24th April 2016
During the closing week of the Residency I was fortunate to attend a Gagaku ensemble and piano concert at the Blue Rose Hall (part of the Suntory Hall complex) given by members of Reigakusha. It was wonderful to hear Hyōjō no netori, Goshōraku-no-kyū, Etenraku and Bairo. The concert celebrated Hanamatsuri, and there were some specially commissioned works; including a new piece for Gagaku ensemble by Kazuko Narita in 9 consecutive parts, the incantation of the Pranja-paramita sutra, which began with a beautiful solo from the haisho (pan pipes) played by Reigakusha’s Yoko Iwakame.
The next morning, I met Miura-sensei’s student Haruko at the Musashino studio and we played some more Gagaku pieces for hichiriki and shō, including Taishikichō no netori followed by Batoh, Onojokyu, Hyōjō no netori and Goshōrakyu-no-kyū. In addition, Haruko showed me the stages of reed-making for the hichiriki. The reed is made from the dried stem of papyrus originating from the banks of the Yodigawa river. The stem, after maturing for at least ten years, is soaked and flattened, the surface crafted and shaped into the reed. It is all of one piece unlike the folded and divided cane of oboe and bassoon reeds. It gathers resistance with age and Haruko used very fine sand-paper to adjust its strength and responsiveness. Hichiriki reeds vary in strength according to the requirements of the player, they are slightly similar in width and shape to bassoon reeds.
In the Blue Rose Reigakusha concert the other evening, a Buddhist monk, Kazuma, had composed a virtuosic piece in homage to Buddha for hichiriki and piano. There are six movements; i) The Swan (after Saint-Saens), ii) Peacock, whose call was brilliantly imitated by the hichiriki, iii) Parrot, which involved question and then an answer, iv) Mynah Bird, v) Bird of Paradise, and finally vi) a mythical bird with 2 human faces. These were lyrical pieces, although at one point the hichiriki player soared to a top B, stratospheric and unthinkable for most players. The control and expressiveness was awe-inspiring from the Reigakusha virtuoso, Katsuhiko Tabuchi; he has my utmost admiration and respect.
The next day, at the Musashino, Yokoyama san offered to put better quality reeds into Otsuka san’s shō which would give it a greater dynamic range. He was also going to keep the original reeds and give them a ‘reed wash’ and add a new coating of malachite powder to each reed. My teacher Miura sensei showed me part of this process, which requires lifting the reeds from their fixing wax mitzuro, removing the blob of tuning wax omori, cleaning the reeds of their original malachite powder and adding new before restoring the reeds to each pipe and retuning them.
Each reed will be slightly different in timbre than their previous one depending on how evenly the malachite powder is distributed. Malachite is taken from an ink stone, carefully mixed with water and applied by ink dropper (or brush) to each reed. The water evaporates leaving a thin surface coating of malachite powder. The entire procedure from start to finish requires considerable skill and tests even the most experienced players. At the Musashino, it was interesting to try some of their new shō: I tried a very basic model, also a superior instrument with beautiful pipes and a wonderful range of dynamics from excellent reeds.
On Sunday, I was lucky to go and see a matinee Kabuki performance at the Kabuki-za; the performance starting at 11am and finishing at 3.30pm! Kabuki is extremely popular with tickets needing to be purchased well in advance. A performance highlight was the opening Sanbaso dance praying for good harvest; this was executed with phenomenal technical skill and co-ordination and it was breath-taking. A longer drama followed about a blind man stealing the role of Kengyo from his mentor, who is eventually murdered along with many other characters in the play. Kabuki is vibrant with colourful costumes and make-up, special effects, and large scale elaborate scenery on a revolving stage combined with the music of Jiuta and Nagauta; as many as 10 shamisen, 8 chanters, drums and bell percussion.
At the start of the interval there arose a rustle of cellophane which curiously grew in volume as the entire theatre (or so it seemed) tucked into bento boxes amid a discreet hubbub. The interval was not so long and soon the Kabuki resumed. During the performance, people occasionally called out which was at first disconcerting, until I realised it was a compliment to the actors; a nick-name peculiar to a lead character shouted to the stage by appreciative and enthusiastic fans, almost as a punctuation to intense moments in the drama. In kabuki, the cast is all-male; the men playing women are beautifully stylised, with gorgeous costumes, impressive wigs and exquisite make-up. Their refined mannerisms and voices are so cleverly realised that they are women of old Edo.
During this last week, the weather became sunny and warm; it was an invitation to go to the coast so I took the train to Kamakura. Arriving at Kita Kamakura, I went into the Engaku-ji temple complex and then walked to the Kotoku-in, temple of the Great Buddha statue, along the Daibutsu hiking trail. The path ascended through the woods and at welcome moments gave beautiful views of the sea across the tree canopy.
Hearing Etenraku at a temple along the way, I realised how much this music had gone deep into my consciousness. It had become part of me. When I had visited Kamakura 20 years before I had somehow believed that in the future I would return to Japan, but could not imagine that I would have the opportunity to learn a heritage instrument and study some of the Gagaku repertoire.
At the Hasedera temple is the impressive golden Hase Kannon statue; also, beautiful gardens; the peonies shielded from the bright sun by paper umbrellas. By the sea, the air was cool and soft. The beach dark with volcanic sand; the calm rhythm of the waves a welcome respite from the busy centre of Tokyo.
In one of my last lessons of the Residency with Miura sensei, we looked at Ran-ryo-o, a Gagaku piece about Chinese king who obscures his beautiful face with a dragon mask as he rides into battle. Ran-ryo-o is a difficult piece as its pace is quicker with kigae on each first and third beats, co-ordinating with seamless teutsuri; it is a hya-yo-hyoshi with the tsukedokoro (tutti) shō entering after 4 beats on the first taiko. I think my teacher, Miura sensei, was pleased with my progress and of the hard work I had put in to achieve, in such a short while, a basic level of shō playing. I am so deeply grateful to Miyata sensei and Miura sensei for their generous tuition and the time they gave me, and of their considerable patience shown to me. They are remarkable people, world class master musicians tirelessly expanding and developing new repertoire for the shō in parallel with the formidable Gagaku inheritance. Their teachers are shō masters whose family lineage extends far into the past, the inheritance of Heian Court musicians. Miura sensei told me of a must-see concert Miyata sensei was to give in November, in which she would play the ryo and ritsu-scale chōshi. I knew I should attend this and very much hoped to return to Japan.
Two days before my departure, I met once more with Professor Barbara Ruch and Ken Aoki in the tea lounge at I-House. We were joined by Professor Haruko Komoda, a famed musicologist and biwa specialist at Musashino Ondai, also by Robin Thompson. It was wonderful to meet Ruch sensei and Aoki san again. We had so much to talk about. It was fascinating to learn of the koto player Mrs Earl Toda Kiwako, wife of the Japanese Ambassador in Vienna, who had played Rokudan no shirabe before Brahms! Haruko Komoda was a friend of the mother of Kiwako’s great, great grandson, who is a cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic. Robin Thompson talked about the recent publication of his book on the music of Okinawa and we both looked forward to a concert with the Canadian Continuum Ensemble in May when we would play a new work involving 2 shō by Michael Oesterle at Toronto’s 21st Century Festival as well as music by Dai Fujikura together with a film by artist Rebecca Salter RA and experimental score by Max de Wardener. It was good to mention the composers Marty Regan and Basil Athanasiadis, both had studied and lived in Japan, and whose music deserved to be more widely known.
There followed an interesting discussion of Mary Ellen Waithe’s essay on Murasaki Shikibu, in reading Genji Monogatari as a parallel to Kerkegaard: Murasaki asks us to bear witness to, and question existentially the influence of, the philosophy of her time upon the spiritual lives of women, upon life’s meaning and existence. In Genji, Murasaki brings always to focus mono no aware – essentially an understanding and deep feeling for the all too brief experiences, beautiful and meaningful, that are the human condition. Applying mono no aware in relation to the Residency, gave me much to think upon.
