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How climate change affects intangible heritage: ‘Specific materials to build instruments are disappearing’

What do climate change and traditional Japanese music have to do with each other? A great deal, university lecturer Andrea Giolai suspects. He has been awarded an NWO grant to study the relationship in more depth.

During his PhD, Giolai immersed himself in the world of gagaku, a genre of traditional Japanese music. ‘It’s not the kind of music that’s readily found in contemporary society,’ he says. ‘Gagaku is usually performed at the court or in temples and shrines, and it accompanies dancers in beautiful costumes. Often the performances are themselves a ritual.’

For his research, Giolai interviewed some of the craftsmen who make the instruments for the gagaku players. In doing so, he noticed something: ‘Some of the materials used to make the instruments are very common, like bamboo, but often high-quality materials are found only in very specific places, because of a combination of natural factors. This is also the case for the reeds of the oboe in Western classical music. When these factors change, high-quality canes or wood, for example, can quickly disappear’.

Scarcity and climate change

This prompted the idea for his current research project. ‘Gagaku is considered intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO as well as Japan,’ he says. ‘I thought, this can’t be the only case where a scarcity of materials is threatening intangible heritage, can it? Especially because the scarcity isn’t something that happens by accident, but rather a consequence of all kinds of complex environmental changes. I want to see how small communities of practitioners and lovers of music throughout Asia and the world deal with similar situations.’

Giolai has been awarded an XS grant from NWO for this research: ‘My plan is to find other researchers who are dealing with comparable case studies using similar qualitative. I will also spend several months in Japan, so I can widen my network and continue my fieldwork there. Once I have put together a group of colleagues, we will make a collaborative podcast or audio documentary, which will feature our findings in addition to interviews, sound bites and field recordings. It could include musical fragments, but also the sounds of ecosystems that are already changing.’

Kicking off a new research field

When asked if his plans aren’t a bit ambitious for a grant of €45,000, Giolai smiled: ‘The goal of the grant scheme is to encourage research on speculative theoretical ideas. I am starting out on a new area of research. As far as I’m aware, the link between environmental change and the preservation of intangible heritage has never been made in this way before, so I’m looking forward to delving into this.’

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