Interview 1
Sound, Time and the Japanese

Noboru Yasuda

Born in Choshi, Chiba prefecture, in 1956. Noh actor of the Shimogakari Hosho school.
At university, he studied classic Chinese philosophy, and in his early 20s he helped compile a Chinese-Japanese dictionary. Apart from performing on the Noh stage both in Japan and abroad, he also gives lectures about Noh and holds workshops about Noh body techniques at schools, civic courses and conferences, and has written several books on these topics.

Hyoshi and fushi and rhythm and melody

Hyoshi in Noh is often said to be “rhythm” and fushi to be “melody,” but they are totally different concepts. If you were to define “melody,” you might call it a movement up and down in pitch, but there are quite a few Noh chants (utai) that have fushi, but no such up and down movements. For example, in the famous play Takasago the lines “From Takasago, sailing over the bay…” are chanted at a constant pitch, but with variations due to the fushi.
A melody has a tendency to move toward a resolution, a conclusion. That goes for rhythm too; from the moment it starts, it is already moving toward its conclusion. From the first stroke of the conductor’s baton, for instance, you can imagine what will follow. At the very least, one bar is determined by that single stroke. Time is divided up in advance before it even exists.
In Noh and traditional Japanese music, the most important is sharing a silent breath before any sound is produced. In a Noh play, there are three types of sound elements: drum notes, shouts, and komi. The first two types are audible, but komi is a silent sound. You draw a sharp breath and hold it deep in your belly for a while. How you make that komi determines everything: strength, speed, pitch and timing. In Noh, the first komi draws forth the next sound, but you don’t know in advance what will happen after that. There is no scheduled future; everything starts from the present moment. Even when you perform as an ensemble, nobody is trying to follow the others in the way it’s done in Western music. When a performer receives a komi, he is free to change it. The dancer can indicate the komi he wants to take by shortening his steps, and the guy he is designating may say “I see” or “absolutely not!” or indicate another komi altogether. For that reason, you could say that there’s always a battle unfolding on the Noh stage. Moreover, there is no leader or conductor, and no counting. There is no predetermined sequence and no leader’s or conductor’s instructions when to move on to the next step. Instead, the individual performers create each following step together.
There are two modes called hyoushi-au [“coordinated beat”] and hyoushi-awazu [“uncoordinated beat”]. Hyoshi-au is not the same as rhythm in Western music, but still a kind of accompaniment. Hyoushi-awazu is more like a recitativo in opera. The chant and the drum continue independently of each other, but come together perfectly at the end. It’s almost miraculous. It sometimes happens while I’m chanting that I look up to check how we were going to bring it together. But the moment you start thinking like that, everything falls apart. If you immerse yourself, it will come together; if you let your awareness drift even slightly, it won’t.
Simply speaking, there are three pitches in Noh: high, mid and low. If you have to write them in Western musical notation, they correspond to intervals of about four semitones. It is not an absolute tone scale, though, but a relative scale, which means you can’t really write them in Western notation. If the tone you are chanting right now is “mid pitch,” and you go up from that tone, that is “high” and if you go down it is “low.” And “four semitones” doesn’t mean exactly four semitones; how far up or down you will go depends on your mood at that moment. It is very different from the Western notion of “keys.”
Relative pitch is very difficult for contemporary Japanese people. When I teach chanting, the students all try to produce the same sounds as I do. However, everyone’s body is different, so each student should really produce their own sound. When we train, I tell them not to reproduce the pitch of my voice but the tension of my body, but very few people can do that. In fact, I’ve only come across two people who could, and interestingly, both of them had been told by their music teachers in school that they were tone deaf. In Western music it is important to produce the same sound, so people who make sounds my way are pronounced tone deaf!