I am profoundly grateful to Professor Barbara Ruch and Ken Aoki and Columbia University’s Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies for organising such a fantastic Residency and enabling me to fully appreciate both Gagaku and contemporary music for Japanese instruments. It has been a privilege to stay at I-House and I am deeply thankful to everyone there who made me feel so welcome. Also to I-House librarian Rie Hayashi, and to Miho Ito who helped me find my way around Tokyo. Also to Professor Yamanouchi and his wife Reiko, who introduced me to the Gwen and Lucy Ravarat exhibtion.
I spent my last afternoon before departure by the sea at Hase, Kamakura. I visited a tea house and was joined by several musicians and together, with the elderly lady who served us, we enjoyed beautiful green tea from large bowls. On the beach, an elderly man gathered clams to cook as part of the Hanamatsuri celebrations. Enormous seashells lay stranded on the sand and together, joyfully and with care, we threw them far out into the sea.
17th April 2016
Alongside studying the classic Gagaku pieces, I looked at new repertoire written for the shō, including a beautiful well-crafted work by Mamoru Fujieda, Patterns of Plants (2007) composed for my teacher Remi Miura’s shō trio, and created using data collected from plant growth. The first movement is for shō solo. Reading the western notation and playing the simple melody was difficult at first after my intensive study of classical Gagaku and equally as challenging. Usually, shō players own at least two instruments; one tuned at A=430 (classical pitch) for Gagaku and one tuned at A=440 for contemporary music. In contrast, I also studied more Gagaku pieces including Batoh and Ranryo-oh; the latter being the most advanced technically.
The previous week I decided to visit Nara prefecture for a couple of days staying in the historic village of Miwa. Close by is the Yamato river where Buddha images and sutras were first brought to Japan from western Korea in the 6th century; also the ancient Shinto Ōmiwa shrine, dedicated to Mount Miwa, long since considered the most sacred mountain in Japan. From Miwa I took the train towards Sakurai and walked part of the Ise Kaidō (one of the local cluster of six ancient roads) to the Hase-dera Temple.
The Hase-dera is situated in the Yogisan primeval rainforest and has a covered stairway of 389 stone steps to the main temple. At noon, monks blew conch shells and sounded the tsurigane (temple bell), the resonance returned by the surrounding tree-covered hills. I also visited the ancient capital of Nara, established in 710. Set in its ancient parkland are some of the largest and oldest wooden buildings in the world.
This is the Great Southern Gate Nandaimon, to Todai-ji temple. Close to Todai-ji is the Sho-so-in; in the Autumn, an exhibition of priceless artefacts including musical instruments from this former Treasure House, can be seen at the Nara National Museum.
The following day, I travelled to Kyoto to meet Tomoko Kawamura, whom I had known in London from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and had not seen for several years. It was an auspicious day especially as the weather turned warm and sunny. The Imperial Palace was hosting the first of its annual open days. In the busy courtyard there was a Gagaku ensemble and it was interesting to see a contrasting version of Bairo; the sound of shō heard against the blue sky in Kyoto was a memorable moment. At the heart of the Imperial Palace there are the most beautiful gardens, their peace and calm being a great privilege to experience.
The Rinzai sect Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto houses the famous rock garden said to be created in the early 1500s by Zen monk Tokuho Zenketsu. After meditating for several minutes upon the symbolic ocean of raked stones, I noticed blossoms blown from the nearby cherry trees massing and turning in the air. In one extraordinary moment they were driven towards the Zen garden, cascading a prolonged shower of petals which drew gasps from everyone present. Monica Bethe, the Director of Columbia’s Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies in Kyoto, whom I met the next day described this as a hanabira ga furiochiru; that if I had waited all day for this to happen it would not have done so, saying: ‘when something is not planned, it has time to turn out better.’ Responding to my shō playing progress Monica commented: ‘no matter how much you think you know the music, you have learnt the notes and can play it. It is never the music. It pays to listen to see how something is done.’ I recalled my lessons with Mayumi Miyata, who generously demonstrated to me the first sections of the chōshi in hyojō (E), sōjō (G) and banshichijō (B) modes; the modes of Autumn, Spring and Winter.
Monica said that it would take some time for me to appreciate and assimilate my months in Japan. Time had slowed down for me. Earlier, in the Amida-dō (Amida hall) at Kosho-ji temple, I had observed the image of a Bodhisattva playing a shō. Strangely, the image then distinctly began to play the cluster chord aitake Ichi. I recognised the hyōjō netori that is played prior to Etenraku, and before long a solo ryūteki announced the opening melody. I left the Amida-dō and stood outside on the covered walkway adjoining the main hondo, where beyond closed doors, Etenraku was being played. That afternoon, I went to Uji to the Byōdō-in, the 11th century Phoenix Hall which is built as a replica of the Palace in the Pure Land from Jodo Buddhist scripture.
I visited the Hoshokan museum where along with many other treasures, including one of the original phoenixes which stood at each end of the Phoenix Hall roof, there are 26 of the 52 Unchu Kuyo Bosatsu (cloud-borne Bodhisattvas) surrounding the image of Amida-Nyorai in the Amida-dō. They were carved in the 11th century by the followers of the master sculptor Jōchō, and share similarities to 8th century Bosatsu at Nara, playing musical instruments ranging from percussion to stringed and wind instruments. Looking at the graceful energy of the musician Bodhisattvas I could not help wondering how music from the Heian period must have sounded and if the pace of the music and dance was perhaps slightly quicker than the Gagaku music played today? It was an intriguing question which preoccupied me as I returned to Tokyo.
A few days later at the Nonaka Double Reed Gallery in Shibuya, I took the opportunity of trying a new oboe. I was impressed by the excellent service from the Nonaka personnel; my own instrument had developed a small mechanical problem and this was solved immediately with courteous efficiency. Twenty years ago when the Hallé Orchestra was last in Japan performing at Suntory Hall, I and two colleagues from the orchestra played at the Nonaka recital room as part of the Double Reed Gallery’s concert series, warmly received by the capacity student audience. I will always remember bassoon specialist Takeda-san’s immense kindness in treating us to a fabulous meal afterwards.
However, returning to Tokyo was unsettling as the city experienced a 4.6 earth tremor. This happened just half an hour before the first major quake hit Kyushu with a second stronger quake striking just forty-eight hours later. For the people of Kyushu this was terrifying and deeply upsetting for everyone in Japan. The weather also turned cold and wet; with the cherry blossoms fading, it seemed that Hanamatsuri was now perhaps a distant dream.
11th April 2016
In Tokyo the cherry blossoms were forecast to bloom at the end of the week, just in time for Hanamatsuri, the festival of the birth of the Buddha (8th April). Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties began to happen all over Tokyo, blue tarpaulins appearing beneath the trees, and gatherings varying from boisterous to contemplative. Finding and experiencing the best cherry blossom viewing can become an obsession; with long-lensed cameras ready for the perfect macro shot. Walking by the Kanda river at Waseda the blossoms were quite spectacular and even though the weather was cloudy and damp the viewing was appreciated by everyone. The blossoms are at their best for only a few days, which makes Hanami all the more special and poignant.
Revisiting Waseda the next day, the wind was already blowing the blossoms from the trees; creating a moment of enchantment for those fortunate to experience the sudden showers of petals.
In central Tokyo the Zojo-ji temple staged gagaku pieces which are played outdoors in the temple precincts over the six days leading up to the Buddha’s birthday, on the 8th April. Gagaku music with dance is termed bugaku.
This is Bairo; a samai (dance of the left), with the male dancers in red-coloured costumes, it originates from India, Indo-China and China, and is the music of togaku.
This is Nasori; a dragon dance that is an Umai dance, (dance of the right), with green-coloured costumes, which was introduced from Korea; it is the music of Komagaku.
Monks of the gagaku ensemble. With bugaku, the stringed instruments biwa and koto are omitted form the gagaku ensemble, which consists of the wind instruments ryuteki, hichiriki, shō with kakko, shōko and taiko drums at the front of the ensemble.
