypotheses of a unique beginning in a specific region, hypotheses of introduction from surrounding regions, and hypotheses of fusion between foreign and native instruments. In this way, traditional Asian string instruments possess diverse origins and established theories have yet to be formed in many cases.

This exhibition provides a comprehensive view of relations among traditional Asian string instruments. To accomplish this, the exhibition uses correlation diagrams which were created based on cultural interaction among these regions. By learning about string instruments which are common throughout Asia, I hope the museum visitors will develop an interest in the diversity and similarities which interact in Asian culture.

Exhibition materials

In terms of classification by shape, the display features mainly zithers (instruments with strings stretched over the sound box) and lutes (instrument in which a rod is attached to the sound box and strings are stretched along the length of both). The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum collection also features many instruments related to theater performers. Some examples are the koto used by Utaemon Nakamura V, the shamisen used by Wakatayu Wakamatsu I, and Peking opera instrument donated by the Peking opera group which was led by Mei Lanfand and visited Japan in 1956. The guqin, komungo and other East Asian zithers possess simple designs, yet each has its own individual elements. Particularly striking are the sitar, saraswati veena, and other Indian instruments that are uniquely decorated. For some of the traditional string instruments introduced in the exhibition, visitors can enjoy sounds and images via touch-panel devices as well as exhibition materials.

Related Event (1): Live erhu performance by KiRiKo

On November 7th (Fri.), the tenth day after the exhibition opens, a live erhu performance was held on the stage in front of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum by Kiriko Nakanishi (currently enrolled at Waseda University), a popular young erhu player. This event was planned as an opportunity for Waseda students to see a fellow student who performs throughout the world. From emotional slow phrases to dexterous fast picking, this event showcased the full of appeal of the erhu, a traditional string instrument representative of China.

Kiriko’s repertory spans from classical songs to pop music. At the event, she mainly played songs which are familiar to a younger audience. One after another, the sound of Disney songs, anime songs and Vocaloid songs sprang from the strings of her erhu. Among audience members some fans cheered her on by glow sticks in rhythm with the performance. On this evening, Kiriko’s performance created a new chapter in the 86-year history of our museum.

Next, we are planning to hold a performance of classical songs on December 4th (Thurs.). Although admission is free, a limited number of seats are available. Please reserve your seat from the URL listed below.

Related Event (2):Guqin & Erhu Performance—Storytelling through Melody
Date & Time:
December 4th (Thurs.), 2014; 18:30 to 20:00 (venue opens at 18:00)
Ono Memorial Auditorium (capacity of 200 people)
Free Admission:
For reservation details, please refer to http://web.waseda.jp/enpaku/ex/1935/.
Waseda University; Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Collaborative Research Center for Theatre and Film Arts

This performance of traditional Chinese instruments features guests Gao Yusheng, a guqin player and educator involved in the promotion of traditional music, and Kiriko Nakanishi, an erhu player currently studying at Waseda University. In addition to giving performances, the two guests will discuss the background of their instruments and details of their own activities. Please enjoy the sound of traditional instruments which join the past and present while bringing together different cultures.

Satoru Ishii
Research Associate, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

Satoru Ishii completed the Master’s Program in Chinese Studies at the Waseda University Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Satoru Ishii was currently enrolled in the Doctoral Program in Chinese Studies at the Waseda University Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Satoru Ishii has been appointed as Research Associate since April 2012. His area of specialization is research on the preservation and promotion of the guqin music in the late Qin and early Republic period.