Nohkan Revisited

Contributed by Kevin Salfen, Assistant Professor of Music History, University of the Incarnate Word (Secretary, Theatre Nohgaku)

Kevin Salfen

Like David Surtasky, who wrote about this topic in a previous entry, I’m also playing nohkan (Japanese transverse flute) during the Noh Training Project 2012, but I’m not playing for the full noh play, Atsumori. Instead, I’m playing for the maibayashi (an excerpt from a noh) from Takasago.

The maibayashi from Takasago features some of the same nohkan music that will be heard in Atsumori. Several of the ashirai—music in which a beat isn’t shared between flute and drums—are identical on paper. For example, Takasago and Atsumori include a short fragment called kote. Why is this fragment shared between these two noh (and a great many others)? Because it serves a specific function. The kote closes a section of a noh, so if you can identify a kote in the abstract, then you can perceive sectional joins more easily in many noh.

Kote (Slow)

That may seem overly technical—knowledge that would be useful only for a specialist—but having taught many music appreciation classes at American universities, I prefer to think that this sort of knowledge helps people engage more deeply with music (and music drama), which makes possible the quality of experience that brings people back to performances.

Takasago doesn’t share all of its music with Atsumori, of course. Atsumori is a second-category play (shūra-mono, a “warrior play”)—and Takasago is a first-category play (waki-noh, a “god play”). Gods and warriors, as it turns out, have different music. Takasago concludes with a famous song, “Sasu kaina ni wa,” at the end of which the nohkan adds a shin no tome—essentially a “god play ending.” This is different from the more standard tome played by the nohkan at the end of Atsumori.

And then there is a piece in Takasago with no equivalent in Atsumori. It’s called notare, which has something to do with slithering—an apparent reference to its low, winding melody. As soon as Rick Emmert introduced me to the piece, I thought it beautiful, and once I had figured out how to play it, I couldn’t wait to do so in the context of the maibayashi. I think I had imagined that notare would emerge from the silence, as the shite, the deity of Sumiyoshi, moves slowly, profoundly, forward. As it turns out, notare happens while the shite is singing and the drums—three of them—are playing. In other words, it’s almost impossible to hear, this beautiful little flute piece.

David Surtasky had mentioned in his entry that playing nohkan is often an exercise in near-total exposure, every missed note and botched entrance unequivocally clear. Here is an example of the opposite, where it would take an unflappable determination to listen through the din to the flute’s hushed message. In Takasago, notare begins at the shite’sphrase “yoru no tsuzumi”—“the drums of the night”—and so it both highlights the words and suggests a strange, other-worldly music, barely perceived by the waking world. It is like the music of dreams, half-remembered. If you’re in Bloomsburg for the performance, listen for it!


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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