Today is the 106th anniversary of Meiji composer TAKI Rentarō 滝廉太郎's death at the age of 23.

You might remember him as the composer of early Euro-style melodies like "Hana" 花 ("[Cherry] blossoms") and "Kōjō no tsuki" 荒城の月 ("The moon over the ruins of a castle"), the latter of which the Scorpions used to cover when on tour here. He also wrote what was eventually canonized as Japan's first solo piece, a serviceable if unadventurous minuet in B minor, while still a student in 1899.

In 1901, he travelled to Germany to continue his musical studies, but came down with tuberculosis after just two months, and returned to Japan in 1902. Back at his family home in Oita, he wrote his second (and final) piano piece just months before dying: "Urami" 憾, published posthumously.

"Urami" is not a subtle piece. The melody storms up and down the minor scale, trapped and frustrated, while naked minor chords pound the harmonic sensibilities raw. It's primitive, lacking even the prom-pomade finish of the minuet. And because the word "Urami" has evolved somewhat in meaning over the years, the meaning (and ideal English translation) of the title is a topic of debate.

OGAWA Noriko's Just for me (which is a must-own for anyone interested in early Japanese piano music) translates it "Grudge" without comment—apparently based on the modern meaning of the verb uramu—but this makes little sense. A grudge is something you hold long-term, not a deathbed outburst like this. "Regret" is another common translation, but in my opinion this music lacks the quiet resignation that this would imply.

Me, I would go with "Resentment." Resentment at coughing up blood on an Oita sickbed instead of studying with the Viennese masters; resentment at being dragged off the stage of history just as things were getting interesting. Resentment at the prospect of becoming a period curiosity, written up in blogs a hundred years later for writing Japan's first minuet—rather than its best one.


La Traviata

Hagoromo 羽衣 is one of the most well-known Noh plays, even outside Japan, thanks to its simple folk-tale-based plot and spectacular dance scene. You do not need to have read the Genji or brushed up on Taira-Minamoto history to enjoy the story, which goes: Fisherman finds titular feathered robes. Celestial maiden appears, asks him to give it back to her. He refuses. She laments. He relents. She dances. (Here are some sketches.)

To be fair to the work, though, its popularity doesn't derive entirely from its simplicity. Hagoromo also contains one of the most famous exchanges in all of Noh.

It comes just after the fisherman decides to give the celestial maiden her feathered robes back after all. I'll give them to you, he says, but only if you dance for me first. Fantastic, she says, sure, let me show this human world how it's done. There's a great dance we do around the moon that I'd be happy to re-enact here for all you suffering folks down here. Only thing is, I can't dance without the robe, so please give that back first. He's skeptical: "No; if I just give this robe back, you won't dance; you'll go straight up to heaven" (いや此衣をかへしなば。舞曲をなさで其ままに。天にやあがり給ふべき). To which she replies:


Here are four English translations of this line, in chronological order:

  1. Chamberlain (1880): "Fie on thee! The pledge of mortals may be doubted, but in heavenly beings there is no falsehood."
  2. Pound/Fenollosa (1916): "Doubt is fitting for mortals; with us there is no deceit."
  3. Waley (1922): "No, no. Doubt is for mortals;/ In heaven is no deceit."
  4. Tyler (1978): "No, suspicion's for the human realm; in Heaven there's no falsehood."

As is often the case, the ideal translator can be projected to lie somewhere between Waley and Tyler. Waley's "Doubt is for mortals" is a superbly pithy formulation, but wilts under close inspection (the fisherman is a mortal). Tyler's "Suspicion's for the human realm" makes the intended meaning of 人間 much clearer: the world of humans, rather than humans themselves. This is important because the play is about this world: the fisherman sings of wild coastal beauty at the beginning, but the Celestial Maiden is horrified at the idea that she might actually have to live there.

On the gripping hand, Tyler's use of "human" here strikes a false note for me. "Humans" meet celestial beings in sf. In fantasy, the celestial beings deal with Waley's "mortals." (I also prefer the doubt/deceit dyad to suspicion/falsehood, but I suspect I may be well into the wilds of taste by that point.)

Special mention for P/F's "with us," which gives the line an eerie, alien character. Chamberlain's version has little to recommend it, although that "Fie on thee!" is an interesting feudal flare-up: it isn't like the "fairy" (as he calls her) has the upper hand at this point, viewed objectively.

This line is allegedly borrowed from an exchange in the Tango (no kuni) fudoki 丹後國風土記 version of the Hagoromo myth:


"All celestial beings strive to make faith the basis of their actions. How many-doubted is your heart, that you will not give back my robe?" "Many doubts, no faith: Welcome to Earth, baby." (But he gives it back in the end.)

Bonus Hagoromo link: Pound scholar Peter Makin published a poem by the same name in Shearsman 62. Here's some commentary too.


