Frank J. Oteri: I read somewhere that when you were a little girl you were obsessed with playing the piano.
Lois V Vierk: When I was four years old, my mother somehow got hold of the next door neighbor’s piano. They were moving, and all of a sudden this pink upright was available for us. So my father, my uncle, and a couple other men carried this horribly heavy thing into our dining room. They got it there and then my mom painted it black. I think that that was an improvement. My mom was always interested in playing the piano, basically playing hymns. And, of course, because my mom was doing it, I wanted to do it. So she wrote the names of the notes right on the keys—C, D, E. I think the ivory was off on F, so she had to maybe skip F, and then G. I would just sit at the piano and goof around. I loved it. There were no lessons, nothing like that. But I would just play and make up things. My mom actually kept some early little manuscript books where I had scribbled down lots of notes. I couldn’t even write words very well yet, but it felt good to write notes. Little by little, I did learn to read music, and I would guess around that time my parents enrolled me in the neighborhood dancing school. I was taking lessons in tap dance and ballet. I can’t tell you that those were the best lessons artistically, but it was something active—physical and musical, and it was something that was fun. I went to a Lutheran grade school. Our community was basically the Lutheran church in Lansing, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. And everybody in that church probably looked just like me. We were all German Lutherans, and the really good part of that musically was that we have such a tradition of Bach, of course. And we had a wonderful music teacher—a choir director, an organist—in our school. As a young kid, I was also in the choir singing Bach chorales.
FJO: That’s a far cry from the musical traditions that seem to inform the music of yours that I am familiar with.
LVV: When I ended up studying music at Valparaiso University, which is a Lutheran school, I realized that I wanted to know about music from other places in the world. And that realization came largely through friendships. Some African American people I knew told me, “You understand a certain type of music, but there are lots of other things out there.” And it really made me start thinking. Besides all the Bach and Bruckner that I was exposed to, I was listening to a lot of pop music, soul music, and to Ravi Shankar, who was very popular at that time. The idea of non-Western music was in the air.
So in the middle of my undergraduate college career I transferred to UCLA, because UCLA had a hands-on ethnomusicology department. Not just a place where you would go and study from books, but actually study with master teachers from all over the world. For me it was like being a kid in a candy store: I took classes in music from China, Japan, Ghana, and studied folk dancing from what was called Yugoslavia. I joined a Balinese gamelan. I finally I settled on Japanese gagaku—court music—as what I really wanted to get into in depth, after I’d sampled a lot of things.
FJO: So what was it about gagaku that drew you in?
LVV: With gagaku I started my study not with the music, but with the dance that goes along with it. I took a course in bugaku, Japanese court dance. To my untrained eye, the movements looked and felt like tai chi, very slow movement where you have to involve your whole body, especially your breath, in making the movement correctly. And the music! Oh boy, when I first heard the gagaku music that goes along with bugaku, it just grabbed me. It’s a very loud, powerful, massive sound, and at the same time it’s very elegant and graceful. In fact the word itself, gagaku, means elegant music. So this gorgeous combination of huge, massive, loud sound, and the very graceful shapes of the slides and the melodies—there are lots of slides on these instruments—just got me.
FJO: Gagaku is also really orchestral music—it’s a mixed ensemble with many different kinds of instruments. It also has a repertoire that goes back hundreds of years, even longer than the western-European orchestra of classical music. In fact, it’s codified to the point that creating new music within that tradition is not a very common occurrence, much less so than the western orchestra we’re always complaining about. I would think that getting a new gagaku piece played is probably even harder than getting a new orchestra piece done.
LVV: Well, gagaku is the oldest continuous musical tradition in the world. It originated in China and Korea. In Japan’s Nara Period, during the 8th and 9th centuries, the Japanese emperor imported musicians, scholars, writers, and painters from the mainland because Japan looked to China for high culture. From that time to the present day there has been a music department attached to the emperor’s court and this is where gagaku has resided all these centuries. Both of the teachers I studied with—Mr. Suenobu Togi, who taught at UCLA, and Mr. Sukeyasu Shiba who was my teacher for two years in Tokyo—are from the emperor’s court orchestra, where the musical traditions have been passed down from father to son for centuries. They both trace their ancestry back through many generations to the year 800 or 900 A.D. And through most of this time, the idea of the musicians has been to preserve the traditional gagaku, not to make new pieces.
My teacher in Tokyo is a wonderful flutist and also a musicologist in gagaku. He has a perspective that you won’t find in any books, at least in those that are translated into English. Gagaku hasn’t really been the same through all these years. If you compare the earliest recordings you can find with some recent ones, you can hear a difference in the way phrases are played. Perhaps not a huge difference, but truly noticeable. My teacher, being a historian, would research obscure documents and reconstruct pieces from the distant past that have not remained in the repertoire. I believe he’s pretty clear that things have been changing, even though the official word is that nothing changes. Although it’s not entirely true in practice, the value still is to preserve and not change, as opposed to in the West, where the most important thing is the newest thing.
FJO: I’m reminded of the one time I visited Japan and visited temples that claimed to be centuries old but were actually much more recently-built structures. The original temple might have been destroyed because of a fire or something, but it would be rebuilt according to the same specifications and in terms of the way the Japanese think about it—and this is true of the Koreans and Chinese as well—these new structures continue the history of the original.
LVV: The old is revered; that’s the correct way. But something interesting is happening now with gagaku. My teacher, Mr. Shiba, is a composer, too. At one point he retired from the court and formed his own group called Reigakusha. This is the group that was brought to Lincoln Center some years ago. The musicians in this group are not from the court. They’re musicians who play and write Western style new music. Like the court players, many of them play Western instruments and they all read Western notation. This group’s mission is to play old music and brand-new music for gagaku instruments, mostly by Japanese composers.
FJO: And you’ve composed music for gagaku.
LVV: Yes, I’ve written a few pieces, but the main one was for the 1996 Lincoln Center Festival. I was commissioned to work with Reigakusha, so I wrote a 20-minute piece using all of the gagaku instruments. The players did a great job. What they found different was the way I blended instruments, made the instruments work together to make a sound. It was a different kind of idea than what they were used to playing. At least that’s what they told me.
FJO: Different in what way?
LVV: Different in the way the instruments sounded together, or sometimes two or three would be working together to make one sound. It was not the gagaku ideal of having one melody all the time.
FJO: So they were coming sort of more from a heterophonic point of view, and you were really thinking in terms of layers of counterpoint. Is that fair?
LVV: Sometimes there was counterpoint, sometimes there just were instruments blending to make a new timbre. I’ve studied and played so much Western music and I’ve studied and played so much gagaku that I don’t know the real answer to your question. It’s just how I think about sound. It’s a little hard to pull apart.