Sankyoku Gasso (三曲合奏)

"Sankyoku gasso" means the ensemble made up of "sankyoku" (instrumental trio); originally, the trio was "shamisen" (also called "sangen," the three-string Japanese banjo) for accompanying "Jiuta" (songs of the country), "koto" (the long Japanese zither with thirteen strings) and "kokyu" (the Chinese fiddle), but it also means the ensemble music itself.
In the past, sankyoku gassou was also called 'sankyoku awase.'
Later, "shakuhachi" (the bamboo flute) participated in the ensemble, and thereafter the instrumental trio was mostly shamisen, koto and shakuhachi.

The term 'Sankyoku' today doesn't mean 'three tunes;' in literal Japanese, "san" means "three" and "kyoku" means "tune." This sankyoku must have been the name used in contrast with ¥'heikyoku' (the music of "heike biwa" (the Japanese lute for playing the Tale of Heike)), in which the musicians of Todo-za (the traditional guild for the blind) originally engaged as a profession. In other words, they must have begun using the name sankyoku to distinguish heikyoku from their new, professionally engaged three instruments (shamisen (mainly for Jiuta), koto and kokyu) and their tunes (Jiuta, Sokyoku (koto music) and Kokyu-gaku (kokyu music)). However, the usage of the name wasn't strict, and the ensemble of koto, kokyu and shakuhachi was also called 'sankyoku' in a record from the late 18th century. In fact, shakuhachi participated in the ensemble from the end of the Edo period, so sankyoku today can be thought of as the general term for Jiuta, Sokyoku, Kokyu-gaku and Shakuhachi-gaku (shakuhachi music), which becomes the name of an inseparable genre in Japanese music.
What we call sankyoku gassou today is the ensemble made up of the three kinds of instruments out of the above-mentioned four, but it isn't clear which concept came first, 'sankyoku gasso' or 'sankyoku.'
At least, it can be said that the meaning of 'sankyoku gasso' is not 'tunes' played with 'three' kinds of instruments but the ensemble with three kinds of instruments. In sankyoku, however, not every tune is performed in the style of sankyoku gasso. If there is a Japanese music club at a college, in most cases the club activities are the performances of the sankyoku instruments; there are two types of clubs, and one is mainly about the traditional tunes while another is about the contemporary ones. Besides, in 'sankyoku manzai' (a comic dialogue accompanied by sankyoku), the instruments used are shamisen, kokyu and tsuzumi (hand drum).

The range of sankyoku gasso
Of all the tunes of 'sankyoku,' those performed in the style of sankyoku gasso are mostly the music of Jiuta (except for Kumiuta (assembled songs) accompanied by the shamisen). Additionally, the koto music (e.g. Danmono (leveled pieces), Yamada school's Utamono (accompanied singing in which the singing is emphasized over the instrumental part), and Yamada school's Danmono) and, in rare cases, kokyu honkyoku (kokyu pieces composed in the early days), such as 'Okayasu-ginuta' (a piece for koto composed by Kosaburo OKAYASU but originally a kokyu piece), are also performed in sankyoku gasso. Of course, sankyoku gasso is performed within 'sankyoku;' therefore, when shamisen is performed for the music other than Jiuta, the music is rarely performed in sankyoku gasso. In Nagauta (ballads sung to shamisen accompaniment), there are certainly tunes whose titles include sankyoku, such as "Sankyoku Ito no Shirabe" (The Melody of Sankyoku Strings) and "Sankyoku Sho-chiku-bai" (literally, Sankyoku Made Up of Pine, Bamboo and Plum Blossom), but the sankyoku embedded in their titles indicates not sankyoku gasso but the three kinds of instruments themselves. Consequently, sankyoku gasso is not performed in regard to these tunes. The Jiuta music 'Mitsu-renbo' (a tune expressing love for the instruments themselves, meaning the shamisen, koto and kokyu) has the same idea as the above-mentioned Nagauta, but since this tune is for Jiuta, it's performed in sankyoku gasso. Of all the pieces of Sokyoku (koto music), both of Tsukushi-goto (the refined and elegant Sokyoku composed during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, which became the origin of Sokyoku in the early modern age) and the Yatsuhashi school of Sokyoku perform the music before sankyoku gasso, so they aren't to be played with other instruments.

In most Jiuta tunes, the parts for koto and kokyu were later added to the original shamisen part. The added parts often differ from school to school. The common instrumental trio was sangen (shamisen), koto and kokyu, but occasionally it was koto, kokyu and shakuhachi. Later in the Edo period, shakuhachi began to participate in sankyoku gasso instead of kokyu, and from the first year of the Meiji period, when the governmental protection of "komuso" (a mendicant Zen priest of the Fuke sect) was ended, shakuhachi performers actively entered the world of sankyoku gasso, and therefore shakuhachi predominates over kokyu in sankyoku gasso today. However, kokyu's participation in sankyoku gasso is still seen nationwide, such as the relatively active one in Nagoya, and sometimes the participation of the Fujiue school's kokyu music in the Yamada school's koto music is seen. If a tune has its song, the performers of shamisen and koto sing the song while plucking their instruments.