Kuwai Iooo Rooo

This is why romanization rules are important:

... Because without them, people are just going to keep writing vowels until they run out of room.

As Waseda explains:

The roman letters at the top give the idiosyncratic spelling in the English alphabet of "Kuwaiiooorooo" for the restaurant's name (Kaiyuro), testimony that it antecedes the establishment of regular rules for romanization.

That's 會友樓, 会友楼 in modern characters, to be pronounced kwaiyūrō. (In the passage above, Waseda have modernized /kwa/ to /ka/.) The meaning is roughly "Meet-Friends Towers," with unmistakably Chinese V-O order. Might even be a reference to some continental classic or other... if so, it's over my head.


O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!

The thing about Monbushō shōka ("Education Department songs") (previously) is that the government commissioned them. Everything about them embodies the top-down cultural agenda of the Meiji power structure. Even the word shōka 唱歌 was a Meiji neologism*, referring to both the songs themselves and their "correct singing" as an official subject in school, with the goal being to "cultivate the morality and mold the virtue" of the students.

And so, although the word was most likely intended to translate English "song" and "singing" in general, it quickly narrowed to refer specifically to the songs children learned in public schools, and the singing thereof**. I even found someone complaining that the term 学校唱歌, "school shōka," is redundant in the same sense that 武士の侍, "warrior samurai" would be.

Another area of high agenda visibility is the lyrical content of the songs. One example that came to my attention recently: "Yorokobi no uta", IWASA Tōichirō 岩佐東一郎's shōkafied take on the Beethoven/Schiller Ode to Joy.

晴れたる青空 ただよう雲よ
小鳥は歌えり 林に森に
心はほがらか 喜びみちて
見かわす我らの 明るき笑顔

Clear blue skies/ drifting clouds
The little birds are singing/ in the forests, in the woods
Our kokoro are merry/ full of joy
We look at each other with/ bright, smiling faces

Can you imagine a full choir belting out this crayonic idyll? It's like the mirror-universe version of Hubbel's "O thou unrippled pool of quietness" Bashō parody.

No, surely what has happened here is that Iwasa and/or his editors liked the melody and the general idea of singing about happiness, but decided to craft a new set of lyrics that would foster morals and good cheer rather than frenzied, cosmic ecstasy.

Non-government poets of the time found this sort of insipid preachiness (and stilted language) so distasteful that they actually founded a private magazine to publish their own poems and songs for children (dōyō 童謡). Thus was born the Akai tori ("Red bird") movement, named after the magazine itself. To be fair, many of the Akai tori dōyō come off as pretty insipid today as well, but they were at least written in language that children could understand.

Bonus Ode to Joy factoid: Although its first performances in Japan took place in P.O.W. camps during WWI, it wasn't until the postwar period that Beethoven's 9th became the end-of-year program fixture that it is in Japan today. Problem: Everyone wants to sing along, but not everyone can read German. Solution: Throw together a bunch of nonsense ("Get out of the bath, sleep to a poem, moonlit powder-build...") which will, when pronounced aloud, give you a katakana-German rendition of the lyrics. I seriously doubt that anyone ever considered this more than a lark, but it did work for Yan-san.

* There was a Sino-Japanese word written with the same kanji but pronounced shōga referring to vocals (and vocal notation) in gagaku and certain later musical traditions. This might have inspired the Meiji translation bureaucracy kanji-wise, but even if so, altering the pronunciation shows clear intent to differentiate the two words and their referents. (Back)

** My source for a lot of this stuff, by the way, is HORIUCHI Keizō and INOUE Takeshi's afterword to Iwanami's Nihon shōka shū 日本唱歌集. (Back)


Les espaces sémantiques

A clock whose destiny lies on a wall yet to be built sits on a small pile of old books across the room from me as I write. It has ticked away the weekend there, rocking uneven but firm, and I have done my best to give it silence for a canvas as I read modernist Japanese poets on the couch.

Spending long, consecutive hours on this task with a constant pulse in my ears has given me a new appreciation for the "new prose poetry movement" championed (I gather) by HARUYAMA Yukio 春山行夫's magazine Shi to shiron 詩と詩論 in the early Showa years.

A few months ago, I stumbled across a sizable cache of Grisey and Murail in a second-hand CD shop's tiny "Classical/Contemporary" section, and spent the next few days listening to nothing else. It might just be because I'm still reeling from Les espaces acoustiques and Gondwana, but I feel like you could draw some interesting parallels between the whole spectralism thing and the prose poems included in TSURUOKA Yoshihisa 鶴岡善久's modernist anthology, a book I will soon have worn down to a handful of rags.

