能面: The Spirit of Noh

Contributed by Jeffrey Dym

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is some welcome background on Jeffrey Dym’s new documentary, which you can view in it’s entirety in the link below. We’re grateful to Jeffrey for his work on this project, his considerable dedication, and for highlighting many of Theatre Nohgaku’s artistic collaborators. If you know little of the intricacies of traditional noh masks, you’ll find this to be a fascinating view into this world.]

When I began teaching Japanese history at Sacramento State I watched most every documentary I could find on Japan, and this was in the days before YouTube. I was frequently troubled by all of the historical inaccuracies I found in the films, such as Chinese music or gamelan music being used as background music, or woodblock prints of Edo period prostitutes being shown when discussing the demure housewife who walked three steps behind her husband. In 2007, I participated in an Association of Asian Studies workshop on turning one’s research into a documentary film and since that time I have making documentaries as part of my research agenda as a Professor of History.

My first films were on kamishibai (紙芝居; paper plays), the research I was working on when I attended the documentary workshop. Kamishibai was one of the most popular form of entertainment in Japan during the 1930s and 1950s and involved telling a story with picture-cards. I made three films on kamishibai (What is Kamishibai, Kamishibai in the Classroom, and Die for Japan: Japanese World War II Propaganda Kamishibai) check them out to find out more on this wonderful artform. My next film was a documentary I made with a colleague on French colonial architecture in Cambodia: Cambodia’s Other Lost City: French Colonial Phnom Penh. When I finished the documentary on French colonial architecture in 2014, I began looking for a new project.

One of the keys to a good documentary is access and using that as a key criteria, I reached out to Theatre Nohgaku’s Matthew Dubroff, a friend from graduate school who I believed had access to the world of noh. I e-mailed Matt and asked if he would be interested in trying to make a documentary on noh. He was very enthusiastic about the idea. In 2015 and 2017, we worked closely together writing two separate 100-page grant proposals to try to get funding to make a comprehensive film on noh. Unfortunately, both of our proposals were rejected. While writing the grants in Tokyo, we also filmed some test footage, unsure if or where it might be used. Amongst this footage were scenes of Matt interviewing the mask carver Hideta Kitazawa and trying on some of his masks. The scene of Matt discussing a shite’s limited vision came from this preliminary shooting session.

While I was working with Matt on the grants, Sacramento State had an exhibit of Bidou Yamaguchi’s masks. While he was on campus I filmed the exhibit and him carving. I figured I could use the footage for a yet to be determined film on noh. When the grants fell through, I decided to make a series of films on noh, starting with noh masks.

Several things made the making of the film possible. First, was the willingness of three mask carvers—Bidou Yamaguchi, Hideta Kitazawa, and Keiko Udaka—to participate in the project. I explained to all of them that I wanted to film as much of the mask making process as possible, so they all prepared masks in different states of completion for my filming visits, with Bidou and Kitazawa allowing me to come on two different days to film. Because of the three carvers generosity with their preparation time and filming time, I was able to show how masks are made from the first cuts with a saw to the final ultrafine brush painting.

In this film I wanted to try and show as many masks as possible. This isn’t an easy task, since so many masks are held in private collections and by noh troupes, both of whom are not always willing to show or share them. In doing the research to write the script for this film, I came across Stephen Marvin’s Heaven has a Face, so does Hell: The Art of Noh Masks. This is an incredible detailed book about the history of noh masks. It also has dozens of stunning photographs of masks of all types. I e-mailed Marvin and asked if he might be willing to let me use the pictures of his masks in my film. He readily agreed. He also agreed to allow me to interview him. Without his pictures I wouldn’t have been able to show the diversity and beauty of noh masks. His expertise and comments about my script and early rough cuts of the film were essential in trying to present the history of noh masks as accurately as possible.

I was also able to film several noh performances. With the help of Theatre Nohgaku’s John Oglevee, who earlier had allowed me to film him talking with Matthew Dubroff in general about masks, I was granted permission to film one of the Oshima Noh Theatre’s quarterly performances. Not only did the Oshima’s allow me film the walk through on the day before, but they also granted me permission to film behind the scenes. I am pretty much a one-man crew, so at times I left a camera running filming the stage as I ran to the dressing room to film the shite changing into their costumes, putting on their masks, and walking out onto the stage. I am ever grateful for the Oshima’s for allowing me to film their noh. I tried to stay out of the way as I filmed what I think is some of the most insightful footage about what goes on behind the scenes of putting on a noh. After the performance, Teruhisa Oshima asked if I would like him to lay out several of the Oshimas’ female masks. Of course, I said yes, but because his generous offer was so unexpected I didn’t shoot the footage as well as I would have liked. I still included the shot in the film because I think it provides a good sense of what types of masks are in a troupe’s collection.

As with all film production, there are dozens of other people who aided me in the production whom I am eternally grateful to. Thank you all.

