Transmission and change: Noh drama



Further to my post on contemporary Noh drama, I’m grateful to Allan Marett for drawing my attention to

the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.

I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.

Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.

Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:

A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.

Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.

The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.

As Fujita explains:

According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]

Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).

Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]

This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.

Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).

Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.

A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter [2] from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.

Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:

For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.

On singing, Fujita observes:

Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:

In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.

This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.

He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:

The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.

While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.

Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.

In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:

When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.

So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.

With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.

Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:

At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.

He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:

Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.

§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:

In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.

Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”)  and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.

Observing that

in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,

Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.

Such thoughtful, detailed analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of change in musickings around the world.


[1] For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.

[2] For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.


2 thoughts on “Transmission and change: Noh drama

  1. Pingback: Contemporary Noh drama | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Oh Noh! | Stephen Jones: a blog

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