YAMAGUTI OSAMU : Proposal for a Tripartite Theory (Transformation/ Transcontextualization/ Transposition) and Its Application to the Empowerment of an East Asian Court Music Network with Emphasis on the Vietnamese Case

Proposal for a Tripartite Theory
(Transformation/ Transcontextualization/ Transposition)
and Its Application to the Empowerment of an East Asian Court Music Network
with Emphasis on the Vietnamese Case

Yamaguti Osamu
Professor of Musicology
Graduate School of Letters, Osaka University
Osaka, Japan

Music in Context and in Transcontextualization

The term “text » is understood, as its Latin etymology indicates, as something that is intentionally « woven » by humans. Often used in music to refer only to the words of a song, the term can also be used in a broader sense to imply the whole spectrum of a particular kind of music, i.e., a body of sonic phenomena produced by humans on the basis of a certain way of thinking. The term « context” also originally referred to woven objects. Paired dichotomously with « text,” however, the term refers to the situation that surrounds and sustains the existence of the text: for example, the human body, musical instruments, time and place of performance, occasion and function of music, socio-cultural background of performing arts, etc.

As a part of my own newly proposed « applicative musicology, » I have based theoretical speculations on a new concept and term: « transcontextualisation. » I coined this term in 1994 when, for the first time in my life, I became involved in a series of projects dealing with Vietnamese musics. I intended the term to cover a wide range of contextual changes of musical text. These changes may range from the simple repetition of a performance of a musical composition in the same place for the same purpose but at a different time, to complicated transformations of performances done at different times at different places and for different purposes. It is presumed here that music texts change through transmission and diffusion in accordance with the degree of transcontextualisation applied to the original.

East Asian Court and Ex-Court Musics As a Network

One of the most ritualistic East Asian court-music traditions is known in Chinese as yayue (« elegant music »), though it should be noted that the exact constitution of the term varies from country to country and from one historical period to another. The term and the music were transplanted to Korea as aak, to Japan as gagaku, and to Vietnam as nha nhac. This form of music is one of the commonalties found in the East Asian court traditions that link China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam in a complex historical network. As noted, usage of the term varies in different countries and in different historical periods, a fact for future study and comparison. It must also be remembered that in each country there are many varieties of music besides « elegant music, » and that in China yayue is extinct as a tradition.

Transformation of Music in the Context of Its Transmission

The essential parts, if not all, of a piece of music are transformed in direct and indirect performance contexts. For example: 1) cheironomic body movements of a performer often represent basic melodic configurations, dynamic and/or agogic stability, and changes therefrom; 2) « mouth music » or lexically meaningless syllables used as imitative descriptions of melodic or rhythmic phrases often function as mnemonic devices during the teaching/learning process; 3) written notation can be a prescriptive or a descriptive means of recording a particular performance, before or after the performance, respectively (see Seeger 1958); and 4) recording a performance on tape or disc has become increasingly important in the course of the twentieth century. These transformations occur whether they are intended or not and should be fully considered whenever we deal with strategies for safeguarding musical traditions (Yamaguti 1986).

The Case of Vietnam

In March 1994, Tokumaru Yosihiko and I were asked to attend and make concrete proposals to two international conferences sponsored by the Vietnamese government and UNESCO on the subject of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. We immediately accepted the invitation because we shared memories of our efforts some twenty years before to invite a group of Vietnamese musicians and scholars to Japan. The project, sponsored by the Japan Foundation and called ATPA (Asian Traditional Performing Arts), had ended in failure, at least with respect to Vietnamese participation, and had to deal with various Asian musics for fifteen years without a Vietnamese perspective. We had hoped to better understand Vietnamese court music, the history and current status of which was not as well known as the court musics of Japan or Korea. In the mid-1970s, with the after-effects of the Vietnam War still strongly felt, we had been worried that court music would not survive long enough to be handed down to another generation.

The conferences we attended were held in Hanoi and Hue. In Hanoi, where the main theme was the fifty-three ethnic minority groups of the country, we proposed the « Performing Arts as AV Documentary Training Program. » (Incidentally, this project started its feasibility studies in April 1999, five years after our original proposal, and was integrated into a new project called RVMV [Research and Video Documentation Project of Minorities’ Intangible Cultural Heritage of Vietnam] in April 2000. As head of this new project, which is to undertake its first stage in bilateral cooperation between Vietnam and Japan, I feel it may take another five years before we can see significant results!)

In Hue we presented a proposal called « the Vietnamese Court Music Revitalization Plan. » Our objective was to revitalize the traditions of ex-court musics such as nha nhac, dai nhac (« large music »), and tieu nhac (« small music »), which had barely managed to survive in Hue. Others who attended the conference, including Tran Van Khe (professor emeritus, University of Paris) and Jose Maceda (professor emeritus, University of the Philippines), voiced their support and pledged their cooperation. The two proposals were immediately approved by UNESCO; details regarding implementation and funding were to be worked out later in Japan.

