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Listen to Neo ArchĒ and Go Gaga for Gagaku!

Artwork: Energeia (detail) by Yukako Sorai (2015) (

Old Meets New

In the crucible of the global COVID-19 pandemic, musicians and scholars of Asian religions Fabio Rambelli and Rory Lindsay have created an album with a sound that is profoundly archaic and yet stunningly new. The album is titled Neo Archē, suggesting a new beginning or chapter for the ancient Japanese court music known as gagaku, elements from which meld seamlessly with contemporary, ambient, minimalist, and world music aesthetics and digital technology.

What is Gagaku?

As one of the oldest forms of Japanese music, gagaku (literally “elegant music,” 雅楽) includes orchestral music and dances imported and adapted from Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese traditions dating back as early as the fifth century CE. By the fourteenth century,

gagaku was performed by not only families of professional musicians of the Imperial Music Bureau (gagakuryō), but also by noblemen, merchants, and religious specialists from Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Today, gagaku is officially recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the Gagaku musicians at the Imperial Court in Tokyo are considered the equivalent of living national treasures.

A Unique Sound

Gagaku’s unique sound comes from its long, slow tones, free rhythms, complex sound clusters, and controlled dissonance. A typical gagaku ensemble includes several kinds of wind, string, and percussion instruments. In Neo Archē, you’ll hear the unmistakable, continuous chords of the Japanese seventeen pipe mouth organ, the shō 笙, punctuated by the sonorous strumming of the bass lute or biwa.

Despite my deep appreciation for gagaku given its historical relationship with Shinto ritual, I haven’t exactly been a fan of its dissonant sound. It goes against everything in my training as a classical violinist/violist. But when I trepidatiously hit ‘play’ on the album’s first song, “Early Autumn,” I was shocked to find it extremely calming and utterly lovely. “Lontano” (Italian for “far away”) and “Lontano 2” embrace the dreamy, atmospheric quality of ambient and new-age music that fans of artists from Brian Eno and Kitarō to Sigur Rós and Eluvium will enjoy. Die-hard gagaku fans may recognize a sampling of the staple piece “Etenraku” in the background of “Il Milione.” Personally, I can totally see myself putting Neo Archē on instead of or Spotify’s popular “Deep Focus” playlist when I want to focus on my work or tune out and relax. Explore the album and find the song that resonates with you!

Gagaku Revival

How did faculty from the University of California, Santa Barbara come to create a gagaku fusion album in the middle of a pandemic? During one of his many trips to Japan, professor of Religious Studies and East Asian languages and Cultural Studies Fabio Rambelli learned to play the shō under the tutelage of Maestro Bunno Hideaki. Returning to UCSB, Rambelli resolved to share his love of gagaku and increase appreciation of this ancient tradition with his students and peers in the West. Dr. Rory Lindsay, an expert on Tibetan religions and a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB, has been an integral participant in many of Rambelli’s gagaku projects, including his study of the gaku-biwa.

Rambelli and Lindsay’s love for music goes well beyond the UCSB campus. Rambelli plays the saxophone and flute in his band, “Sofar Sonear,” while Lindsay’s talent for string instruments also includes the guitar and sitar. Over the summer, Rambelli and Lindsay got together to jam and improvise on FaceTime. Together, their musical facility, academic expertise, and passion for many musical genres combine to create a perfect storm of sound.

According to UNESCO, gagaku “[demonstrates] how multiple cultural traditions can be fused into a unique heritage through constant recreation over time” (UNESCO). Rambelli and Lindsay prove in Neo Archē that gagaku is a dynamic tradition that still has the potential to surprise and delight.

Check out Neo Archē now on Bandcamp!

Like what you hear? Follow Fabio Rambelli and Rory Lindsay's Facebook page for more information, behind the scenes video, and news about future musical collaborations.

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