Japanese time coexists with things

The peculiarity of fushi and hyoushi in Japanese music is probably due to a different perception of time.
For example, the Chinese character 故 corresponds to “because” in English, but when Chinese characters were introduced to Japan some 1500 years ago, the Japanese didn’t understand that and used it with a meaning more like “and.” The left part of 故 is 古, which means “old,” so a phrase like “A 故… B” means that B exists now because of something older, namely A. This is a causal theory, where the present is created by the past. However, the Japanese in the age of Kojiki [“Records of Ancient Matters,” an early 8th century compilation of myths and records and Japan’s oldest book] couldn’t grasp that. Both Kojiki and Nihon Shoki [“Chronicles of Japan,” Japan’s second oldest book, from 720] mimicked the Chinese style, but historical events are not described along the flow of time. Causal descriptions mainly occur to show the legitimacy of various clans.
Modern Japanese people are not the same as the Japanese of the Kojiki era, of course. We appear to live according to cause and effect. But actually we don’t. As is evident in the problems with historical awareness, for example, mood is still fundamental to the Japanese.
From a Western or Asian Continental perspective, this can sometimes be extremely annoying. You might even say that the Japanese have never internalized the idea of “history.” But does this also mean that the Japanese don’t think about the future either? No, far from it.
When I bought the skin for a small drum, I was told that the skin won’t sing now, but if I keep beating the drum every day for 50 years it will. I guess I’ll be over 100 years old before I’ll finally be able to use it properly. That kind of future is quite acceptable to the Japanese.
Kojiki uses the character combination 何故, which means “why,” only once. Instead, it generally uses 何由, which is pronounced the same way (naniyue) but refers to the concrete source or origin of something: “from what” or “whence.” “Why” is abstract. If we’re told we’ll have to wait a hundred years before a drum begins to sing, then we can wait for a hundred years. Those hundred years are already built in. That is the Japanese sense of time. Time doesn’t flow independently or externally, it coexists with things. Perhaps it would be better to speak of “times” or “moments.” Externally flowing time is an abstract notion, but spring, summer, fall and winter are “times” that go with concrete things and matters.
There were many concepts among the Chinese characters that the ancient Japanese couldn’t comprehend. In those cases, they just used the Chinese pronunciation as it was. For concepts that they did know, they added the Japanese word as another reading of the character. For example, 海 (“sea”) has the Chinese reading kai and the Japanese reading umi. However, they didn’t understand characters like 信 (shin, “trust”) or 感 (kan, “emotion”). For these, they created verbs by keeping the Chinese readings and adding Japanese inflections. The Japanese simply didn’t have those notions before.
“Grieving” is completely different from “feeling grief.” Grieving is something you do with your whole body and soul, whereas feeling grief is an objectification of that grieving state. Grieving is entering into the grief, becoming one with the grief, not regarding it as an object. Since you are grieving with your whole body and soul, you can even start laughing soon afterwards without getting dragged down by grief. Precisely that kind of childish sense leads to a sense of the “moment,” you could say.
Komi in Noh is also a sense of the moment, something you can only understand if you enter that spot. When the poet Basho says to “learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk,” he adds that by learning he means to “enter into things.” For example, when you stand in front of a Noh mask, there are roughly speaking three ways you can look at it: the appreciative point of view, the critical point of view, and the appraising point of view. The Noh performer, however, doesn’t chose any of these three approaches; he or she tries to become one with the mask, to “enter into” the mask.
This is what Basho meant by “entering into things”: to become one with the pine or the bamboo stalk. Komi is also a sensation of “entering into” something. It is nothing you can understand in the abstract, it needs to be experienced.
In the famous haiku
The old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of the water
Basho doesn’t actually see the frog; he has become one with the old pond and feels that what jumped in must have been a frog. The Western mindset tends to focus on Basho’s watching presence or the meaning of the sound of water, but all that is redundant in the haiku itself. It is like a metaphor but it isn’t a metaphor. There is no need for an “I” either.

Noh performer(waki)

Noh performer(waki)

