Festival of Asian Music kicks of with roundtable discussion – The Michigan Daily

Singing and a shamisen could be heard throughout the Watkins Lecture Hall Saturday evening as about 40 University of Michigan students and faculty gathered for a roundtable discussion to this year’s Festival of Asian Music. The event, hosted by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the U-M International Institute, was free and open to the public.

Chinese literature professor David Rolston co-hosted the roundtable with Joseph Gascho, director of Stearns Collection. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Rolston said he reached out to U-M community members studying Asian music before the event to ensure the roundtable would uplift their work and scholarship. 

 “One of the things I did early on was trying to create a database of everybody in the community who works on Asian music and picked (who would present),” Rolston said. 

Rolston said the festival grew from many events naturally aligning in the academic year. 

Rolston opened the roundtable with a small lecture on the spread of Asian culture and religion before passing the floor to the panelists. The first panelist was Keisuke Yamada, a U-M Japanese studies research fellow, who spoke on the shamisen, a Japanese three-stringed instrument. Yamada said while the materials used to make shamisen used to be sourced exclusively in Japan, all shamisen materials apart from its strings are sourced globally now due to new legislation.

“In Japan, there is a huge history of the implementation of animal protection laws in the latter half of the 20th century,” Yamada said. “This may sometimes make it difficult to create their own shamisens, meaning they depend on other countries.” 

The second presenter was Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Sunhong Kim, who presented on the Korean instrument taepyeongso, a double-reed instrument, and Daechwita, a genre of music traditionally used for the processions of kings and princesses.

“The dramatic and almost shrieking sound of Daechwita was used to draw attention to the presence of important figures,” Kim said. “Daecwhita represents the immense admiration and recognition to who it is performed for.” 

Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Conner Vanderbeek then presented about Sikh music, specifically Kirtan, and a form of it known as Gurmat Sangeet. In his presentation, Vanderbeek said the practice of traditional Gurmat Sangeet is being threatened by mass recordings of Kirtan. 

“The problem of the erasure of the Gurmat Sangeet was exacerbated by the ready availability of very mass-marketed recordings, which further strengthened the grip of the banal form of Kirtan, even to the detriment of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition,” Vanderbeek said. 

Trent Walker, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies, spoke about Buddhist chants in Southeast Asia. Rather than using slides, he performed  Buddhist chanting for the table. The final presenter, music composition professor Bright Sheng, spoke about composition in Asian music. Sheng said it is almost impossible for music not to be influenced by other cultures and perspectives. 

“So what is Asian music technically?” Sheng said. “Is all music played in Asia ‘Asian music?’ There’s no such thing. There’s all kinds of music at play, including Western music, so tradition is only in this sense of the people … but I don’t think (tradition in) music itself is very much preserved.” 

In an interview with The Daily, Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Austin Nordhaus said he was excited to hear Yamada’s presentation because of his interest in Japanese music. 

“Even though the shamisen is not an instrument that I play or am very well-accustomed to, I wanted to learn more about it and I want to ask him some questions about traditional Japanese music,” Nordhaus said. 

After seeing the variety of Asian instruments showcased at the roundtable, Nordhaus said he felt inspired to join student music groups led by Asian instruments.

Carol Stepanchuk, outreach coordinator for the International Institute, told The Daily she felt inspired by the level of audience engagement at the roundtable and hopes to see similar events in the future. Stephanchuk said she’s looking forward to the next roundtable, which will take place in December. 

“I actually wanted to ask the performers and our scholars just something purely subjective,” Stepanchuk said. “When they as musicians listen (to music), what are the things that inspire them now … and what are the distractions that they see, too?”

As for the rest of the Festival of Asian Music, Stepanchuk said she hopes people will go to as many events as possible.

“I hope people look at the range of events and how rich this really is,” Stepanchuk said. “(I hope they) try to go to as much as (they can).”

Daily Staff Reporter Ji Hoon Choi can be reached at jicho@umich.edu

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