“My one guiding principle is that if something looks interesting, I go for it.”
Hideki Togi is a premier gagaku musician who held performances, gave lectures, and had an art exhibition in New York this March. Unlike other traditional music practitioners, he has pursued an unconventional career path by avidly doing collaborative work with art forms in various genres not limited to music. Backstage at his NY performance at the Highline Ballroom, Mr. Togi chatted with Chopsticks NY and revealed how he has naturally established his career.
Would you describe gagaku for Chopsticks NY readers who might not be familiar with it?
Gagaku is a type of music that came to Japan 1400 years ago from mainland China. It was used at Japanese temples and shrines as part of ceremonies. During the Heian Period (794-1185), it became a kind of music for the aristocracy to enjoy, not as a part of rituals but just for itself. However, because this was for the upper class, it only reached a limited audience. In ceremonies gagaku was used as an offering for the gods, so it couldn’t undergo very much alteration. Because of this, it was protected in its original form and survived over all these years.
Gagaku is not only a performance, but it also heavily incorporates the cosmic views, philosophies and onmyoudou (occult divination system based on the Taoist theory of the five elements) of people from long ago. It’s music that’s about feeling it with your body. I think the remarkable thing about ancient court music is that it goes beyond the melody to create an aggregate of sounds which you feel at the end.
How did you make the transition to gagaku from first listening to other musical genres like jazz and rock?
Most gagaku practitioners begin when they are very young, but from kindergarten I liked the Beatles. I didn’t start playing gagaku until I was 19, which was late. Up until that point I had been obsessed with rock and jazz, with no desire to play gagaku. But I was proud of my family tradition and also had lived abroad when I was young, so I was able to see Japan with the eyes of an objective observer. I came to think that the most important thing for Japanese to do was to preserve their culture. I think that treasuring your own culture while interacting with foreigners is the true definition of someone “international”.
Now you are involved in collaborations with many other types of music, but are there ones which go particularly well with gagaku?
Japanese non-musicians often say that pairing gagaku with other traditional Japanese music will create something with Japanese originality and power, but the truth is it doesn’t usually work. I personally believe that gagaku and Western music make the best combination. I sensed that gagaku would go well with the pop, jazz and rock that I had grown up listening to. My music blends East and West and old and new, but these were not intentional pairings; they just turned out this way. They weren’t forced or strived for, and I think that’s why they’re easily conveyed to others.
Can you tell us about the new album you are releasing in the U.S.?
Essentially it’s a remake of my old hits, arranging Western melodies while using gagaku instruments accompanied by a band, classical orchestra or just piano. All of the songs have a Western taste put together with gagaku. There are some fusion band songs, magnificent classical numbers and wistful piano pieces. I’d say these three forms make up my “royal road”. Because the album was being released in America, I tried to use songs that anyone in the world would already know and added a new flair to them, and I also put in one new song.
You’ve performed at several world heritage sites. What kind of an experience is this?
Whether in a school classroom or a concert hall holding thousands of people or on a street corner, for me the feeling of musical expression is the same. Whether the audience is 2 people or 20,000, I want to maximize their enjoyment. But what comes before that is enjoying my own performance and songs, and this is the same regardless of the external conditions. The one thing I can say about being at these sites is that you have the physical location, but when you add the performance you create an additional intangible asset. This makes me realize how amazing human history is, and for that reason I make doing annual world heritage site concerts a priority.
In addition to music, you have acted in and directed movies, but what do you see as your path going forward?
Even though gagaku is Japanese music, many Japanese don’t know about it, so as a musician I would like to share it with the young. I could appeal to them by doing things like playing their favorite anime songs on traditional instruments. I’m often asked what my future goals are, but I don’t set any. Nor do I ever feel, “This is what I want to do next.” Instead I value what I have in front of me, and in the process of doing so there is always a new discovery. I like not knowing whether my future path is going to turn to the left or the right, to have that room to wander.
It sounds like this excitement is what drives you.
My nature is to enjoy myself and make sure others are having fun, to always have a feeling of excitement (waku waku). I hate the idea of putting forth effort, and I remain in good health although I never visit the gym. I eat what I want when I want without restrictions and sometimes I am in recording for two days straight without eating anything, so you could say I am not conscientious about maintaining my health. My one guiding principle is that if something looks interesting, I go for it. I always have some kind of thought spinning in my head, and I am never sitting still. When I was 25 they discovered cancer in my knee, and told me I only had a year left to live. I thought if that was the case I wanted to enjoy my remaining time, and I refused treatment. Yet in time my cancer healed itself, so I joke that I have “excitement cells” (waku waku saibo) that helped me overcome it.
Do you have any advice for Chopsticks NY readers visiting Japan?
When I travel abroad, I like to get as close to the locals as possible. I have no interest in what is listed in guidebooks, as those places have been designed for tourists. Instead I go to where regular people lead their daily lives, and listen to what they are discussing and see what they are eating. In Japan, this would be an izakaya frequented by only Japanese clientele.
———- Interview by Noriko Komura,
Written by Stacy Smith
Hideki Togi bio
Hideki Togi is part of a family with a tradition of gagaku (ancient Japanese court music) that can be traced back 1300 years to the Nara Period (710-794). Due to his father’s job, Togi spent his childhood abroad and grew up surrounded by various kinds of music including rock, classical and jazz. After graduating from high school, he joined the music department of the Imperial Household Agency. There he gained experience with instruments such as the hichiriki, biwa, tsutsumi and cello, in addition to singing and dancing. Currently Togi passionately creates his own music by combining the natural flavor of gagaku with piano and synthesizers. He plays an important role in promoting international friendship by introducing traditional Japanese culture at home and abroad.
Hideki Togi Career Milestones/Timeline
1977 After graduating high school, he joined the music department of the Imperial Household Agency and started playing gagaku
1996 His first album ‘Togi Hideki’ was released
2000 The album TOGISM2 received a Japan Record Award for best project.
2002 Composed music for Yukio Ninagawa’s Oedipus the King
2003 Performed at the World Heritage site, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in collaboration with the Tendai Shomyo temple monks and the local monks.
2005 Teamed up with a young Chinese musician and released an album under the name of TOGI+BAO.
2007 Played the Komei Emperor in NHK epic drama series, Atsuhime.
2012 For the 15th anniversary of his debut, he released TOGI in both Japan and the U.S.
Hideki Togi’s new album, TOGI, is available online.