Warming shō over hot charcoal in a hibachi.
Playing the kakko drum; the kakko player is the leader of the gagaku ensemble. The kakko features in samai dance. The drum to the left of the kakko player is a san-no-tsutsumi and features in music for umai dance.
Music accompanying bugaku is repeated several times as the dance progresses. The piece, Bairo, is hyatada-yohyoshi (2 beats, followed by four); in bugaku the beat pattern for Bairo loses the 4th beat and becomes 2 followed by 3. In kangen (gagaku music for ensemble alone), the music is played through once only. In bugaku as the music repeats the tempo increases. This quickening of tempo is never planned but with additional taiko with rhythm, kuwae-byoshi (literally adding rhythm), the music speeds up naturally, creating an exciting climax to the dance. Bairo is danced with shields, lances and swords which makes it one of the most dramatic and technically skilful samai dances in Bugaku.
At Zojo-ji, I met up with my teacher Miura-sensei, and afterwards we went to a shō and piano concert that afternoon at Kyu-Iwasak-tei Gardens which encloses Japanese and western mansions built in 1896. The western house was a solid French villa. On entering we removed our shoes, and it was quite restful walking through the rooms on the soft carpets. Freed from shoes, the body breathes more easily, and the mind thinks more clearly, feet in quiet contact with the floor; (if only every museum adopted a no-shoes policy!). In the concert, shō-player Tamami Tono played her alternative version of Etenraku arranged for shō and piano. I especially liked the ‘blues’ piano harmony in the repeat of the melody. She also played her arrangement of Debussy’s Claire de Lune (1890); explaining that hearing the cluster chords in bar 15 onwards inspired her to learn to play the shō. Perhaps after hearing shō at the Paris Exposition of 1889, Debussy had incorporated its tonal cluster intervals into his music. Tamami was completing a circle by creating her arrangement and playing in a house of similar epoch; it was fascinating afterwards to explore the Japanese house next door, (once a considerably larger structure), with its en (verandah) connecting the interior of the hiroma (large tea room) to the roji (small garden).
Earlier in the week near I-House, Motoazabu Gallery presented an exhibition of wood engravings by Gwen Raverat and bold colourful paintings by her granddaughter, Lucy Raverat. I am indebted to I-House librarian Hayashi-san for introducing me to Professor Yamanouchi, Professor Emeritus in English at Tokyo University, who subsequently informed me of the exhibition. Gwen Raverat’s classic illustrated childhood memoir Period Piece has been introduced to the Japanese public through a superb translation by Professor Yamanouchi’s wife, Reiko. Inheriting a genealogy of extraordinary talents, Lucy Raverat spoke movingly of the exhibition as a way to ‘finding a place in the Universe’, running the race of life and connecting with Earth and cosmos. Through her paintings she acknowledged the past whilst reinventing the future. It was fascinating to hear her first impressions of Japan, and to learn of her wish to walk the Tokaido.
31st March 2016
Within a few hours of arriving into the cold sunlit air of New York City, I met with ryūteki and hichiriki masters Takeshi Sasamoto, Hitomi Nakamura and shō master Mayumi Miyata. Each master is the pioneer Mentor for their respective instruments to the Columbia Gagaku Ensemble and enable students to participate in a 6-week summer programme of group and individual tuition in Tokyo. In the concert, the Gagaku Ensemble would play both Etenraku and Goshōraku no kyū and I hoped I would join them. The masters would also play contemporary works especially composed for them. Their week would be busy: when not rehearsing and coaching the ensemble, they would be giving individual lessons to several of the Ensemble players.
In my lessons at the University with Miyata-sensei, I was reminded again how important the Alexander Technique is when playing the shō. Also the discipline of singing the practice melody, the shōga; and devoting equal practice time to it as to the Gagaku score itself. In the ensuing fug of jet-lag however, I was making errors; forgetting parts of the shōga and at times aitake in Etenraku. In the first rehearsal with the Gagaku Ensemble I found the breathing more challenging on account of the much slower tempo, and extended bars. It was amazing though, to play in an ensemble of 6 shō, 11 ryūteki and 8 hichiriki together with biwa, koto and the taiko, shōko and kakko drums. However, sitting cross-legged on a hard floor for nearly 2 hours took some getting used to. The most difficult aspect in playing in the ensemble was following the shō ondō, synchronizing the te-utsuri and not changing aitake too soon.
The day after arriving in New York I met with Professor Barbara Ruch. Both she and Miyata-sensei had discussed my playing and it was agreed that all would be well for Etenraku; that I now possessed the basics of shō playing. It was good to talk to her again and to relate my experiences and sincere appreciation of my past few weeks in Japan.
Like the small studio suite in Azabu-Juban in Tokyo, I found Michiko Studios near Times Square to be a popular hub of creativity. It was surreal though playing the shō accompanied by hip-hop and jazz played nearby. But the drum rhythm became a sort of fast version of the taiko and kakko; it was quite funky practising Etenraku to the accompaniment of hip-hop drum and bass and interesting singing the shōga to a different kind of beat!
During my time in New York I was fortunate to visit the Japanese Constellations Exhibition at MoMA; work from the SANAA collective.
Some of the skilfully presented scale models were of buildings already in Tokyo. This is the public theatre in Koenji; which I can’t help noticing every time I take the elevated Chuo line to and from Kunitachi. It always makes me think of a chocolate pudding, although the roof is made of thin black steel plates and light wells create constellations within.
I was also lucky enough to go to Louis Andriessen’s rarely performed De Materie; a narrative opera created from philosophical dialogues. I went to the performance on Good Friday, and couldn’t help sensing the religious imagery prevalent in the work, which consisted of four tableaux. In the first, the brutal hammering of nails; in the second the Host hovering in the middle distance behind desolate shrouded human forms, and the Dutch mystic poet Hadejwijch, more like Mary Magdalene, grieving and longing for Christ; the wonderfully expressive solo soprano (Evgeniya Sotnikova) at the front of the vast Armory Hall stage. Hadejwijch’s words set within ethereal music whose beauty is matched by its revelatory power. In the third, as the Mondriaan crosses distorted into pendulums, the lines were danced with jazzy exuberance by two male dancers. The fourth, heralded by the pattering of feet, a flock of 100 sheep appearing on stage, their baaing causing significant hilarity in the audience! But once they and we got used to the change of scene it was compelling to see how the flock reacted, observant and intelligent.
In their blue far-off gloaming, shepherded by a small friendly airship, (which appeared at intervals throughout the opera), the music of Andriessen spacious and starkly reflective, they turned and moved as one; a dialogical space forming between audience and flock.
All too soon though, they departed, and an unfolding monologue from Marie Curie drew us to front of the stage to a mise-en-scène of the famous photograph of the Solvay Conference of 1911. The ‘thinking space’ we had all experienced in the last hour was gently wrested from us as reality took hold. Marie Curie spoke movingly of the death of her husband Pierre; and of her election to the Academy of Sciences with cynicism; however, her work went on.
My lessons with Miyata-sensei seemed to be going well; she described ‘listening with the eyes’ in the Ensemble, and whilst playing, to sing the shōga in the mind. I was invited to play in Goshōraku no kyū as well as joining the Ensemble in singing the beautiful roei song, Kashin.
Whilst returning from Columbia University, walking on Broadway at west 81st street, I met Bill Lynas the harmonica player. Bill features on albums with Janis Joplin and the group The Seatbelts playing music by Yoko Kanno. Bill was curious about my shō case. When I told him what was in it, he introduced himself, and taking his harmonica played a ‘blast of the blues’ which drew glances from passers-by. The creation of the harmonica came about due to the shō being brought to Europe from Japan. The metal reeds are similar in structure, with the same blowing/drawing technique of playing the shō applying to the harmonica. I told Bill about the Gagaku concert at Columbia and he said he would like to go to it; ‘especially as it’s free,’ he said, ‘that’s the part I like!’.