Zeami’s system of stories and sensations

The Muromachi period [1336-1573], when Noh attained greatness, was the time when the foundations were laid for what would later become known as Japanese culture. The great achievement of Zeami [c. 1363-1443], who was the one who perfected the Noh theater, was that he made literary works “three-dimensional.” Previously, works like The Tale of Ise and The Tale of Genji had been read as literature, or at the most depicted in picture scrolls. Now, thanks to Zeami, the characters stood right there in front of you, moving around and speaking lines straight from the ancient classics. Not even the Greek tragedies were like that. Along with literary classics, Zeami and his father Kan’ami dug up old folk tales and oral legends and turned them into plays. It was probably as a result of all that fieldwork they were able to adapt the classics as well.
Noh has been continuously performed for over 650 years ever since the age of Kan’ami and Zeami to this day. That is longer than any other surviving performing arts tradition in the world.
The reason behind this long continuity is two important mechanisms that Zeami built into Noh. One is the concept of shoshin [初心, “original intention” or “beginner’s spirit”]. “Never forget the beginner’s spirit,” Zeami said.
The first character in shoshin, 初, consists of a 衣 part (meaning “clothes”) to the left, and 刀 (meaning “blade”) to the right, and refers to the cutting of cloth to make a garment. That is to say, in order to move on to the next stage, you need to cut off your old self. We can’t help thinking that we are a continuation of the past and will go on into the future. Our way of thinking tends to become linear. But linear things are boring. The reason why last year’s new products no longer feel novel is that they are entirely within the range of our expectations. By cutting off the past with a single stroke, Zeami tried to create surprise and wonder. In order to do this, you first of all have to cut off yourself and reset your mind to the “beginner’s spirit.” It is often thought that Noh is a traditional performing art that never changes, but in fact it has changed quite drastically any number of times over the years. We know for example that it was transformed to an amazing degree in the early Edo period [17th century]. It also changed at the time of the Meiji Restoration [late 19th century] and after the Second World War. But Zeami had already prepared a mechanism that would allow for all these changes: the system of shoshin.
However, people who really can return to the “beginner’s spirit” and make a clean break with the past in order to create something new are few and far between, perhaps one in a hundred years or every couple of hundred years. Meanwhile, Zeami created a system for ordinary people to keep going as well. In his treatise Fushi Kaden, he writes that harmonizing yin and yang is the key to success. “In the daytime, people get excited, so act quietly to calm the feelings down; night and rain are shady, so act in a flashy way,” he states. That is easier said than done, though. Usually, when people are excited the performer also gets excited. When the audience’s mood is down, the performer also loses heart. That goes for musicians and rakugo performers too. It’s basic human psychology. But a clever way to overcome this is “built into” the instruments, as it were. Noh uses two types of drums: a large drum and a small one. The large drum is played dry and therefore sounds better on sunny days. The small drum is dampened, and sounds better on rainy days and at night. Furthermore, the large drum is usually struck on the odd beats and the small drum on the even beats, so that the odd beats sound better on sunny days. Odd beats are the so-called banquet beats and naturally tend to get slower and slower. The even beats are back beats and gradually grow faster. In other words, the drums are constructed in such a way that you play faster on rainy days and slower on sunny days.
Zeami also devised the construction and shape of the bridge to the stage in a way that anyone can follow.
Noboru Yasuda

Noh keeps changing

When you mention Noh, people usually think of a very slow way of acting, but that has only been the case since the early Edo period. Before that, the performances were apparently more free-flowing. This kind of transformation was made possible through the concept of shoshin. The idea that traditional Japanese arts have a slow and relaxed tempo is a misunderstanding and a comparatively recent image. Noh has even become a lot slower since the 1970s. My seniors tell me that plays that take two hours to perform now used to be performed in an hour and a half. In the early Edo period the tempo was even higher, about three times the current speed. When you chant at that speed, it sounds almost like contemporary rap music, but that was how they chanted and danced. Naturally, there were much slower passages as well. Another of Zeami’s terms is senu-hima, “intervals of not acting.” By using such empty, action-less intervals, they could alternate fast and slow tempos in a lively manner.
If you look at a Noh stage, the shite (lead performer) might come from the Kanze school, the waki (supporting actor) from the Hosho school, and the Kyogen actors from the Izumi school; actors from different schools performing together on the same stage. The different schools use different scripts, and their interpretations are also different. Even so, they don’t practice together. This means you don’t know how your partner will move. It puts you on edge, but that’s also a big part of the thrill. That’s why Noh keeps changing with every single performance. It’s not a question of simply following the established tradition. Originally, all of Japan’s performing arts were like that, I think.
Nowadays, they are using sheet music in the education of other traditional performing art forms than Noh, and I hear the students can no longer play it by ear any more. That’s very unfortunate.
Another important feature in Japanese performing arts is “constraints.” For musical instruments like the shakuhachi or the Nohkan [the flute used for Noh], the better they are, the harder they are to play. If one day in the future when Noh has vanished and some intelligent researcher tries to figure out from old documents what kind of art it was, he or she will no doubt realize this. On the outside, the Nohkan looks exactly like the transverse flute used in gagaku, but it has a small tube called the nodo (“thoat”) inside which makes sounds harder to produce, and you have to become “tone deaf” in order to play it. It’s an instrument deliberately designed to be difficult to play and to make you tone deaf. The same goes for the human body. When you grow old and your body grows stiff and won’t move any more, you can still do good stuff by applying techniques you first learned when you were young. Noh is an art where constraints open up new possibilities.

diagram 1
Japanese Spacetime and Bodily Sensations

Japanese spacetime and bodily sensations

The Japanese view and perception of the world and the body is quite different not just from the West, but from the rest of Asia too. This led as a matter of course to the development of Japan’s unique performing arts and forms of bodily expression.