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Music in Ukiyo-e

Ury Eppstein
Hebrew University


Music instruments figure prominently in Ukiyo-e pictures. Many of them have been investigated in considerable detail by musicologists, mainly form an organological, structural and/or aesthetic point of view. This presentation, on the other hand, attempts to focus on the musical function and content, social and environmental context and significance of the instruments’ use, their occasionally uncommon ensemble combinations and gender of musicians, frequently different from what has become known in standard musicological publications.
Some of the social contexts in which instruments are featured:  cherry blossom viewing and boating entertainment (funa-asobi) scenes depict the participation of shamisen, commonly known mainly in classical vocal art music (ji-uta), Kabuki and Bunraku music, geisha entertainment and popular songs (pictures by Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Toyokuni, Chobunsai Eishi); pleasure quarters show windows displaying geishas’ shamisen playing skills, not necessarily their physical charms (Miyagawa Choki); instrument playing children participating  in Matsuri, commonly known mainly, in modern events (Kikukawa Eizan).
Uncommon instrument combinations include Noh theatre drums with biwa and shamisen, traditionally never performing together (Ichikawa Toyonobu).
Instruments not commonly used in Edo period art music, except for Kabuki backstage music and Chinese style music (Minshingaku) include the mokkin (xylophone) (Hokusai, Utagawa Toyokuni III, Utagawa Kuniaki II, and Shichigenkin (7-stringed zither, Chinese ch’in).
Instruments traditionally not played by women include the Oodaiko, hichiriki, sho, biwa, shakuhachi; instruments traditionally not used for dance accompaniment instead of shamisen include the kane (gong).
Foreigners commonly not dancing to the accompaniment of a geisha’s shamisen are portrayed by Ichimo Yoshitora.

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