Warming shō prior to rehearsal and concert.
The stage at the Miller Theatre with the green silk jifu (carpet) and red koran (fence) for the Gagaku performance. The shōko, taiko and kakko are situated at the back of the ensemble with koto and biwa in front.
The day for the Gagaku concert arrived. At the start of the performance the masters played the first part of Hyōjō no chöshi, out in the auditorium of Miller Theatre. The curtain rose, and Hyōjō no netori, the tuning prelude for Etenraku was played next, Zak, our shō ondo, leading the way. Then came Etenraku, ‘Music of the Divine Heavens’. The ryūteki began, followed by the hichiriki. It was amazing to lift the shō and play as one with the others. The taiko beats were extraordinary. I felt a deep anchoring resonance. The sound of the hichiriki was terrific together with the squirl of ryūteki supported by a cloud of shō harmony. Professor Barbara Ruch then spoke eloquently upon the nature of Gagaku; its unique cosmos: the shō being the light of the stars, the ryūteki and hichiriki as living entities upon the green earth, the biwa and koto as ‘ascending rain’, from the oceans and lakes, a cycle of renewal and rejuvenation. We then repeated Etenraku, and followed it with the very beautiful rōei song Kashin, which means ‘this auspicious day’, Bryana Williams playing the solo shō part most beautifully. Goshōraku is music from 7th century (late T’ang period) and is based on gojō – the five moral principles: benevolence, social responsibility, respect, wisdom and trustworthiness, foundations for harmonious existence. Two movements of Goshōraku were presented; I played in the second, Goshōraku no kyū. Acknowledging the applause, the Ensemble manoeuvred into the formal seiza position. When the curtain fell and the interval began, Miyata-sensei congratulated us with mesmeric calm, phoenix-like in her golden robes.
In the second half of the concert, there were three contemporary works; Hidejirō Honjō’s sangen (shamisen) in Takechi’s moving duet Waxwing (2004) with Mayumi Miyata based upon Nabokov’s poem Pale Fire; harpist Sasaki’s Bridge to the Heavens (2015) inspired by Ogata Kōrin’s Edo-period screens Irises at Yatsuhashi; and Hiroya Miura’s Gossamer Lattice (2007). Miura’s work for ryūteki, hichiriki and shō invokes Jasper Johns’ series of paintings Usuyuki as textural music; a prescient dialogue between listening and seeing. He skilfully augments the 2nd inversion chords in the classic aitake shō clusters with ‘hidden’ notes from the hichiriki and riyūteki. Johns’ painting, projected behind the performers, resonates to this sound-world. The ‘lattice’ drawing the listener in; a gentle web of being.
18th March 2016
Entering the hondo (great hall) of Zojo-ji temple the incense-filled air reverberated to the sound of the mokugyo (wood block) accompanying a monk’s sutra chant. The mokugyo is a hollow fish-shaped temple block used in Buddhist ritual as a signal to begin and close meditation and prayer. In the temple hall the speed of the mokugyo rhythm increased as did the chanting until quite suddenly chant and mokugyo fell silent. Accompanied by a jisha (monk carrying incense), and another striking an inkin (a small hand bell) the chief priest entered the temple hall and knelt at the altar before the honzon (image) of Amida Buddha. Prayers and recitation Namu-Amida-Butsu were intoned marked by deep-sounding kane, densho & keisu (temple bells), rin (singing bowls), and the striking of enormous mokugyo. Incense hung upon the air and people held prayer beads and bowed their heads.
With the five-year commemoration of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 11th March 2011, this past week was a sombre time in Tokyo. At 14.46 the exact moment the earthquake struck 5 years ago, people stood in silent contemplation. Crowds gathered and silence and stillness were observed.
The tsurigane of Zojo-ji temple.
Earlier this week I was saddened to hear of the death of Sir Peter ‘Max’ Maxwell Davies, a truly innovative composer and a great advocate for music education and music in the community. He and his music spoke with great eloquence and forceful power. His serenely beautiful solo oboe piece ‘First Grace of Light’ is among many well-crafted and exquisite chamber music pieces; he will be long-remembered for his honesty and artistic integrity and his passing is a huge loss to contemporary music worldwide.
During the past two weeks, my lessons centred around the ancient music that was older than a thousand years. My teacher helped me to understand the score of the hyōjō mode chōshi. The kanji instructions began to make sense to me and the mist of incomprehension lifted. It was wonderful to realise how simple and effective the directions were. Although I was learning only the very first part of this piece it was so interesting to discover that certain phrases had a specific interpretative direction. For instance, one phrase had the expression seireigaeshi; which is difficult to translate but Miura-sensei described it as being like the flight of a blue dragonfly. It refers to a repeated phrase which on its return becomes slightly faster. It occurs in the fourth column of the score where tones bō (D) and gyō (A) are played alternately, then together above the held combined hyōjō mode tuning of otsu (E), hachi (E octave higher) and shichi (B). This effect of repeating and condensing this phrase brilliantly visualises the iridescent flight of the dragonfly over field and water, as it hovers making agile changes of direction. This is ‘living in the moment’ music, being mindful of the elevation and poise but without attaching too much importance to it.
By contrast, another direction is known as tomocho, visualising the tomoe, 2 or 3 angular commas linked in a circle; a common decorative symbol throughout Japan. Miura-sensei stated that the music with this direction indicated a grounding moment of tension and strength. The tonal cluster aitake jū heralds 3 of its subsequent held tones jū (G), shichi (B) and hachi (E) which are joined briefly by ge (F#) then by gyō (A), the phrase is then repeated.
In the group lesson on Saturday we played the first part of the sōjō mode chōshi. Whereas hyōjō mode embodies autumn, sōjō is emblematic of spring. But in sōjō where the tuning centres around tones jū (G) and jō (D), there is no seireigaeshi phrase direction; only tomocho. I now understood the kanbun kanji directions and felt at ease in the lesson as the piece of music was explained. We also played the gagaku pieces Butokuraku, Shukōshi, Katennokyū and Konjunoha singing the shōga (practise melody) before each one. All these pieces are in the sōjō mode.
Towards the end of the lesson, the players in the group wanted to know more about Otsuka’s shō. I explained a little of its history, that it was from the late Meiji-era and because of its age all the reeds had had to be replaced. They liked the design of a thin crescent moon inlaid by Otsuka-san himself when he lacquered the bowl (kashira) of the shō. Most shō have kashira made of animal horn or plastic. The bowl of Otsuka’s shō is entirely of wood. I thought back to my first few days in Japan, it had been the feast of Setsubun, the start of the lunar calendar, which now seemed so long ago.
Later in the following week I was fortunate to get the opportunity of rehearsing Etenraku with a student of hichiriki virtuoso Hitomi Nakamura, and my teacher Miura-sensei. We met up at Shinjuku; with some delay as I navigated the labyrinthine tunnels and shopping areas, an experience in itself on account of the sheer numbers of people; being lost at Shinjuku station seems to be a rite of passage for any visitor in Tokyo! Eventually I found the right meeting place and we went into a nearby karaoke-kan suite of studios to rehearse; each studio is equipped with state of the art digital replay and large television screens. Once the iced coffee arrived we started rehearsing the hyōjō no netori and went on to play Etenraku. We also looked at Kashin (an ancient song based on Chinese rōei poetry) and Gōshōrakyū. It was surreal playing gagaku in a karaoke studio but I was grateful for the experience of trying the pieces through with a hichiriki player.
Afterwards, going out into rainy Shinjuku with its skyscrapers shrouded in low clouds and its crowded streets reminded me I would soon be in New York preparing to play in a Gagaku Ensemble for the first time. I had learnt so much during these past few weeks and had worked hard. Miura-sensei had described to me how I would hear from the Taiko drum first one beat, the lesser zun, followed by the louder dō. On the second of these at the indication of the shō ondo, I would join the rest of the ensemble to play Etenraku.
