By the autumn hid

Here's an interesting couple of sentences from early in Imai Hitoshi 今井仁's Fuke shū shakuhachi-kyoku no onritsu (普化宗尺八曲の音律, "Temperament of fukeshu shakuhachi music"):

A single note in Western music is quantized raw material, nothing more. Music is composed by arranging this material. Conversely, in the shakuhachi music of the Fuke shū, a school of Zen Buddhism, the player seeks to express the entire world in each note. Representing the subtleties of these altered intervals on the five-line staff is difficult.

To an extent this is a sort of cultural triumphalism: there is obviously more to Western music than what's on the staff as well, or else the development of synthesizers with precise timing and pitch would have been the End of Musical History. But it is true that the kind of music most people think of when they think "Western art music" (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) is about structure and pattern to a much greater degree than most Japanese art music (and especially shakuhachi music). One obvious difference is harmony: obviously a huge deal in the West, in most Japanese traditional music it's either absent or very simple.

But there's more to it than that. Part of the reason that, say, Japanese koto compositions all tend to sound the same to the untrained ear is that in terms of structure they are all very similar. In particular the all-important opening section tends to be a series of isolated statements: "nuclear note, nuclear note, unstable passing tone, nuclear note..." Strictly speaking, this is a melody, but it's not supposed to be interpreted as one. More like, as I said, a series of isolated statements, most very short, many single notes. If you're listening for the standard post-1600 European pattern of "line that implies interesting harmony! (pause) second, similar line that implies slightly tenser version of harmony! (pause) line that resolves part of the way! (pause) line that finishes resolving!" &mdash well, you're gonna be bored. (And yes, I noticed that my explanation there summons up harmony again. It's all interrelated.)

Incidentally, Imai concludes that in the music of the Fuke shū, performers keep the pitches of nuclear notes relatively stable (although they may vary between performers), but other notes, less so. This he also interprets as evidence for Koizumi Fumio 小泉文夫's argument that the gagaku scale (律音階) and the "miyako-bushi" scale of urban Edo-period art music (都節) are in some sense varied expressions of the same phenomenon (not having read Koizumi properly, I'm not in a position to comment). He also proposes that Fuke shū music be represented in a continuous graph-like form making explicit the variations in pitch, rather than the discrete (and inherently diatonocentric) five-line staff. (I'm not sure why that's necessary, though, since he makes a convincing case that nuclear tones are fixed — even if the five-line staff is a round peg for the square hole of shakuhachi music, we can surely invent something similar that allows for acceptable simplification for ease of analysis.)

In completely unrelated news, at the end of May the Diet library opened a publicly accessible archive of "historic recordings" (歴史的音源) whose copyright periods are all complete. Here's their intro page. So far most (all?) of the recordings seem to be old '45s rather than, you know, tape reels from field anthropologists or anything (I think that 音源 might be a term of art in this regard), but who's complaining?

Here's a Miyagi Michio 宮城道雄 setting of a Shimamura Tōson 島崎藤村 poem called "Enishi" (ゑにし, "Affinity") a.k.a. "Aki ni kakurete" (秋に隠れて, "By the autumn hid")1. Miyagi himself is on Koto, Yoshida Seifū 吉田晴風 is playing the shakuhachi, and the vocals are by Satō Chiyoko 佐藤千夜子.

I planted white chrysanthemums by hand,
But let them bring their own selves up to bloom;
A single blossom, by the autumn hid,
Stands at my window in this evening gloom.

This is a fine example of Miyagi's modernizing/Westernizing tendencies, by the way, and not at all of the "note by note" thing I was talking about up there. Even the singing is straight-up Euro-Art. Probably the most "Japanese" part of this, apart from the instrumentation, is the occasional diversion into miyako-bushi-esque scales, e.g. around "暮陰に".

Popularity factor: 22


Just Google+'d this, but... any interest in making a video like this: http://youtu.be/D8SD3ToKDsw

You do the drawings and provide the music, and I'll do the video editing.

Leonardo Boiko:

I have zero musical education, but I’ve been reading a bit on ethnomusicology and it seems “Western” music is the exception rather than the rule with its emphasis on harmony. I find it hard to seek information on this topic; as far as I can tell most texts on what’s called “music theory” don’t bother to distinguish between universal features (e.g. unison, octaves) and features specific to a single cultural tradition (e.g. the diatonic scale); or indeed to give more than a passing nod to music other than the “Western” (for lack of a better term).

Regarding the limitations of the five-staff, the keyword seems to be “microtonal music”. There’s a lot of experiments and discussions in this area, but when you think about it, even a simple blues guitar bend is “microtonal” (in that it doesn’t quite fit the “proper” chromatic notes). These have been represented on the staff as lines and arcs (see: glissando, portamento), though of course the tradition that created this kind of music didn’t bother with staves at all, and that’s part of the point.

I’m particularly interested about rhythm in shakuhachi music; it seems to be something very different than what we usually call rhythm, less “heartbeat” and more “walk in the woods”.


Daniel: That's an interesting idea! I'm not really expert enough to be the ideal guy, but maybe I can be the guy who infuriates the experts into doing it right. (That video is awesome, btw.)

Leo: Yeah, I don't know if it's just because I'm outside the academy reading semi-popular books, but music theory seems to be like a century or so behind linguistics in terms of relativism. The difference between "universal" and "culture-specific" is really important as you say, and often not acknowledged or expressed in confusing ways. I've talked to a couple of music theorists though and they were really cool and quite into one or two folk traditions (each) to the extent that they could talk about them in their own terms, so I think it's more the system that's the problem. No doubt, that five-line staff is a burden -- something like an IPA is desperately needed. (On the other hand I reject the quasi-mystical "oh, our music can't be written down at all!" counter-reaction. Unless it's totally aleatory, I bet it can. Someone just needs to come up with the right representation.)

Rhythm in shakuhachi music is an interesting topic. Most theorists link it with breath: one phrase, one breath. (This doesn't mean that everyone plays different phrases according to their ability, but rather, you have to train to be able to play the phrases in one breath.) They are also big on the concept of "ma". And things seem to be getting slower and slower, if you listen to old recordings (of course, they could be artificially fast due to limitations of the technology -- have to fit as much as you can into 2.5 minutes).


"...or else the development of synthesizers with precise timing and pitch would have been the End of Musical History."

You mean it wasn't?

(You had to be expecting that.)


The problem of that kind of Hegelian, teleological analysis is that it fails to explain how we arrived at the synthesizer without first inventing the thesizer and antithesizer.


Wow, Matt just won his own blog.


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