Nohkan

Contributed by David Surtasky

My  other role in Atsumori is playing the nohkan (transverse bamboo flute.) I’ve never encountered an instrument that seemed so temperamental concerning one’s inner state. The least tension, anxiety or distraction leads to poor performance.

This flute is only used for noh. The fue are, as with all other aspects of noh, hand-made and unique. You wouldn’t have two nohkan play together since they’re not matched for pitch. The variety from instrument to instrument is slight, different sizes and shapes of the mouth opening, weight, finger hole placement , overall length of the air column – but this variety makes one’s own flute very personal, and attempting to play someone else’s slightly difficult.

Hishigi: there is a note, an ear-splitting tone that accompanies the lead actor’s entrance and as an effect. It has been said that it is an invocation to the gods. For myself, a call out to the gods is required in order to produce the tone. The manipulation of the angle of the mouth aperture combined with air-pressure and velocity: these are things that one might understand in an intellectual context but that accomplishing them in practice represents a challenge. Often a strangled sputter is the result for me, but on the rare occasions that I manage it the pay-off feels great.

Ashirai: a playing style not matched rhythmically to the drums. Although not improvisational, it does involve a higher level of interpretation to match the mood of the moment and of the actor’s intent. There’s a liberating quality in playing it. On most occasions the rhythm of the nohkan is more important than the actual melody, but with ashirai – these are moments that literally waft in and out of the play reflecting the internal state of the actors. In this mode the beginning and ending places of the melody are defined, but the expressiveness and quality of playing that melody are entirely at the discretion of the performer.

It’s easy to feel exposed. You’re playing this very expressive instrument, and part of and yet separated from the remainder of the hayashi. The otsuzmi and kotsuzumi act in concert and match their calls and modes of expression – you need to find a way into that, while functioning as a bridge between musicians, actors and audience.

A daunting task. As with most aspects of noh.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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