6th March 2016
The week started clear and bright. Travelling on the JR Chuo Rapid service I was startled to suddenly see Mount Fuji, snow-covered, perfect against the blue sky.. On Kunitachi station in the cold air and brilliant sunshine, I chose not to take a JR Chuo Rapid train back to central Tokyo preferring instead to stand in the light at the end of the platform and admire Fuji from afar.
When I practised later that day it was with the image of Fuji in my mind, against the blue sky, that I played Etenraku.
My lessons have been full of challenges with several new pieces to study and learn, and I was asked to attend the more advanced group lesson at the end of the week. Miura-sensei introduced me to a most beautiful piece of music by Sukeyasu Shiba based upon the Dunhuang lute manuscripts and written for instruments reconstructed after those of the Shōsō-in which is in the grounds of the Tōdaiji temple at Nara, (Nara jidai 710-794). As many as 16 instruments featured including shō, koto, biwa, genkan, hichiriki, ryuteki, shakuhachi and haishō (panpipes), as well as bell-like percussion. The overall effect was of being taken to timeless beautiful place. Sukeyasu Shiba, who was born into a hereditary Gagaku family whose lineage goes back to the 8th century and is a master ryuteki and biwa player, describes his music as giving a glimpse of the sound-world of the Chinese Tang and Japanese Nara and Heian periods. Miura-sensei said she would be making a DVD recording of the music and introducing it to schoolchildren. I could not think of a more beautiful piece of music to bring to a younger wider audience. It was an inspired idea.
The previous Sunday I’d visited friends in Takatsu, and whilst walking by the Tama river we talked about the recent earth tremors and especially the Great East Japan Earthquake of 5 years ago, March 11th 2011, which affected so many and had such devastating consequences. The thought of the tsunami extending to the Tama river engulfing everything in its path was terrifying. My friends said that the March 11th earthquake had lasted over 90 seconds, the trauma of this with subsequent aftershocks affected everyone deeply. In Takatsu, where generations of families have lived for over 300 hundred years, people know how fortunate they are when compared to those living near to Fukushima unable to return to their former, now uninhabitable homes.
At I-House, I went to ‘The Possibilities for Art in Disasters Symposium on the Five-year Commemoration of the Great East Japan Earthquake’. Five international curators spoke about their very different projects which varied according to resources, ranging from a small gallery to a corporate museum, to installations in the exclusion zone, as well as involving the communities displaced by natural and nuclear disasters in Fukushima prefecture. Katsuto Miyahara gave a presentation about the ‘Human Resource Development program towards creative reconstruction’ at Tsukuba University which involves graduates and post-graduates learning from and assisting the communities directly affected by the disaster. I was particularly moved by his project with the Okuma and Tsukuba community in temporary housing at Johoku and at Aizu-Wakamatsu organising a summer matsuri (festival). It gave voice to enabling these people to reconnect with their folk music and dance traditions. Sadly, as the community becomes further displaced due to new housing being built, owing to a lack of funds, the festivals look increasingly unlikely to happen in future. Some families have moved up to five or six times, despite how paramount the need is to return to their former communities, reconnect with their past, and build a permanent future. This is where a sustainable project does not just enable and inspire, but ultimately can give so much back. Katsuto Miyahara is a lacquer craftsman and associate professor of art at Tsukuba University. In his words, it is hard to quantify what the most sensitive response is and if, in fact, it is worth doing?
By contrast, a ‘more charismatic’ project located within the nuclear exclusion zone may bring a certain notoriety of interest, but it also carries a questionable sense of justice. To ‘appropriate’ a space through art that is in the foreseeable future uninhabitable could be perceived as an insensitive and almost invasive response. There is the danger of an unfortunate circle of ‘entitlement’ which should perhaps ring alarm bells with any curator worth their salt. However, we are told that what is ‘invisible’, must be worth having. But at what price? At what point does the balance tip from ‘ethical’ artistic intervention to charismatic notoriety? Empowering a destitute community through a united vision inspired by performance art speaks volumes, affirming the identity and well-being of the vulnerable. Exclusivity, by comparison, compromises the very community in most need of help. Okuma is famous for its ceramics; among the displaced communities there is a need to create and invest in opportunities where these skills can be seen to flourish once more.
In the I-House library I have been studying several kanji character dictionaries of which there are many. People at I-House have been incredibly kind and help me at every opportunity; but they tell me that the instructive kanji in the shō music scores is one of the most difficult to read, and it makes me more curious to understand and learn it.
It was difficult arriving at the intermediate class on Saturday, I felt guilty about leaving the previous group. I did not really have the chance to explain to my colleagues why I was now in the class following theirs, and I felt very sad about this. During this week I have studied the pieces Bairo, Goshōrakyu and Shukōshi. Bairo is tricky and earlier in the week Miura-sensei corrected a few mistakes I had made with the codes in the system I used to assimilate the information. My initial read-through of the music using the system was slow-going. But once I had memorised the ‘codes’, it was much easier. In the class we concentrated on Bairo, Goshōrakyu and Shukōshi which is in Sōjō mode, in G, singing the Shōga (practice melody) before each one. Then we played Netori a hyōjō tuning song for Etenraku, I was secretly relieved at this because it was also a piece I had memorised along with Etenraku.
But at the start of the lesson we began with a chōshi (tune, melody) in hyjōjō mode. After handing me a score, Miura-sensei quickly explained the detailed kanji character instructions which I took in as best I could and then we started to play.
With Miura-sensei almost conducting us, directing the dynamics and calling out the kanji at important moments, I managed the first 3 columns but then stopped to listen. I could not follow. I understood the aitake and linked hyōjō tones, the kigae directions, but the score became far more detailed which, as I listened to the collected response of the players, surprised and delighted me. I marvelled at the fabulous sound of four shō playing with freedom and confidence this ancient timeless music.
The repeated kigae at the end of each phrase, became waves of brilliant colour. As if not one phoenix, but many.
28th February 2016
My practice at the Musashino goes well, and in addition I have found a small studio ten minutes from I-house. It’s surreal playing the shō surrounded by electric guitars, drum kit, synthesiser, amplifiers and union jack emblazoned Marshall speakers. The acoustic however, is perfect for practising. My week though had started badly, with a blinding headache. Psychedelic zig-zag auras engulfed the once-clear shō kanji characters. A migraine is no fun when you wish to play the shō. It was unfortunate that I had to cancel my lesson that morning; I felt a complete failure.
In my lesson a few days later, Miura-sensei asked me to play Ne-tori, a tuning song to announce the mode for Etenraku, which is in the Hyō-jō mode, in E. The shō alone first plays, joined a few bars later by the hichiriki, they hand over to the ryuteki and kakko drum followed by the biwa and koto ending the piece. It is always played before Etenraku, almost like a lyric prelude. I was intrigued by the score of Ne-tori as it involved single tones for the shō. The last three notes, otsu (E), hachi (E an octave higher) and shichi (B) are the same three tones which form the to-me-de or ending of Etenraku.
Then Miura-sensei handed me another piece called Bairo. This was totally different to anything I’d seen so far. A more substantial work that is in tada-byōshi metre; a 2 beat bar, followed by one of 4 beats. My task was to resolve the ‘codes’ for the changes between the aitake; but the rules had changed, as the passing-note te-utsuri were now over semi-quaver (32nd note) subdivisions of the bar. It was complicated. In comparison to this both Etenraku and the Ne-tori now seemed relatively simple.
On Friday, after my practice at Musashino, I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku. It was a moment of madness as I decided to face my fear of heights by going to the 45th floor to look at the view. The lift to the North Observatory starts at the 2nd floor and goes non-stop in the space of about 45 seconds to the 45th. As soon as I got into the lift I felt nauseous and claustrophobic, my ears popping as it sped skywards. It felt like the lift was going to the stars, but soon we were at the top and emerging into the spacious all-around viewing area. It was a beautiful evening and in a little while the sun would start to set. The clouds at the western horizon lifted, and as the sun dipped beyond the mountains, I saw the silhouette of Mount Fuji. It was an inspiring moment.