One thing I tried to do in the film was provide an accurate view of noh. Thus, for example, I tried to stick to using the term shite instead of actor and to refer to noh as noh and not a play. Since I decided to break my work on noh into several projects, I have a couple of other noh films that I am currently working on. Next summer I plan to shoot the footage for two films: one on noh costumes, the other on noh music. With each film I make I strive to make a film better than my previous one, and I expect that to be true for these forthcoming documentaries. I hope that Noh Men: The Spirit of Noh provides viewers with an informative look at noh and noh masks, and that my future films will add even more to their understanding of this theatre tradition.


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Noh Training Project Tokyo 2018

Noh Training Project Tokyo 2018
June through July, 2018

2017’s Tokyo workshop was the first held in collaboration with the Kita School and was so successful that this year’s is even more expansive and diverse. Four separate workshops will offer participants a deep dive into different facets of noh. (Please note: the performance and mask workshops run simultaneously, so it is not possible to attend both.) All other workshops can be attended individually or consecutively. Available seats are limited, so please be certain to register as soon as possible.

Sculpting Silk
Noh Costume Workshop
June 12-18
Kyoto and Fukuyama
The costume workshop begins with four days of lectures by renowned Japanese textile and noh costume scholar Monica Bethe. We then travel to Fukuyama to visit the noh stage of the Oshima family (Kita School). After an introductory lecture on the costumes and masks as used in performance, we are invited backstage for a final rehearsal and full performance. The workshop culminates in the unforgettable experience of spending a day dressing and being dressed in noh’s elaborate costumes.
Total cost: $1000 (Limit 8)

Substance through Structure
Writing New Noh
June 19-24
Theatre Nohgaku is committed to promoting the creation of noh in languages other than Japanese; this workshop is an outgrowth of that commitment. We begin with an overview of noh’s poetic structures, including scene names, syllabic requirements, and musical features. Participants create outlines for new noh and are guided through the process of creating their own scenes. The final day is devoted to experiencing noh in performance at the Kita School’s theater in Meguro.
Total cost: ¥50,000 ($450) (Limit 8)

Power through Resistance
Noh Chant, Movement, Instruments
June 24-July 13
Led by Kita School performers in conjunction with professional noh musicians and members of Theatre Nohgaku, participants engage in intensive training in the performance of noh. Each day starts with utai (chant), followed by shimai (dance) and hayashi (instruments). Evening practice sessions give participants an opportunity to hone the skills they are learning, and weekly attendance at performances and recitals provides context and inspiration. The workshop culminates in a recital on the Kita School’s noh stage in Meguro.
This workshop is physically strenuous and requires frequent kneeling, standing, and sustained concentration. Participants should expect to focus exclusively on the workshop for the full three weeks in order to receive the maximum benefit.
Total Cost: ¥80,000 ($750USD) (Limit 8 for beginners and 8 for those with prior experience.)

Revealing the Hidden
Noh Mask Carving
June 24-July13

Participants will create their own noh masks in the home studio of master carver and instructor Hideta Kitazawa. Finished works will be displayed at the Kita School’s theater in Meguro for the final recital of the Power through Resistance Workshop.
Total Cost: ¥80,000 ($750USD) (Limit 4)

*N.B. The cost of individual workshops listed above DOES NOT INCLUDE AIRFARE, GROUND TRANSPORT, and LODGING OR DAILY EXPENSES. Theatre Nohgaku can offer advice and assistance, if needed, in securing lodging, but participants are solely responsible for their own arrangements.

For registration, or additional information, please contact the workshop coordinator by submitting the below form:

[ ntp18tokyo “@” theatrenohgaku.org ]

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“Gettysburg” – A journey begins

[Editor’s Note: Below are author Elizabeth Dowd’s thoughts and comments in part about the process of writing her new English-language noh “Gettysburg,” with music by David Crandall. This commentary was written in November of 2016, and the piece had its recent premiere on August 6, 2017 as a work-in-progress performance at Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s Alvina Krause Theatre. Please click here to listen to an an interview with Elizabeth Dowd, David Crandall, and John Oglevee by WVIA’s Erika Funke.]

Contributed by Elizabeth Dowd

The michiyuki or travel song, is a unique feature of noh plays. It joins us with the waki on a journey. It lets us know that this experience will take us somewhere, not solely geographical, but spiritual as well. So it was fitting that when I resolved to write a noh play set at Gettysburg, I began with a journey – a trip to Gettysburg to see first-hand the exact spots where the events of my play took place. As a long-time resident of Pennsylvania I had been to Gettysburg several times before. Thanks to the Visitors Center’s electronic map, it was there that I first really understood the vital role that strategy plays in battle. But for this trip to Gettysburg, the journey to get there was as important as the destination because I was writing a michiyuki. As my husband, Rand drove, I took notes on what I was seeing, recording the visible signs of autumn in the passing farmlands and the passing milestones: Hershey Park, Harrisburg. It would be days before I would sit quietly to wrangle those images into the standard 7/5 syllabification used in noh chant. Here’s my first draft


Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg
Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg
Green fields striped by dried corn stalks, Harvest Day is done
Foothills gently disappear behind billboard signs
Past Hershey Park
Then crossing Harrisburg’ s bridge of fifty spans
Eighteen-wheelers rumble past, pot holes shake the car
The highway ends, the narrowed road unfurls the past
Silent fields divided by fence of post and rail
Monuments pay mute tribute, ghosts speak loudly here
Monuments pay mute tribute, ghosts speak loudly here