It's hard to explain what I'm talking about without embarking on a huge, time-consuming translation-and-critisicm project, but take a look at this 1930 poem by SENDA Hikaru 千田光 entitled 赤氷, "Red Ice". (This is arguably a regular poem with very long lines rather than a prose poem, but it's a manageable size and uses a lot of the same techniques.)

From the ravine the ice's fracturing sound the river's throat to open begins and it is an ice-flow. All at once surging it is red ice.
By the new border wall pulverized it is red ice. From red ice grown a palm-shaped flower.
For the ravine a few years blockage, but still like fat-marbled muscle it is a stalk. But, to the new border wall as if to let nothing bloom it is less than a single drop of ice.
O red ice the new border wall pierce, you are on the sun's back another newer sun's combustion. You are combustion.

Obviously this poem does not convey an image-of-a-thing in full and clear. On the other hand, neither is it built on surrealist non sequitur. Borrowing ideas from spectralism gives you a new way to think about what it is: a gradually evolving timbre synthesized from image-unit harmonics. Focusing on just a few of those harmonics will get you a skeleton of the poem something like this:

ravine(from) / ice / fracture / ice-flow / red ice
new border wall(by) / pulverize / red ice / red ice / flower
ravine(for) / stalk / new border wall(to) / bloom / ice-drop
red ice / new border wall(obj.) / pierce / sun / sun / combust / combust

Some of the concepts, like "ravine" and "new border wall", reappear rhythmically in different roles. "Ice" first appears in its simplest form and then reappears in variations, including the title formulation. The idea of destruction is a constant but evolving thread: fracture, pulverize, pierce, combust; the last is an unexpected offshoot enabled by the appearance of the sun, which was in turn allowed through (perhaps literally) by the piercing. The syntax of the work is disjointed and hostile to sustained sculptures of meaning. Instead, we have shuffled clusters of semantic harmony (almost like a supercompressed Mallarméic Symbolism?) looming in and out of view in a rise-and-fall rhythm.

(This is also why my poem is less elegant than I'd like: I wanted first and foremost to retain structure and order for the purposes of this blog post.)

In terms of complexity, of course, it doesn't begin to approach the huge orchestrations characteristic of the big "spectralist" works. Then again, Webern apparently managed to work up a chamber-orchestra arrangement of his extremely timbre-reliant Sechs Stücke für grosses Orchester. Resourceful creators can make do with less.



Daniel's enlightening liveblog of MURAKAMI Haruki 村上春樹's new novel 1Q84 (suggested pronunciation: "Q-teen eighty-four") during the two or three hours over the weekend he didn't spend napping or eating gigantic sausages has already inspired a MutantFrog post, and here I am, arms morphed T1000-like into sharp hooks, clinging to the bandwagon as well. My topic today, courtesy of H2J, is the unintuitive spelling 抽斗 for hikidashi, "drawer".

The etymology of the word hikidashi itself is obvious: hiku (pull) + dasu (take out), nominalized. So you might expect it to be spelt using the standard characters for hiku (引) and dasu (出), and in fact it often is: 引出し is the first spelling given in the Kōjien. Whence, then, 抽斗?

抽 means "pull out," although nowadays it's often used in a more figurative sense: 抽出, "extraction"; 抽象, "abstraction", literally meaning something like "to pull something out of a (more general) phenomenon". The left side of this character is a hand, but the right is apparently disputed: Kanji gen claims that it's just 由 meaning "emerge from", but the Shin kango rin claims (apparently based on the Kang xi) that it's a simplified form of another character the right half of which was 畱 (留 "stop", pre-simplification), and 畱 in turns means "a deep hole"... and since I can't afford the really good kanji dictionaries yet, I'm afraid I'm just going to have to teach the controversy and leave it at that. But do note that 抽出し, using 抽 as a straight replacement for 引, is another Kōjien-approved spelling.

斗 refers to a traditional East Asian unit of measure for liquid volume, the to (about 18 L in Meiji Japan*), and by extension the implements used to measure such volumes—ancestors of those square wooden boxes called masu in Japan. One famous and early use of 斗 as an object rather than an abstract unit is in "酌以大斗" in this poem. Legge translates it "He fills their cups from a measure"; Jeffrey R. Tharsen [PDF] prefers "He deals [wine and spirits] out with a big ladle." The commentary claims that whatever it is, it has a handle three shaku long, which would be two or three feet depending on era.

So, put together, 抽斗 means "pull-out container, like a box with a handle maybe." Multiple sources assert that it was used in ancient China long before Japanese speakers assigned it, as a two-character unit, to the native Japanese word hikidashi. There is actually another spelling that was imported in the same way and uses a different character for "box": 抽匣. This one died out (or was murdered) during the Meiji period, but its fossil record can be examined in works such as Sōseki's Michikusa, which alternates between the two spellings freely. For of such was Sōseki's individualism.

* Incidentally, this is why 18 L is the standard size for those big red kerosene containers. (Back)