Meanwhile it was good to hear from Kate Romano (Okeanos founder member and creative producer of Tokaido Road), who emailed with the very exciting news of Nicola LeFanu’s chamber opera Tokaido Road (based on the award-winning eponymous poetry collection by Nancy Gaffield) being streamed live as part of Euro Classical’s Online Festival on 1st March at 5.30pm UK time, and will also be made available on youtube in the near future.
In Saturday’s group lesson, the chorus of shō practised the aitake and kigae (breathing) for Etenraku, stretching the fourth beat as instructed. Miura-sensei showing us with great patience and authority the te-utsuri (changes) and ato-uchi for each one. When we arrived at the B section of Etenraku my colleagues furrowed their brows, fingers clicking upon the pipes of their shō as they tried to figure out the next moves. Feeling guilty, as I was secretly pleased at having memorized Etenraku with the correct te-utsuri, I was also thinking about the next piece Miura-sensei had given me. I was a little envious of the group that followed ours, with their different coloured music books and air of confidence. One of their number had been to a sell-out performance of Bugaku earlier in the afternoon; this is where Gagaku is used to accompany formal dance.
Sunday was the day of the Tokyo Marathon. It was a really colourful and energizing event. I watched near Shiba Park and was there for the wheelchair racers, and front runners. A total of 36,000 people took part. Following on from the serious competitors, among the charity fundraisers, I counted several Spidermen, Superman, a Beatle from Sergeant Pepper, people masquerading as glasses of Sapporo Beer, tomatoes, chickens, characters from Manga, there was also a Japan Times-wielding pin-striped businessman, a resplendent gold-painted Buddha and even someone as Mount Fuji, in fact there were several Mount Fujis. Crowds lined the route, and there were tremendous shouts of enthusiastic encouragement, cheers and applause. People held banners, waved flags and created as much noise as possible. It was terrific fun and the weather was beautiful.
20th February 2016
The weather has been extremely changeable these last few days; rain, high winds, glorious warm sunshine, and then more heavy rain. The rain encourages a plethora of transparent umbrellas or kasa which seem to be carried by everyone. Even in the rain, cycling is a very popular way to get around. The cyclists in Tokyo travel on the pavement, weaving a dextrous path between pedestrians. In the rain they cycle one-handed, the other holding an umbrella, often a very large one. Somehow, we all end up giving each other space on the pavements and collisions are skilfully avoided.
At the start of the week it turned cold after the very warm day before. Snow was forecast. Travelling on the JR Chuo Line westwards I caught sight of the mountains but it was too cloudy to see Mount Fuji. Cold weather is not kind to musical instruments. Whilst I warmed the shō over one of a choice of three different heaters at the start of the lesson, my teacher presented me with a tiny cup of hot green tea. I noticed her shō was in pieces. She was tuning individual pipes.
This is a shō tuning iron heating the NeTsugi or foot of each bamboo pipe, which is usually made of lacquered wood or resin. The resultant warmth melts the wax beneath the reeds and alters the pitch. Tuning is required when heat or cold or general over-use affects the shō; this is especially noticeable in the intervals of fifths and octaves.
Here are the reeds for pipe sen (F#), (far left) smallest and highest in pitch, and the largest and lowest pipe, kotsu (A natural). Note the red wax added to the NeTsugi upon which reeds are fixed. The narrow slit near the top of pipe sen facilitates greater resonance, and which applies to each pipe of the shō. When a tone hole is left uncovered the reed remains silent. When it is covered, the air column between the base of the slit and the closed foot of the pipe resonates through the activation of the reed by air drawn or blown into the shō’s bowl.
My shō-playing progresses. The B section of Etenraku is full of ‘passing note’ te-utsuri; several changes over sub-divisions of the bar. In the C section negotiating aitake ichi to aitake ku could also adversely challenge most western players of the shō depending on your physiognomy, (a large nose is not ideal!) I also found the breathing or kigae on the downbeat of each bar easy enough but I frequently ran out of oxygen towards the end of the bar whilst figuring out the te-utsuri. The answer of course is to memorise the changes between the aitake. Entering the calmness, going with the flow, na-gareru; slowing everything down, not reacting but just being in the moment.
By Saturday I now had the blueprint, (or code as Miura-sensei astutely puts it), for the correct te-utsuri for all of Etenraku. As I resolved the code for aitake ge to aitake kotsu which involved ato-uchi, I could see now that a logical pattern was emerging. Although I had still to learn most of it by heart, I’d felt I’d made a good beginning with Etenraku. Miura-sensei stated that every Gagaku player memorized the entire Gagaku repertoire; some 90 pieces, their basic training was perhaps 10 years or more. My task for the next lesson was to learn NeTori, a tuning song involving both held and single tones. I also had to play Etenraku from memory.
On Wednesday Miho and I went to concerts at the Kioi; Miho to hear violinist Janine Jansen play Brahms in a sell-out concert in the main hall whilst I went to the Kioi’s small recital hall to hear a concert of new works for Japanese instruments. Miho liked the converse symmetry of us both going to experience different cultural landscapes. My teacher Remi Miura had invited her students to hear shō-player Tamami Tono’s new work Hoshigatami III for 3 shō and a kugo.
Tono’s piece began with the kugo taking centre stage, with 2 shō at a distance either side. A third shō, the composer herself, surprised us by playing from the back of the hall; the players’ symmetry complimenting the kugo’s trapezoid shape. The depth of the kugo’s lowest resonant notes underpinned the piece’s contemporary shō chōshi (music in canon). This condensed to a single sustained pulsating chord, with each shō-player sequencing their dynamics in a clock-wise direction. The effect of an oscillating relay, or ‘shō-wave’ as the composer described it, was of being encircled within a glowing force-field, each shō sending an orb of travelling light to the next. Immersed in this crucible the kugo’s cool deep glissandi murmured.
The other pieces in the concert featured the sangen, or three-stringed shamisen. Naohumi Kojima’s Sakuragi Flame opened the concert. Five impassive traditionally attired shamisen masters playing with precise synchronicity accompanied the sculptural voices of three male chanters. This is the music of Tokiwazu, the dances and chanting that accompany Kabuki. Sakichi Kineya’s Okina Shofu involved dramatic chanting and singing accompanied by 2 shamisen and the voices seeming to almost draw the text in the air. In each piece the shamisen players tuned the strings up or down at some speed, their left hand swiftly turning the long pegs, then returning to the flow of the music.
I especially enjoyed Mojibe Tokiwazu’s (5th generation head of the House of Tokiwazu常磐津文字兵衛５) Sangen Quartet no 6 (2013), Seven Visual Images, with titles such as Snow Garden, Red Tree, Moon Ship, and Horse Chestnut Avenue. At times this was pure folk-melody, beautiful and simple; almost like dances to accompany a Shakespeare play; there was definitely a galliard at one point, but it had a modern twist. The 2nd movement (Red Tree) had jazzy, syncopated rhythms and was quite surreal in conjunction with the players’ disciplined impassivity and sombre traditional dress. Shamisen rhythm can be quite formal and punctuated but this was of a completely different order. Mojibe Tokiwazu is a great experimenter and is known for his adventurous projects. These 7 short movements reminded me of the work of Howard Skempton, his Images for solo piano, especially the endings, each tailing off with a masterful brush stroke.
Koto virtuoso Tomoko Sunazaki, was joined on stage for her beautiful piece Fuji Sanka by 14 koto players, (including 2 bass koto), 6 shamisen players and 3 shakuhachi. The musicians sang and played a deeply moving Sakura (cherry blossom) refrain. Sunazaki playing a spectacular koto solo. The massed koto players’ synchronised sliding of their bridges to change pitch at key moments in the piece was a fascinating theatrical element.