David Crandall performs as mae-shite in Elizabeth Dowd’s “Gettysburg”

And here’s the final version after conversations with composer David Crandall to make adjustments to accommodate the utai and drumming:

Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg
Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg

Green fields striped by withered stalks, Harvest Day is done
Foothills gently disappear behind billboard signs
Past Hershey Park
Then crossing Harrisburg’s bridge of fifty spans
Eighteen-wheelers rumble past, potholes shake the car
Highway ends. The narrowed road unfurls history
Fence of post and rail divide gently rolling fields
Monuments stand sentinel, ghosts speak loudly here
Monuments stand sentinel, ghosts speak loudly here

Gettysburg had always been a sweep to me, several significant battles waged over a three day period – I knew their names; Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, Pickett’s Charge – and the broad outlines of their significance. But today, I came with a singular focus; to stand in the place where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell; to look upon the open field that he and thousand of other soldiers marched across to attack the Union line under the command of Union General Winfield Hancock. Armistead and Hancock had been friends before the war, trained at West Point and fighting together in the War in Mexico.

Richard Emmert performs as waki in Elizabeth Dowd’s “Gettysburg”

Hancock was a golden boy. Nicknamed “The Superb,” he was well liked and distinguished himself in battle at an early age. Armistead was a man of few friends. Called a “rigid man,” he was known for demanding the impossible from troops under his command. My research led me to believe that Hancock was more important to Armistead than Armistead was to Hancock. I began to imagine the ghost of Lewis Armistead, restlessly roaming the scene of his last battle where he faced his closest friend, now mortal enemy. I wandered near the Angle, the stonewall which marked the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, until I found the marker erected where Armistead fell. Suddenly, immediately, Gettysburg was transformed by the power of the personal story. “Here. It was on this very spot. It happened. It all really happened.” I was knocked out by something every historian knows; how the force of history is revealed through intimate detail. Names and places and statistics can tell us facts – details make them matter. I looked across that open field and wept.

That autumn trip was years and several drafts ago. This past autumn I embarked on another michiyuki – driving to Rogue River Retreat in Grand Rapids home of TN member and Gettysburg composer David Crandall. I wrote much of Gettysburg in the peace and quiet of RRR. Now I returned to hear it set to music. With the intrepid, marvelous Jubilith Moore at my side, we traveled west for four days of work. Another step in the creative process that will undoubtedly present new questions and possibilities in my quest to bring this story to life through the poetic filter of noh.

David Crandall performs as nochi-shite in Elizabeth Dowd’s “Gettysburg”, wearing the mask designed and carved by Kitazawa Hideta


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Composing Zahdi, Pt. 2

Diagrams and Text Contributed by David Crandall
Zahdi Date and Poppies photographs provided courtesy of Casey Preston

[EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of the continuing conversation surrounding Carrie Preston’s Zahdi Dates and Poppies which premiered on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performing Arts Center in Boston, Mr. Crandall contributes additional insight into the composition process for the piece.]

Time has slipped by and TN’s successful performance of Zahdi Dates and Poppies at Boston University is now months behind us. Still, I’d like to continue presenting some of the elements that influenced my compositional decisions before all memory of them fades away. I hope that others drawn to the idea of creating new noh will find these notes useful in their own explorations.


Last time, I wrote about how a typical shidai is organized poetically, and how Carrie modified the traditional form to suit her own purposes. Now I’d like to focus on the rhythmic characteristics of a typical shidai. This opens a vast field of discussion that I enter with some trepidation because it can provoke a glassy stare in readers. But to understand why I ultimately decided not to use the traditional structure for Zahdi’s opening, it’s useful to know what I rejected.

Two Types of Rhythmic Organization in Noh Chant
Noh chant is broadly categorized into two types: au (matched) and awazu (unmatched), which refer to how the drums interact with the text. Whether the chant is matched or not is one crucial element that helps to define different shōdan sections, the building blocks of noh. A shidai, for example, is defined in part by the fact that it is always matched.

In matched chanting, the drum patterns are closely calibrated to the text, requiring the drummers to peg their playing (both drum hits and drum calls) to individual syllables. There are three modes of matched chant: hiranori, chūnori, and ōnori. Shidai are always in hiranori mode, which I will discuss in more detail below.

In unmatched chanting, the singers and the drummers follow two parallel paths that are only loosely connected. The beginning and end of an unmatched section are fixed and clearly defined, and there are some guideposts along the way where certain drum patterns are expected to be played in the vicinity of certain lines of text, but there’s no attempt to bind the two strands into tight rhythmic units. The positioning of the drum hits and calls is approximate, even to the point where drummers can vary the number of patterns they use to accompany a given section of text, playing faster or slower as needed to come out even with the singers in the end.

Here’s a simplified chart that shows where the shidai is situated within noh’s rhythmic universe. The chart is far from comprehensive—many other shōdan exist that don’t appear here, and the entire area of instrumental music is not included.


