Contributed by John Oglevee
As a child, I sang in church choirs. I was a non-denominational boy soprano for hire. On any given Sunday you could find me cloaked in some form of muted colored frock, singing the praises of Him from whom all blessing flow. Fast forward 30 years and I’m in a chorus of a different nature, a noh chorus.
As my fellow chorus members and I eagerly await the professional performer (Kita-ryu actor Matsui Akira) who will lead us in our upcoming performance, I have been assigned the daunting task of trying to lead us through our rehearsals of Atsumori. In our Japanese song books, the word for chorus is “do-on” or “same-sound.” It is our goal to produce a sound that supports the action on stage, while at the same time shares and sculpts the kinetic energy being created by the musicians and the “tachi-kata”, the main performers taking roles on stage. Perhaps some 650 years ago, the music of noh was akin to early Jazz, a set of repeated patterns with slight variation improvised through a strict set of rules. As noh evolved the patterns and intricacy of the rules evolved with it.
Today, while there are a number of different schools, each school has codified the way a certain noh is done musically. So the interplay between the drums and the chorus, while perhaps seemingly random to those unfamiliar with noh’s phonic resonances, are anything but. The job of the chorus leader, or “ji-gashira”, is to try and monitor the overall feeling of the play and try to adjust the volume, tempo and timbre of the sound emanating from the chorus to reflect both what is being performed as well as his/her interpretation of what should be being performed. It’s a delicate balance of leader and follower. This is all kept in mind while trying to match much of the singing with the percussion section.
A noh is a constant weaving and unraveling of structures: literary, musical, and visual: a panoply of sound, swathed in snatches of meaning, shrouded in “yugen”, a mysterious beauty somewhat akin to a a cloud passing in front of a brightly shining moon. Poetic pretense aside, we are also putting on a show about a man who killed a young boy and became so distraught from the consequences of such an action, joins the priesthood. It’s a show about the beauty of youth and the horrors of war.
Our job is to convey this in as entertaining and thoughtful a way as we can. Everyday is a lesson in humility. The day we “nail” it, or think we have, is the day we have failed. For each and every performer on stage, the task of listening is the job at hand, hopefully we have trained enough to allow our instruments to react properly to the sounds we hear. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.