The musical characteristics of sankyoku gasso
Sankyoku gasso is sometimes likened to a human body, such as the bone for shamisen, the flesh for koto, and the skin for kokyu and shakuhachi. Generally, kokyu and shakuhachi are interchangeable with each other, because both of them similarly serve as instruments to make continuous sounds. Therefore, the common instrumental trio is either shamisen, koto and kokyu or shamisen, koto and shakuhachi. The trio of koto, kokyu and shakuhachi is also possible, though it isn't common. In some tunes, all instruments are performed nearly in unison; This is better in most cases, if the instruments accompany a song, and in other tunes the different melodies of the instruments are interwoven when the tune has an instrumental flavor, especially when the tune is an ensemble of shamisen and koto. This sankyoku gasso can be called a very scrupulously made ensemble, and along with other music, such as the wind and string music of Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music), or Gamelan (Indonesian music), it's typical heterophony, being different from the polyphony of Western music. Even when one and the same jiuta is sung, its accompaniment melody of koto, kokyu and shakuhachi often varies from school to school, and the performance style varies from school to school, ranging from a unison-like ensemble to polyphonic one. In the case of Western music, each part of a string quartet is linked tightly with another one in a polyphonic melody, so no single part is ever movable or dispensable. Contrastingly, in the case of sankyoku gasso some parts are added to a tune that is originally a solo, so the music is somewhat fluid, heterophonic and ornamental, and in its orchestration it's as flexible as baroque music. Therefore, despite the number "three" being embedded in the name "sankyoku," various kinds of performances are possible, such as an ensemble of just shamisen and shakuhachi, an ensemble of just koto and kokyu, an ensemble of just shamisen and koto, an ensemble of just the leading shamisen and the second shamisen, a solo performance or even an ensemble of four instruments; however, these performances aren't called sankyoku gasso. It's fairly common for sankyoku gasso to be joined by the second and third koto or by the second and third shamisen, which means the ensemble consists of at least four parts. Each ensemble has fun of its own, and each school of the music adds a different melody part to the original tune, so that one can enjoy various styles of ensembles for even a single tune. Such flexibility is characteristic of sankyoku gasso. However, as the Edo period drew to a close, each part of a tune became closely linked with another, and this was particularly true when Mitsuzaki Kengyo, Ikuyama Kengyo and Yoshizawa Kengyo (being the highest rank of Todo-za) were active, because in most cases they would create two or three parts for their own pieces. As the modern age approached, Michio MIYAGI completely fixed all the parts in his tunes, and into them he introduced the Western concept of polyphony. In this way, of all kinds of traditional Japanese music, sankyoku gasso came to occupy an important position as ensemble music, and it was able to catch up with Western music in and after the Meiji period sooner than any other music in Japan. Sankyoku gasso developed in such a polyphonic way probably because there was much development in instrumental works, such as Jiuta's "tegotomono" (pieces with long instrumental interludes called "tegoto"), koto music's "danmono" (leveled pieces) and kokyu music's "honkyoku" (pieces composed in the early days). However, in the Yamada school of koto music, which is completely based on vocal music, all the instruments of sankyoku gasso are performed nearly in unison.

The origin of sankyoku gasso
Ensembles of three types of instruments (shamisen, koto and kokyu) began to be played, because all these instruments were originally played by the blind musicians who belonged to Todo-za, the traditional guild for the blind. However, each instrument established and kept music of its own, Jiuta for shamisen, Sokyoku for koto, and Kokyu-gaku for kokyu, although their performers overlapped with one another. Therefore, in the early Edo period ensembles of the different kinds of instruments were rarely conducted in the world of art music. Even today, the tunes composed in the early days, called "honkyoku" or "honte-gumi," are generally played solo. Of these tunes, however, the 'Danmono' (leveled pieces) of Sokyoku (koto music) began to be played in sankyoku gasso in later years.