The word hiranori can be translated as “ordinary ride.” It is the most common and the most complex rhythmic mode in noh. I’ll attempt a simple explanation of its underlying principles, with the caveat that I’m cutting things down to the barest of bones and not discussing any complicating factors such as line length and ornamentation.

The basic unit of noh music is an eight-beat measure. For the purposes of English noh, it can be notated like this:


The basic poetic line of noh text has 12 syllables that are divided into hemistiches of seven and five. On this most fundamental level, then, the task before a composer is to distribute 12 syllables across eight beats so that words and music come out even. In actual practice, there are many ways to accommodate both musical measures of different lengths and poetic lines of different syllable counts, and there’s no hard and fast requirement to come out even. But for now, let’s focus on this basic task.

To demonstrate, I’ll use a familiar English line that closely matches the rhythmic feel of a typical 12-syllable Japanese line:

Old MacDonald had a farm / E-I-E-I-O

How do we distribute these syllables over an eight-beat measure?

The first step is to divide each beat in half, which redefines our task as distributing 12 syllables across 16 half-beats. Once this is done, the obvious solution is to give eight of the syllables a length of half a beat while extending the remaining four syllables to a full beat so that the total number of half-beats adds up to 16. Such an arrangement looks like this:


In practice, only three syllables are actually extended, shown here with tied notes on the syllables “Old,” “Do” and “a.” The fourth extension is inserted as a rest on beat 8 (shown as an open triangle) so that the singers have time to breathe. The choice of where to insert the extensions (called mochi in Japanese) depends primarily on which noh school is being discussed. My examples reflect the traditional practice of the Hōshō school, which is similar to that of the Kita school. The Kanze school inserts its extensions in slightly different places. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the line begins on the half beat before beat 1, which might seem a bit odd. This is the default starting point (honma), a convention I ask you to simply accept for now until we get a chance to discuss what happens when lines have syllable counts other than 12.

Here’s what the above example sounds like. I’ve recited it three times to show how it can be made to dovetail in an endless loop.

Notice that the beat is steady—it’s the syllables that are lengthened in strategic places to make the words and music come out even. This way of matching the 12 syllables to the 8-beat measure has a name: tsuzuke-utai. The term tsuzuke denotes two things: 1) a specific, representative drum pattern that is played with a steady beat, and 2) a category of drum patterns (including the specific tsuzuke pattern) that share the steady-beat attribute. Utai means chant.

If this were all hiranori had to offer it wouldn’t be particularly exciting. Fortunately, whoever devised noh’s musical system centuries ago came up with an intriguing second method of making the words and music come out even. Instead of lengthening the syllables, why not shorten the measure? This is where things get interesting.

Let’s start with the basic framework:


The X’s show where half beats are taken out. Notationally, the reason I’m showing them removed in these particular places is related to the chanting practice of the Kanze school, which is by far the largest shite school. For our purposes, all you need to know is that everything gets shifted to the left and the beats get compressed (as indicated by the arrows). This produces a measure that is 13 half beats long, which matches the 12 syllables of the text plus one rest for breathing:


Let’s focus first on the underlying rhythmic framework, which is still conceptualized in terms of eight beats but is actually (aurally) three half-beats shorter. For Western musicians, it’s an oxymoron: an irregular meter. Here’s what it sounds like, counted out:

The meter is irregular, but look at the syllables: now they’re chanted evenly, without break or extension:

As you might expect, this way of matching the 12 syllables to the 8-beat measure also has a name: mitsuji-utai. Like tsuzuke, the term mitsuji denotes two things: 1) a specific, representative drum pattern that is typically played with an irregular beat, and 2) a category of drum patterns (including the specific mitsuji pattern) that share the irregular-beat attribute. Once one begins to sense the galumphing meter that anchors the mitsuji style, drum patterns that might initially seem random come into organized and predictable focus while maintaining delightful elasticity. The contrast between the halting mitsuji patterns and flowing tsuzuke patterns is one of the most enjoyable rhythmic aspects of noh, providing a sense of tension and release that can be used effectively to amplify the meaning and emotion of the text. The following example doesn’t pretend to have such lofty artistic goals; it simply presents five iterations of our trusty English line while switching between the basic mitsuji and tsuzuke styles. I think it should be fairly easy to identify which is which.

This, then, is the basic framework of the hiranori mode, but there are many other factors that affect performance. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • In practice, noh rarely sounds as clear-cut as the above audio clip suggests. There’s breathing room for rubato even in tsuzuke patterns, and mitsuji patterns are very flexible, providing plenty of space for melodic ornamentation and expressive variation.
  • Mitsuji drum patterns can be played in tsuzuke style. That is, the three missing half beats can be reinserted and the timing of the mitsuji patterns can be expanded to accommodate them. This in fact happens quite often—whenever one of the two paired drums (ōtsuzumi hip drum and kotsuzumi shoulder drum) plays a tsuzuke pattern, the other drum must follow along in tsuzuke style, even if it is playing a mitsuji pattern. Obviously, the opposite is not true: tsuzuke patterns cannot be played in mitsuji style because that would mean removing three half beats, which would disrupt the steady beat that tsuzuke patterns require.
  • A single line can begin in mitsuji style and switch to tsuzuke style halfway through. Sometimes this happens because the line has more than 12 syllables. It also might be dictated by the melodic setting, when ornaments require an expansion of the beat. Or, it might reflect a drum convention, such as the practice of having the kotsuzumi play a tsuzuke-like uchikiri to accompany the repeated line of a shidai (a feature I’ll discuss in more detail later).
  • A line that begins in tsuzuke style always stays in tsuzuke style. It never switches to mitsuji style halfway through.

