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USC College Hosts Prominent Japanese Ethnomusicologist and Biwa Performer

USC College Hosts Prominent Japanese Ethnomusicologist and Biwa Performer

By Kaitlin Solimine
September 2004

Music on one of Japan’s oldest instruments — the biwa, a type of lute — will be played and discussed at USC College Sept. 23 & 24 by a preeminent Japanese musicologist and an Irish biwa performer.

Haruko Komoda, a preeminent ethnomusicologist specializing in traditional Japanese music, and Charlie Marshall, an Irish biwa performer who is also known as Thomas Ranjo, will present two lecture-demonstrations on the biwa in collaboration with the USC College Project for Premodern Japan Studies.

The lecture-demonstration series begins on Sept. 23 at 6:45pm in the East Asia (Stoops) Library. The second lecture will take place at 3pm on Sept. 24 in the Senior Commons Room of International Residential College at Parkside. The events are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Professor Joan Piggott at (213) 821-5872.

The lecture-demonstrations will discuss the history of the biwa, a short-necked lute, which is one of the oldest Japanese instruments, said to have been brought to Japan via the Silk Road in the 7th century. It originally was used in court music; later, in the medieval period, itinerant storytelling blind priests used it to accompany their chants of Buddhist sutras. From the thirteenth century onwards, the biwa was also used to perform librettos comprising the Tale of Heike, an epic masterpiece of classical Japanese literature.

Since the biwa had a wide range of performance modes, scholars from diverse disciplines are interested in its history.

“This event will bring together USC and Southern California scholars interested in history, art history, literature, and music, and we expect interest from members of L.A.’s East Asian communities as well,” says USC College History Professor Joan Piggott. Piggott, who directs the College’s Project for Premodern Japan Studies, worked with Columbia University’s Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies to bring the pair to USC. Also sponsoring the event are the USC East Asia Studies Center; the departments of History, East Asian Languages and Cultures; the Southern California Japan Seminar, and the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.

In her first lecture, Komoda will discuss three types of biwa and their historical development, followed by a performance of their various repertoires by Marshall. He is an Irish musicologist originally trained as an organist but now well known as a biwa player. Komoda’s second lecture will discuss “The History of Blind Musicians in Japan,” focusing on “biwa monks” who have performed music from the Tale of the Heike corpus into modern times. Marshall will join in to demonstrate their musical artistry.

“It is really interesting to see an Irishman playing a traditional Japanese instrument,” says Piggott, holder of the Gordon L. MacDonald Chair in History.

Established in 2003, the Project for Premodern Japan Studies coordinates a vibrant program of classes, speakers, workshops and conferences to educate the community about premodern Japan. The project is also leading the ongoing campaign to expand the Japan collection in the East Asia Library.