Friday was a beautiful warm sunny day and I met up with artist Rebecca Salter in Yanaka. Yanaka is the last surviving fragment of old Tokyo full of temples and wooden houses and narrow streets. We visited a Japanese painting and pigment store. The colours are stored in row upon row of glass jars. They cannot be mixed with each other so each is carefully graded according to shade resulting in an overwhelming choice. It was fascinating to see the old streets and houses of Yanaka. I especially enjoyed Yanaka Ginza, a narrow shopping street reached by the famous sunset steps which we ascended on our way back to Nippori station. As we climbed the steps in the brilliant noon sunshine I recalled my teacher, Remi Miura, describing to me the Gagaku ensemble at major temple festivals in which there would be as many as 20 or 30 shō. I wanted to think of Otsuka-san as being among them. However, Rebecca was certain that the instrument he had gifted to her had never been played, at least not by him; and it was unclear as to whom the instrument had belonged prior to his acquiring it, its late Meiji era history and origin unknown.
13th February 2016
On the morning walk from Oji metro station to my first shō lesson at the Musashino studio, the queues of Pachinko players were lengthening outside the amusement arcades. Pachinko, which is a form of bagatelle for prizes, is played at colourful slot-machines. Later in the day the noise from the arcades is deafening and looking in you get an impression of neon craziness contrasting with players’ calm focus. The evening before there had been another earth tremor in Tokyo, a 4.6. At I-House the shoji (paper screens) rattled, and the room swayed for about 20 seconds. Again the impossibly deep growl and then a long mysterious coda fading to silence and calm. I kept thinking of the terrible earthquake in Yujing, Taiwan and how terrifying that must have been.
Arriving at the studio I took the shō from its case to warm it above the shō heater. Keeping the shō at a constant warm temperature is vital, this stops condensation forming which in turn disables the reeds. Often in performances the shō-player can be seen warming the shō over a heater beside him before he plays next. In the past a hibachi (a small fire bowl containing charcoal) would be used.
The shō speaks by covering the tone holes of the pipes and blowing gently through the mouthpiece into the bowl, this oscillates the reeds and they begin to sound. Unlike the oboe and bassoon double-reed, a shō reed is completely ‘closed’ when it is not played. The shō can be played by blowing and also by drawing the air. With oboe playing, you have to release a lungful of oxygen-depleted air before you take in another breath and then begin again to push the air at pressure through the narrow aperture of a double reed. With the shō, the air pressure is so much less. An accomplished shō-player disguises the moment between blowing and drawing so that there is a continuous stream of sound.
Miho-san introduced me to Miura-sensei (sensei means ‘teacher’) and I presented my mēshi (business card). I sat down and Miura-sensei asked me if I could play the aitake of Etenraku. I must admit I was really nervous and I was shaking as I stumbled through the first column of aitake. My teacher then produced a sheet of music; a shō-ga, (practise song), to facilitate the correct order and timing of the aitake for Etenraku. She tapped out a slow pulse, and then she began to sing the name of each aitake to the tune; joining her I did the same, following the katakana characters written below the music. We repeated this many times. Students of the shō should technically spend 2 years learning the Gagaku repertoire by singing shō-ga before they even start to study the instrument.
Smooth aitake changes benefit the flow of breathing and vice versa, in turn sustaining a continuous cloud of harmony over which the melody instruments of Gagaku, the hichiriki and ryuteki can play. The Stanford website explains this very well.
Miura-sensei described breathing as being like the rhythm of the sea, with everything slowed down. I found that in changing between aitake, I was using all of my arm, especially the left. If the left arm moves up, even by a fraction, the 1st & 2nd left hand fingers uncover the gyō and shichi tone holes, making the aitake incomplete. My fingers, so used to oboe keys, mimic their sprung mechanical action, and in the slight panic to find the correct notes for each aitake, my left arm compensates. ‘Yukkuri!’ (which means slowly) said Miura-sensei, and demonstrated the discreet, calm way of moving from one note to another, the te-utsuri. ‘Always aim to make your fingers as flat as possible’, she said. My teacher then played Etenraku; and it was fantastic to watch how effortless she made the te-utsuri look; her miraculous breathing, a flat calm sea.
In Gagaku there is no change of aitake on the first beat. Unless specified, the changes happen almost always at the end of the 4th beat, which is always slightly extended to accommodate this, breathing or drawing air on the bar-line to sustain the next bar of harmony. An exception involves the shō’s high tones, the pipes hachi (E natural) and sen (F sharp) following the instruction ato-uchi. They are next played directly after the change of breathing, hence, after the breath, ato-uchi.
The music of Gagaku is very slow. It is entering a calmness. With this in mind, I can’t help but think about the parallel between the Alexander Technique and shō-playing, my teacher agreed. I was end-gaining and learning to fail in order to succeed. The words ‘May my neck be free,’ resonated all the more. I repeated the first 3 aitake over and over. Suddenly, something clicked, I forgot myself. ‘Yes!’ said my teacher, the te-utsuri was correct. Eventually, I managed to make the complicated but correct te-utsuri from aitake ge to otsu which involved ato-uchi. Miura-sensei applauded. I have to say that my teacher was unfailingly patient and kind. It was deeply humbling and she has my utmost respect in every way.
During the week I was very fortunate to attend a concert given by recorder virtuoso Tosiya Suzuki, together with shō-player Mayumi Miyata and koto-player, Nanae Yoshimura at Yodobashi church. It was a wonderful concert; not only did it showcase some works by young New Zealand composers but it also presented some outstanding works for solo recorder. Saiki’s Kyrie (2008) for bass recorder and shō began with a single needle-point of light from the shō, which was joined at length by the dynamic Suzuki, practically waltzing his bass recorder through a labyrinth of contemporary techniques, attempting to destabilize the transcendent plane of light from Miyata’s shō. Similarly, in Itoh’s Salamander (1995), Suzuki’s solo sopranino recorder was dizzying in its ceaseless rapidity, stopping for the briefest of moments, as if the ground really was too hot to stay for very long. By contrast, Hosokawa’s Schneeglöchen (2009) for tenor recorder and koto cast a textural chill. The shakuhachi-like tenor recorder echoed by glacial koto portamento, reflection upon reflection; a haiku woven in ice.
Just before the concert at Yodobashi.
Saturday afternoon I took part in a group lesson of shō players; it was so great to be part of a class all learning the same instrument. How amazing to hear SIX shō all playing the aitake. Miura-sensei asked us to sing the shō-ga for Etenraku, and then talked through the te-utsuri for the first and second sections. It was no surprise to discover more ato-uchi instructions; notably from aitake jū to ichi which requires a difficult te-utsuri, breathing on the downbeat, then an ato-uchi move to sen before changing to aitake kotsu on the third beat. Sounds complicated? It was curious to witness all six shō-players looking for the correct aitake, quietly singing the previous bar of the shō-ga, bamboo pipes clicking percussively as our fingers attempted to solve the mystery of the next te-utsuri. All of us managed to find it and make the correct aitake and there was the consolation of solidarity in numbers!
6th February 2016
I have been in Tokyo for nearly a week now, staying at the International House of Japan which is set in beautiful surrounding gardens. For over 60 years International House has played an outstanding role as a centre for promoting and fostering cultural exchange through its constant programme of events; including lectures, exhibitions, performances, workshops and seminars.
On the 3rd February it was an honour to meet Professor Barbara Ruch, Emerita Professor of Japanese Literature & Culture, Director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University who welcomed me to the Global Artist Residency. Joining us in the Tea Lounge of I-House were Miho Ito (co-ordinator for IMJS Global Artist Residency in Japan) and Okeanos Ensemble member Robin Thompson. After exchanging mēshi (business cards) we began a lively, interesting conversation which touched upon the changeable nature of Japanese semantics and dialect; and newly composed yo-gaku, music for both Japanese and western instruments, including Nicola LeFanu’s Tokaido Road, which caused us to reflect upon 19th century Japonisme, and the Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) that did so much to influence western culture. The hour passed swiftly and the next time I would meet Professor Ruch, if my studies progressed well, would be in New York at the IMJS Annual Concert for Heritage Instruments in March.