A Closer Look at Mitsuji Patterns
Let’s look at the mitsuji patterns of the Kadono school of ōtsuzumi players and the Ko school of kotsuzumi players. In the following example, the ōtsuzumi is notated above the top line, with the kotsuzumi below. Just for fun, I’ve written the drum calls in katakana script, as they appear in Japanese. If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you either know how to read them already, or are willing to invest the minor effort required to learn the very small number of symbols that will enable you to read traditional drum scores. To keep it graphically simple, I’ve left out the dotted half-beat lines.

Mitsuji Drum Patterns (Kadono and Ko schools)


The open triangle in the ōtsuzumi part is a loud, full hit called chon. The open circle in the kotsuzumi part is a round, full sound called po. The black circle is a softer, sharper and higher sound called chi. Since the type of hit isn’t relevant to our discussion of timing, that’s all I’ll say about them here.

I’ll record how this sounds if sung exactly as written, with a straight beat in tsuzuke style. To my knowledge this would not happen in noh because if the whole line is set with a straight beat it makes more sense to use a tsuzuke pattern in at least one of the drums. Still, I’m hoping that if we start this way it will be easier to see how the beat is altered when a line is set in mitsuji style. As you listen to the following examples, please keep in mind that I’m not a professional drummer and don’t pretend to be; I can only hope that my playing is good enough to get the basic concepts across.

Now let’s look at the same line with words added, and see where the drum calls and beats fall in relation to the text when the line is sung with the basic tsuzuke extensions (mochi).


Note that the ōtsuzumi hit on beat 3 falls on the fourth syllable “nald” and the kotsuzumi hit on beat 5 falls on the seventh syllable “farm.” Here’s what it sounds like:

Now, to obtain the mitsuji style, we’ll remove the three half beats as shown by the X’s. This means that the syllables are now chanted evenly, without pause or extension.


Notice that the drum hits continue to be notated as before, on beats 3, 5, 7 and 8. But because half beats are removed at the X’s, the syllables as chanted (but not as notated) shift to the left. This means that the ōtsuzumi hit on beat 3 now falls on “had,” (the fifth syllable of the line) instead of “nald” (fourth syllable). Similarly, the kotsuzumi hit on beat 5 now falls on “E” (eighth syllable) instead of “farm” (seventh syllable). To indicate this shift, it’s customary to insert diagonal lines that connect the drum hits with the respective syllables where they actually fall. I should note here that X’s are not used in traditional Japanese notation—the spaces where the X’s fall are simply left blank.

Here’s what it sounds like:

Some readers might find this to be an unnecessarily complicated and eccentric notational system. I know I thought so when I first learned about it. Why not write it like the following, which more clearly reflects how the line is actually performed?


The answer, at least in part, is that there are many different schools of noh chanting and drumming, so that “how a line is actually performed” varies depending on which schools are involved. There is no definitive version of any noh in the repertory; rather, when we talk about a piece like Hagoromo, for example, we’re talking about a cluster of equally valid versions. In most cases the variation is slight, but sometimes the text of whole sections of plays is different, which of course would also result in completely different musical settings. It would be a hugely daunting and impractical task to make and use scores that are individually tailored to every possible combination of performance forces. In some versions, a given line might be cast in mitsuji style; in others, the same line might be tsuzuke. What is needed, then, is a single format that can always accommodate tsuzuke, which takes up the most space on the page. Then, if a line is set in the more compact mitsuji style, it can be notated with diagonal lines without having to modify the basic format. Once one gets used to it, it’s a perfectly serviceable, ingenious and elegant notation system. Keep in mind, too, that experienced professionals simply note the names of drum patterns alongside the noh text and don’t bother to write out full scores at all. The kind of notation we’re now discussing (called yatsuwari) is used primarily by young professionals just starting to learn their art and by amateur students.

But How Do You Play It?
The uneven mitsuji meter presents a challenge for performers. Counting (or even feeling) the beats is problematic because they don’t proceed at a regular pace. And yet the drum patterns are conceived within an eight-beat framework, with calls and hits tied to specific, numbered beats. How do performers stay on track?

The main way they do it is by using komi: silent points of concentration that take the physical form of an exhaled breath cut suddenly short and held, creating sharp pressure on the lower abdomen at a precise moment in time. (It’s a lot easier to do a komi than it is to describe one!) Komi are used by all noh performers, and by practitioners of other traditional Japanese arts like kabuki and bunraku as well; they help the ensemble stay together, since there is no conductor or other outside eye/ear to provide a guiding hand during performance.