              As it happened, a Vietnamese music and dance troupe had been invited to appear at the Tenth Tokyo Summer Music Festival that year, so while in Hue, Tran arranged to meet with them. The troupe tended to present programs designed for general audiences that featured not only imperial court music and dance but also popular folk songs and musical dramas. Not always regarded as a legitimate court music group, they frequently played court music on non-court-music instruments such as the dan bau (monochord zither). Of course, altering the forms of old music to make it new does not always call for criticism. Nevertheless, in view of the current state of Vietnamese court music, both Tran and I shared the opinion that, even if only for the present, a little criticism was necessary. Tran extended his stay in the country and communicated this opinion to them directly. The members of the troupe took our criticism relatively well: the opportunity to visit Japan was a great incentive, and the fact that foreigners had a strong interest in their ex-court music was useful in raising their own awareness of the need to preserve the tradition.

In addition to this troupe, there were, in fact, other ex-court musicians who gave more authentic performances. In particular, four elderly musicians with their sons and close friends and relatives performed at the opening ceremony of the UNESCO conference. This performance struck me as an appeal: if only they had the opportunity to polish theirs skills, they could return their tradition to its original form.

I suggested a plan that used Korea as a model. In the 1910s, alter the downfall of the Yi dynasty, Korean court music had been on the verge of dying out; today it is preserved as « national music » at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (NCKTPA). Court musicians from Hanyang (present-day Seoul) and Tokyo collaborated, and, thanks to the efforts of the musicologist Tanabe Hisao and Korean scholars, Korean court music survived. Even now, the tradition plays a large part in international exchange through both performance and research. It was my feeling that the destiny of Vietnamese court music lay in following a similar path.

We immediately made efforts to implement the Vietnamese Court Music Revitalization Plan. With a research grant from the Toyota Foundation, we were able to start the plan (with Tokumaru as head). We began with basic research projects, such as scholarly documentation of the present state of the tradition, the collection of related documents (many of which were scattered or lost), and historical research.

The research group, consisting of musicologists and specialists in Vietnamese studies, made its first field survey of Vietnam in April 1995 with a grant offered by the Toyota Foundation. Maintaining discreet contact with the Japanese Embassy in Hanoi, we began to plan new ways of developing the project. My idea was to establish a court music course at the College of Arts, Hue University, thus creating a situation similar to that in Seoul. We thought it best to proceed immediately with the education of court musicians at the college level, since the surviving elderly court musicians were getting no younger.

We asked for advice from the Japan Foundation Asia Center and began to help the university apply for financial assistance for the project. After many ups and downs the request was approved in November 1995. It took the Vietnamese Ministry of Education until January 1996 to approve the establishment of a new department. In March, we were told that we would have to wait until September, the beginning of the new academic year. Thinking that it would be a shame to lose the funding we had already received for the first year, I proposed that preparatory activities begin in April, before the official start of the project. At the unofficial inauguration ceremony in April, a performance was given by students who expected to enter the university as court-music majors and who had already begun their training with the elderly musicians.

In the meantime, I noticed that ex-court-music education was taking place below the university level at high schools. High school students and their teachers were invited to Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, where a series of exchange programs with young Japanese musicians had been instituted.

The official opening ceremony for the new university course took place in early October 1996. By then we were planning two other activities. First, a Korean student of mine, Kim Youngbong, who was familiar with both Korean and Japanese styles of court music, was dispatched to Hue under the sponsorship of the Japan Foundation Asia Center to undertake intensive field research with elderly musicians while they were still active. This idea was initially proposed by Tran Van Khe. After six months of field research, she completed her dissertation (Kim 1998). Prior to this, her Chinese -mate, Zhao Weiping, completed a musico-philological dissertation dealing with the early history of court musics in Japan and Vietnam (Zhao 1997).

The second new activity for the Vietnamese Court Music Revitalization Plan was the planning of an international symposium on East Asian court-music traditions with the involvement of China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan — the first of its kind in the long history of the East Asian court-music traditions. It was a pleasant surprise that NCKTPA responded to my appeal so quickly that the symposium took place in May 1997 in Seoul (NCKTPA 1997).

(In June 2000, the Nha Nhac Course at the College of Arts, Hue University, produced eleven graduates, who had mastered the basic performance techniques of the Vietnamese court music repertoire as well as acquired scholarly perspective of the music style as placed in the East Asian network. They have already been employed as professional musicians belonging to the Royal Theatre, which is soon to be reconstructed as part of the historical conservation activities in line with an emerging cultural tourism.)


Kim, Youngbong. 1998. Transmission and Change in the Music Culture of Central Vietnam: Focussing on Court Music (in Japanese: with summary in English). Dissertation (Doctor of Literature), Osaka University.

NCKTPA. 1997. The 2nd International Council for Asian Music: Aak, Gagaiw, Nha Nhac. Seoul: NCKTPA (National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts).

Performing Arts Kenkyûkai, ed. 1996. Young People Carrying Forward Asian Performing Arts: Vietnam and Japan. Kobe: Performing Arts Foundation.

Seeger, Charles. 1958. Prescriptive and Descriptive Music Writing. Musical Quarterly 44(2):184-95.

Yamaguti, Osamu. 1986. Music and Its Transformations in Direct and Indirect Contexts. In Tokumaru and Yamaguti pp. 29-37.

Tokumaru, Yosihiko, and Yamaguti, Osamu, eds. 1986. The Oral and the Literate in Music. Tokyo: Academia Music Ltd.

Zhao, Weiping. 1997. The Reception and Transculturation of Chinese Music in East Asia: with an Emphasis on the Early Histories of Court Music in Japan and Vietnam (in Japanese: with summary in English) Dissertation (Doctor of Literature), Osaka University.


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