Sound Storing Machines – The First 78rpm Records from Japan, 1903 – 1912: early recorded Japanese music still sounding fresh after over 100 years

Various Artists, Sound Storing Machines – The First 78rpm Records from Japan, 1903 – 1912, United States, Sublime Frequencies, SF115 limited edition vinyl LP (2021)

Collected and compiled by sound artist Robert Millis (Climax Golden Twins) in various trips to Japan over the years, these early recordings include the first commercial recordings made of Asian music by Fred Gaisberg in 1903. Gaisberg (1873 – 1951) was a US musician, recording engineer and producer who travelled the world collecting and recording music for The Gramophone Company (later His Master’s Voice) in London. He and his team must have been quite diligent for in one month in 1903, Gaisberg collected over 270 titles of Japanese music. The recordings that appear on this compilation cover a nine-year period from 1903 to 1912, up to the time that a local recording industry appeared in Japan, and include bootleg recordings.

After surviving several wars, fire, earthquake and various other calamities, the recordings are surprisingly clear and actually sound very fresh and energetic in spite of the expected sizzle (much more muted than I would have thought) in the background. The energy and enthusiasm are apparent right from the start in a duet of shamisen (a guitar-like instrument) and what seems to be a wooden xylophone instrument. The instruments tend to be quite loud in contrast to the singing (sometimes barely audible) and some of the percussion instruments have a downright alien quality in playing tunes that appear at once experimental and at the same time very steeped in tradition. The music featured on the compilation range from gagaku (a formal orchestral style performed mainly in imperial court settings and associated with Japan’s upper classes) to solo instrumental music, some of it improvised and often sounding surprisingly contemporary, and folk songs. Singers themselves may be gagaku performers who had many years of training and experience to people off the street whose singing careers began and ended with Gaisberg’s recordings. The final piece on the album is a stunning work of rich shrill drone that sounds as if it could have been recorded more recently.

Perhaps because I have heard much traditional Japanese music over the years, the music on this LP does not seem at all alien or strange. The impressive thing about the music, apart from the quality of sound that still holds up after decades of misadventure, is its liveliness. Individual instruments have a sprightly quality while being played and some musicians seem to want to overplay their instruments and see how much they can stand before strings or fretboards break. One particular female singer appearing halfway on the album warbles enthusiastically, going up and down the scale, and frequently breaking into laughter at her own virtuosic efforts. Likewise one male singer near the end demonstrates a wide vocal range and enthusiasm aplenty while often breaking off to gabble or explain what he is doing before launching unexpectedly into another stupendous flight of song.

To his credit, when he made the original recordings, Gaisberg appeared not to have tried to influence the Japanese performers while they were playing their pieces and the music here sounds distinctively Japanese. Likewise Millis leaves the recordings as they are – this sometimes means there are long pauses between tracks or in the middle of tracks – and this helps the music retain a fresh and often raw quality. The result is a recording whose historical value is priceless as a snapshot of the range of contemporary Japanese music that existed at the dawn of the 20th century.

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