The role of komi is especially crucial in mitsuji style passages because the meter is irregular. Professional drummers know exactly where the beat lies, of course, but they do not count time. Instead, they listen to the chanted syllables and insert komi at predetermined points. The komi act as markers, or springboards, for the drummers’ calls and hits. This generates give and take between the drummers and the singers that enables flexible timing. No one is trying to keep the beat in the sense of counting out a meter; the singers, for example, enjoy leeway with syllable ornamentation and can otherwise alter the tempo, and the drummers can accommodate it without getting lost—all they have to do is wait for the syllable that gives them their cue, and insert a komi. If they get the komi right, the subsequent drum call and hit will naturally correspond with the correct syllables. Komi are often notated as small x’s, like those shown below.


The first komi occurs in the ōtsuzumi part on beat 2, which always coincides with the third syllable of the chanted line (assuming, as we do here, that the line has 12 syllables). The performance of a drum call and hit, then, becomes a three-stage process, with each stage separated by a half-beat. The drummer “takes a komi” (a direct translation from the Japanese) on the third syllable, performs the drum call a half-beat later, and hits the drum a half-beat after that. In this way the hit will always coincide with the fifth chanted syllable.

The komi shown on beats 4 and 6 in the kotsuzumi part are performed in the same way, although in actual practice the drummer will often use the hit of the ōtsuzumi instead of the chanted text as a cue for the komi on beat 4. After hearing the ōtsuzumi hit, the kotsuzumi drummer takes a komi on the next half-beat and executes the call-and-hit from there. That puts the hit on the eighth syllable, providing the cue for the final komi a half-beat later, which in turn sets the drummer up to complete the pattern with hits on the 11th syllable and the final rest.

Komi are usually performed silently, but for demonstration purposes I’ll make them audible in the following recording so that you can hear how they work.

Tsuzuke Patterns
We’re almost done! Let’s go one step further now and introduce how the Kadono and Ko schools play their tsuzuke patterns. Remember, the term tsuzuke refers both to particular patterns played respectively by the ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi drums, and a category of patterns that are played with a straight beat. I’m talking here about the particular patterns named tsuzuke, which look like this:


The black triangle in the ōtsuzumi part is a soft hit called a tsu.

No komi are notated because komi aren’t needed to perform tsuzuke patterns. The meter is regular, so the drummers need only keep a steady beat to match up with the correct syllables of chanted text. It’s the singers who must adjust by extending certain syllables, as we’ve already discussed.

Here’s what it sounds like:

Keep in mind that both drums have many other patterns belonging to the tsuzuke category that could be substituted for these particular patterns without changing the way the section is sung. I’ve limited the example to these patterns to keep things simple.

Finally, here’s a section that switches between mitsuji and tsuzuke styles, this time with the drum patterns included:

I realize that this has been a long and involved digression, and I thank you for your patience. I think we’re ready, now, to look at the musical structure of a shidai.


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Composing Zahdi, Pt. 1

Photos and Contribution by David Crandall

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part of the continuing conversation surrounding Carrie Preston’s  Zahdi Dates and Poppies, premiering on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston.]

In their delightful posts, Carrie and David S. both talked about adapting existing structures to accommodate the material at hand, whether a personal story to be told or a piece of wood to be carved. I’d like to continue that exploration by talking about how I modified noh’s traditional musical structures to accommodate both Carrie’s poetry and the needs of Zahdi as a newly created performance piece.

Talking about specifics can quickly get bogged down in technical details that few will find interesting, but I hope I can keep this lean and easy. Maybe I should start by sharing some rules of thumb I follow when I compose noh-based music.

1) If traditional structures provide the desired effect, use them.
2) If traditional structures will provide the desired effect if they’re modified, go ahead and modify them.
3) If no traditional structure provides the desired effect,
make something up.


Noh has many structures that have stood the test of time and are indisputably wonderful. But that doesn’t mean that traditional structures are the only possible choices, or that equally wonderful effects cannot be achieved through newly devised means. For me, the use of traditional structures is really a matter of convenience: they’re already familiar to the performers, making it easier to learn and play the piece. To my mind, though, there’s nothing inherently superior about the traditional structures themselves.

When I say “traditional structures,” I’m talking about shodan, the building blocks of noh. These are often defined in equal measure by words and music, although purely instrumental shodan also exist.

Let’s take a look at a shidai, a structure that often starts a noh. Here’s one from the traditional noh Atsumori (the Hōshō version):

Ryo-ha-ku-ni-u-ki-wa    i-ri-ya-i-no         (7-5)
Ryo-ha-ku-ni-u-ki-wa    i-ri-ya-i-no         (7-5)
Ka-ne-ko-so-to-ma-ri    na-ri-ke-re          (7-4)

旅泊に憂きは 入相の
旅泊に憂きは 入相の
鐘こそ泊まり なりけれ

The sadness of my fleeting sojourn   fills me at sunset
The sadness of my fleeting sojourn     fills me at sunset
When a temple’s vesper bell      bids me stay the night.