The reasons that so many tunes of Jiuta are found in sankyoku gasso are explained as follows:
Of the music of sankyoku (instrumental trio), Sokyoku became stagnant in Kamigata (the area of Kyoto and Osaka) in the middle of the Edo period, so they simply performed tunes composed earlier and rarely performed new ones. Meanwhile, shamisen music continued to develop and new styles were introduced one after another, so it took the lead among Japanese musical instruments until the later Edo period. In this way, from the middle of the Edo period, large numbers of Jiuta accompanied by shamisen were composed, one after another. Moreover, Sokyoku developed until around Tenpo era, mainly by jumping on the shamisen bandwagon or, in other words, by participating in Jiuta. Kokyu music also prospered in the middle of the Edo period, so it produced its own schools and new pieces. Occasionally, kokyu music, which was influenced mainly by the music of the shakuhachi and other Japanese flutes, further influenced the music of the shamisen (Jiuta), but from the later Edo period kokyu music also had a tendency to participate in Jiuta. Incidentally, shakuhachi music also prospered in the middle of the Edo period, but neither the shamisen nor the koto participated in shakuhachi music because the shakuhachi wasn't an instrument performed by those in the Todo-za. When sankyoku gasso was orchestrated, ultimately it was the side of the shakuhachi that participated in Jiuta and Sokyoku.

Some pictures and other historical materials show us that various ensembles of popular tunes were performed in the early Edo period, but few have been handed down to the present day.

Participation of the koto in shamisen music
A theory asserts that the genuine ensemble of koto and shamisen in the world of art music was started by Ikuta Kengyo in the Genroku era, though some disagree with that theory, when he began to add the part of koto music to shamisen music (Jiuta). At that time, both these instruments were simply performed in unison-like style, but in or around the Bunka era, Ichiura Kengyo, a resident of Osaka, started to add the melody part of the koto, which was different from that of the shamisen, and this enhanced the effect of the ensemble. This was called 'kaedeshiki' (the accompaniment style), and Yaezaki Kengyo, who lived in Kyoto, further refined the style. It was Mitsuzaki Kengyo (Yaezaki Kengyo's pupil) who began to compose both the shamisen melody part and the koto part.

Meanwhile, in Edo, Yamada Kengyo founded his new Yamada school of Sokyoku in 1777. He introduced not the music style of Jiuta but that of Icchu-bushi or Kato-bushi in "Joruri" (a dramatic narrative chanted to shamisen accompaniment), in which the koto and shamisen played a tune together from the start.

Participation of the kokyu in Jiuta or Sokyoku
The kokyu, having its own music "kokyu honkyoku" (pieces for kokyu composed in the early days), would often participate in the ensemble of Jiuta or Sokyoku from the middle of the Edo period, and this improvised performance also seems to have been in a unison-like style. Occasionally, shamisen or koto would join in kokyu honkyoku, but both of them did so merely as an accompaniment and the ensemble was usually a duet instead of a trio. However, it was important that Jiuta should acquire the instrumental facet of kokyu pieces, such as 'Tsuru no sugomori' (The Cranes Nesting) and 'Yachiyojishi' (Lion of Eight Thousand Generations, from the 16th century), because this became a basic factor in Jiuta's instrumental development. It was Yoshizawa Kengyo (Mitsuzaki Kengyo's junior), a resident of Nagoya, who made the kokyu melody distinctive in the Jiuta (or Sokyoku) ensemble. It was also Yoshizawa Kengyo who composed all three parts of a tune, including the part for kokyu, all by himself for the first time in history, and thereafter many musicians came to compose two or three parts by themselves.

In Edo, the Fujiue school of kokyu music was founded by Fujiue Kengyo around the middle of the 18th century, and when the Yamada school of koto music was founded by Yamada Kengyo, Fujiue's kokyu music participated in Yamada's koto music and they began to play tunes together. Also, the Shoo school of kokyu music, which was introduced from Owari Province, has been handed down to us in an exclusively specialized form of the ensemble with the Yamada school of koto music.

Participation of the shakuhachi in music for other instruments
Originally, the shakuhachi was exclusively owned by "komuso" (a mendicant Zen priest of the Fuke sect), and its performance was deemed part of religious activities instead of entertainment, but in the middle of the Edo period Kinko KUROSAWA changed it from an instrument for religious music to one for secular music. Though it seemed the ensemble of shakuhachi and other instruments was officially prohibited by law, a picture in those days shows us that in fact the shakuhachi was already participating in sankyoku gasso at the end of the 18th century. However, the genuine participation of the shakuhachi in sankyoku began in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate in Osaka. This kind of participation was particularly accelerated when shakuhachi performers actively entered the sankyoku world for their workplace after losing their occupations as komuso, owing to the government's abolition of the Fuke sect in the Meiji period. The shakuhachi parts of some tunes, having been added by a school descendent of Kinko KUROSAWA, still exist today, and the part was arranged by the school musicians, including Iccho YOSHIDA and Kodo ARAKI, in the very early Meiji period. After that, Tozan NAKAO, the founder of the Tozan school of shakuhachi music, added a more elaborate arrangement to the shakuhachi melody, and other schools of shakuhachi, such as the Chikuho school, Ueda school and Seien school, added arrangements of their own. It was Michio MIYAGI who composed not only the koto part but also the shakuhachi part of a tune for the first time in history, and he introduced the ensemble method of Western music into his tunes.