Throughout Japan that day, it was the Festival of Setsubun (bean-throwing festival). For those not lucky enough to attend the temple festivities, it is traditional to buy soy beans and eat the quantity matching your age plus one more. This ensures good health for the rest of the year. The Festival of Setsubun signifies the eve of the arrival of Spring, and the new lunar calendar.
In the afternoon, Robin, Miho and I set off for the Musashino Gakki studio to meet Mr Motomura, vice president of Musashino Instruments Ltd. I was taking the shō lent to me by Rebecca Salter gifted to her by Zen monk Otsuka Einosuke. From Motomura-San I learned that this particular shō dates from the late Meiji era, just over 100 years ago, and is made of stained bamboo, with each pipe fitting neatly next to the other. The instrument is entirely of wood with the exception of the silver kushigane (mouthpiece) the surrounding wa (ring) which holds the chikukan (pipes) in place, and the reeds themselves which are, as for all shō, made of copper or metal alloy and are glued to the lower part of each pipe by mitsurou (resin). I am indebted to Mr Yokoyama, the Musashino shō specialist, for the following:
This is what it is like inside the bowl of the shō, with the encircling array of pipes, reeds facing inwards.
Removing the ring and selecting one of the pipes from the bowl shows the size of the reed (greenish oblong) in relation to the pipe. The colour indicates that each reed is coated with malachite powder, a practise that has been retained for over a thousand years. The reason for this remains unclear although malachite is noted for its anti-microbial properties
Here is a reed uncoated, and one (to the right) that is. Note the small dark mark to end of the reed, this is where it is fixed, mark uppermost, to the foot of the bamboo pipe. In order to play at the required pitch for Gagaku Ensemble the shō has to be re-tuned to classical pitch which is A=430Hz. Each reed is tuned with a tiny amount of beeswax affixed to the reed. To readjust to contemporary pitch, A=440Hz, the beeswax is carefully removed from the reeds.
Amid the wonderful array of Gagaku music, recordings and instruments; ryuteki, hichiriki, koto, biwa lutes, san-notsuzumi and kakko percussion at the Musashino, there were very expensive shō made from smoked bamboo. Traditionally, the bamboo is stored for 50 years or more within the chimney of an old house so that over time the smoke gradually purifies it and stains it, aging the wood. Shō made of smoked bamboo are especially prized.
Otsuka Einosuke’s shō is made of bamboo stained with the dye from the gallnut, the same plant that, combined with ferric acetate, was used in the practise of Ohaguro. Gallnut dye is efficacious in that it protects the bamboo, ensuring long life and resilience. Motomura-San told me that shō constructed from this particular stained bamboo are now no longer made, which made Otsuka’s shō all the more interesting. At this point a black-robed Zen monk (perhaps the Abbot of a Temple) entered the shop with a familiar-looking black case; he too played the shō. I could not help thinking of Otsuka Einosuke, who had lived in Kyoto.
Yesterday, I had my first practice session at the studio which was intense yet an entirely beneficial experience as it is a lovely space. In the morning though, there had been an earth tremor, a small ji-shin, in Tokyo, 4.8 on the Richter scale. It was interesting to hear the earth speak with a sudden low rumble, almost like a growl, and then tail away so slowly, fading mysteriously, its subterranean journey continuing. At the time the whole room shook quite vigorously for about 5 seconds but it was not at all scary.
To get to the Musashino from I-House you take the Namboku line from Azabu-juban and alight at Oji, you can top up your Suica card en route at the machines by the ticket gates, make sure you put your card in the right one though! At each station a short piece of bell-like music is played to encourage you to find your place in the carriage before the doors close, a sort of metro ‘musical chairs’; strangely enough, I have never heard the same piece of music twice. Before long I soon reached the Musashino. I cannot express my gratitude to Motomura-San and Yokoyama-San for their generosity in preparing the shō for me, Motomura-San carefully removing it from its wrapping, retuned and now ready for the music of Gagaku.
30th January 2016
This last week I’ve been in Vancouver (working on a project for August 2016 in Ottawa), and preparing for the 2016 Global Artist Residency where from February 1st I will be in Tokyo learning and researching shō playing techniques. Going to Japan to study a Japanese Heritage instrument, being mentored by Japan’s outstanding shō players is an incredible opportunity. Through the eyes and ears of a western orchestra player (I’m an oboist with the Hallé Orchestra ) it is a daunting prospect, but will ultimately be a culturally rich and rewarding one.
I have always been interested in Japanese language and culture. Although, bringing together the players for Okeanos Ensemble happened by pure chance when in May 2001, I walked into Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery to discover the imminent arrival of the Japanese Textile Exhibition, Textural Space. I decided then and there to ask young Japanese composers to write for Japanese and western instruments for two autumn concerts scheduled at the Gallery. All this coincided with Japan 2001; a year-long celebration of Japanese culture in the UK to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Japan Society. Japanese crafts, theatre, poetry and music events were presented throughout the UK over a period of 18 months. Mayumi Miyata performing Takemitsu’s beautiful new work Ceremonial for shō and orchestra at the BBC Proms in the autumn was especially memorable.
But what is a shō? The shō consists of 17 bamboo pipes, of different lengths, each with a reed, clustered around a bowl. Attached to the bowl is the mouthpiece through which the reeds are free blown.
Two of the pipes are silent as they are said to represent the wings of the Phoenix whose voice is manifest through the shō. The shō is a medieval Japanese heritage instrument, practically unaltered for over a thousand years.
In July 2015, I was extremely fortunate to be lent a shō by artist Rebecca Salter presented to her by her sponsor in Japan, Zen monk, Otsuka Einosuke. Otsuka-san also donated several instruments in his possession to the British Museum. Ensemble member Robin Thompson gave me advice and help as I took my first tentative steps to play the shō, and I couldn’t help thinking at the time, ‘this is going to be tricky!’ the instrument seeming so ‘alien’. Physically holding the shō, with its minute almost invisible finger holes, the unfamiliar playing position (compared to the oboe), its unquestioning stillness and calm, the initial mystery of it, was daunting to say the least. But when I first blew into the reeds and the beautiful ethereal notes spoke I was absolutely entranced. Robin gave me books and music about the shō, including notation for the classic chord structures or aitake (‘combined bamboo’) which underpin the Court Music or Gagaku literally meaning ‘elegant music’ which itself dates back to the Heian period or Heian-jidai 794-1192 AD. It is these aitake which I need to learn well if I am to succeed in participating in the performance of Gagaku. For instance, to play a classical piece like Etenraku, ‘Divine Music of the Heavens’, the harmony requires seven aitake, each sounding surprisingly contemporary as they are tonal clusters.
Since starting this week of preparation in Vancouver I was really fortunate to be introduced to Christina Laffin, who is Associate Professor of Classical Japanese in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia whose research interests range from medieval travel diaries, women’s education and socialization before 1600; practices and waka culture to noh theatre among many others. As well as having an informative chat about Tokyo and the best places of interest to go, Christina told me about her work on women’s writing in the vernacular during the Heian period, using hiragana, the native Japanese syllabary still used today in Japan. Christina was a student at Columbia University, and studying wa-gakki (Japanese musical instruments) is an integral part of Columbia University’s Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies. The Tokyo Academy of Instrumental Heritage Music is the inspiration of Professor Barbara Ruch and Ken Aoki of Columbia University’s Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies. I am very grateful for the supporting grant from the IMJS which involves an invitation to perform in New York on March 26th at the Annual Concert of Heritage Instruments.
2016 Global Artist in Residence
Tokyo Academy of Instrumental Heritage Music is pleased to announce that Jinny Shaw, oboist of the Hallé Orchestra (Manchester, U.K.) and founding member of the chamber ensemble Okeanos (London, U.K.), has been selected for the 2016 Global Artist in Residence and will begin her study of the shō in February 2016 for a three-month residency in Tokyo. Congratulations, Jinny!