L1010915Textually, a typical shidai has three lines with syllable counts of 7-5, 7-5, and 7-4 and the second line is an exact repetition of the first. The content often sets the scene for the entire noh with a general statement that hints at thematic material more fully explored as the piece unfolds. Musically, all shidai have a similar melodic contour with predictable pitch intervals, although the exact places where the melody goes up and down vary somewhat, with different amounts of ornamentation from piece to piece. Once one gets familiar with the contour, though, it’s very easy to identify a shidai despite the variations.  (Please note that we’re talking about yowagin (melodic singing, also known as wagin) here. A shidai can also be set in tsuyogin (dynamic singing, also known as gōgin), which sounds quite different.)

In her first draft, Carrie wrote a “perfect” shidai with the typical syllable count and a repeated first line:

The California poppies   hold tight fists at dawn   (7-5)
The California poppies   hold tight fists at dawn   (7-5)
But open petals of flame   in the sun’s warmth      (7-4)

After reviewing it, however, she took out the first “The.” She also abandoned the exact repetition of the first line, deciding instead to introduce vivid colors and a “clenched” tension that tie in with the motifs of poppies, sand, flame and anguish interwoven throughout the work. The result is a more potent and evocative opening that functions as a shidai but no longer adheres to traditional rules:

California poppies    hold tight fists at dawn                   (6-5)
Gold and orange poppies    clench like fists at dawn     (6-5)
But open petals of flame    in the sun’s warmth              (7-4)

We’ve moved away from the traditional structure, but not far. Musically, Carrie’s lines can be set pretty much like a traditional shidai (modified a little because of the missing syllables in the first two lines).  It sounds something like this:

In my next posts I’ll describe the musical characteristics of a typical shidai and share some of the compositional decisions that led me away from traditional usage. For that to make sense, though, we’ll have to consider another crucial element in noh: rhythmic organization.


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When there is No Dog

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part of the continuing conversation surrounding Carrie Preston’s  Zahdi Dates and Poppies, premiering on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston. Please consider providing your support by visiting the project’s funding page.]


Contributed by David Surtasky

The emotions I needed to explore in the play were already present in the images of burnt Zahdi date palms and poppies that would open in the sun’s warmth – and in all the resonances and permutations of those images that the exacting process of trying to write in the noh form had revealed. ~ Carrie Preston

After publishing Carrie’s recent post Finding the Dog in Noh, and Leaving it Alone, I got an email from David Crandall. He talked about the images from that post, in particular one that featured what appeared to be an overlay. I wrote back and mentioned that it wasn’t actually a digitally manipulated image, but rather a photo that I’d taken recently in the area around Kumagaya in Saitama Prefecture. I told David the story of the photo, why I felt there was a connection with Carrie’s narrative, and he encouraged me to share that story as well. So, for better or worse, I suppose I shall:

kitazawa_hidetaSomeone who’s become a good friend over the years is Kitazawa Hideta. He’s become an important artistic partner for TN since we rely on him for most of our masks. Mr. Kitazawa is an accomplished wood carver, and extremely knowledgeable in his craft. He embodies craftsmanship and artistry of the highest order in my opinion.

When I first met Mr. Kitazawa I had no Japanese language ability, but he was affable and open to conversation. He was pleasant to be around, and often had a broad smile. In speaking with him you could feel his positivity. That positivity has carried forward over the years as he’s taken on the challenge of the commissioned masks for Pine Barrens, Pagoda, Crazy Jane, Blue Moon Over Memphis, Oppenheimer and now most recently Zahdi Dates and Poppies.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo after living for a few months in Hakodate, Hokkaido. I’d been in contact with Hideta, and he said that he wanted to show me some shrines and temples. Since temple carving runs in his family, I was very excited because I knew he was knowledgeable, and I was really looking forward to seeing such things with someone who could tell me more about all of it.

_DSC9166We met at the train station near Hideta’s house, and we went off to Saitama in his car heading to Menuma Shodenzan Kangiin Temple. Founded in 1179 and designated a National Treasure in 2012, the temple is quite interesting, and the grounds feature a rare triple gabled gate, as well as a recently restored and elaborately carved and painted hall. After touring the grounds, admiring the carvings and enjoying some shaved ice to fend off the broiling August heat, we met up with Mr. Kitazawa’s uncle, and went out to his house.

I met the family, and had some tea and sweets. The traditional house was cool and pleasant, and smelled of earth, wood and straw. We chatted for a bit about the various carvings in the sitting room, the black and white portrait photos of relatives on the wall, and then Kitazawa-san’s uncle asked me “Well, what is it that you want to see?” I replied in my best elementary-level Japanese; 「全ての物が見たいですよね。これを見せてください。よろしくお願いいたします」”Please show me everything.” And so, he did.

The gentleman (with the help of his granddaughter) proceeded to get out and display on the walls and on the floor his painted scrolls, ink drawings and designs. The Meiji era scrolls were painstaking and textured color renderings of temples and portable shrines. The designs on washi paper were 1:1 ink drawings of the intended carvings for various places. One in particular seemed quite interesting since it was an overlay of black, blue and red ink; a similar but slightly different design laid one on top of the other. Why is this so, I asked?

Kitazawa Hideta explained: this ink is the original design, this ink is what is necessary due to the grain of the wood, this ink is what was finally carved.

While trying to find appropriate images for Carrie’s entry, this recent experience came to my mind. How, with creative ideas, we often start in one place and end up in another, but that the underlying image is likely still present. The ideas we have can be altered once they’re first expressed by the exigencies of the medium that we’re working in. There may be different pressures or grains in the wood that lead us to change those initial thoughts, and when we come to the realization of performance for an audience we’ve come to a place of more or less final endeavor. This seems natural, and entirely human.

_DSC9104When an audience perceives a work, if we are skillful in our craft, they will not see the many lines; the black, the blue, the red. Rather, they will hopefully see the whole and accept the story as it is presented as being what it had always been meant to be from the very beginning. That the drawings may remain, endless rolls of washi stored in the chambers of our minds.

Poetry comes from intention. It forms in the mind, and gives way to words. Songs give music to the voice. Music compels dance from the body. All these things are derived from the heart. If we’ve done what we set out to do, it is the intention of the heart that we’ve laid bare.

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Finding the Dog in Noh, and Leaving it Alone

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Ms. Preston provides some insights concerning her new work  Zahdi Dates and Poppies, premiering on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston. Please consider providing your support by visiting the project’s funding page.]

Contributed by Carrie Preston

“A lot could be said about how the text is structured, what it takes from noh and what it leaves alone, and how the English language conditions the narrative flow.”- David Crandall

carrie_prestonIn David Crandall’s fascinating post, Finding the Dog, he expressed the hope that I would talk about some of the above topics in my own contributions to this blog. Basically, David has thrown down the gauntlet for me and not for the first time in our wonderful collaboration over the words and music of Zahdi Dates and Poppies. One evening, several days before we were going to stage a workshop version of a scene from Zahdi, David called to say that he needed “about ten lines of warrior hell poetry” for his score. He had them by morning, I’m proud to say, and I rather like that moment in the play. What he needed musically was also a statement of suffering that the play required.

I have always written best when I have an assignment, either thrown at me by someone else or self-imposed. This post is the result of both David’s assignment and my own (to write a blog before my toddler wakes up from his nap) with a dash of inspiration drawn from David’s “Finding the Dog,” which I highly recommend. One of the things that fascinated me about his post was the way he described dividing his canvas into vertical fields, cutting up images of a painting, and pasting them into the fields. That methodical artistic process sounds like an assignment I could try, even with limited painterly ability. And the result, Jennifer Dreams Wisteria, is gorgeous, as is the dog David unintentionally, unknowingly created.

_DSC9316The writing of Zahdi Dates and Poppies began with a similarly methodical assignment. In order to learn about the sections (dan) that combine like my son’s legos to build noh plays, I set myself the task of replicating those sections down to the specific number of syllables in each line. Since the opening song (shidai) is usually repeated by the chorus in a whispering echo, that was what I wrote, and I made sure those lines were worth repeating poetically and thematically. This structure, particularly all the syllable counting, was maddening at first. But, I had two driving desires or two dogs in the fight, so to speak: I wanted to learn the structure of noh plays so that I could write a better book about the noh theater (see the webpage for my forthcoming book Learning to Kneel). And more importantly, I wanted, no needed, to face the ghost of a man my husband killed while deployed to Iraq as a fighter pilot. I needed to explore the impact of such deaths on those who do the killing and their families, and I had struggled to do this in my poetry and other writing. The warrior play tradition in noh often features the ghost of a defeated soldier telling his story, facing his enemy, at least in spirit, and sometimes finding peace in the process. This ancient genre of warrior plays had something to teach me, I was sure, about finding peace.

So, I followed the noh warrior formula, hammering my story into those structures and syllables. It was a discipline, a labor of precision. I think of this process as searching in noh for the dog, the hidden beast of wisdom that would help me give stage life to that ghost, my ghost. When I was finished, I seemed to have built a neat little house in which nobody had lived, nobody could ever live, particularly not a messy dog. So, I went back into the play, loosening the structure, opening the windows, demolishing some rooms, to make space for my characters and for me. Often, this meant searching through the play for the _DSC9260poetry that was all the more tense and chiseled for having been forced into a rigid structure. I let those poetic images expand and then cut the material that didn’t feel alive. The emotions I needed to explore in the play were already present in the images of burnt Zahdi date palms and poppies that would open in the sun’s warmth – and in all the resonances and permutations of those images that the exacting process of trying to write in the noh form had revealed.

Zahdi is not a noh play. I have always been more interested in what noh could teach the contemporary world about art, performance, and beauty than in following noh’s ancient rules. I have spent many years studying and writing about the noh theater, even taking lessons in the performance technique with teachers from Theatre Nohgaku and in Tokyo with a beloved master teacher, but I am not part of the noh world and its rather regimented institutions. I can study and admire the traditions, but they are not mine. And I don’t mean to imply that I believe in some essential understanding, based on race or culture of birth, that would prevent me from becoming part of that world. As I write these sentences, I am aware that there are warning signs everywhere flagging my orientalism and exoticism, long histories of cultural appropriation, and my privilege as a white American. I take those warnings very seriously and then proceed, as humbly as possible, with the many lessons noh has taught me.

And now my own little puppy is calling me away.


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