Contributed by Mariko Anno
This summer marks my second year teaching the nohkan (noh flute) at the Noh Training Project (NTP). It has been an honor teaching an instrument that I love, making it more approachable and playable for my students by tweaking the airstream and velocity, mouth/finger/body positions, etc., while taking into consideration its construction. And it gives me great joy when the students grasp the concepts and apply them in their playing.
I would like to share my story of how I began playing the nohkan, as unlike my colleagues, I am not one of the tachi-kata (standing roles), but a member of the women’s jiutai (chorus), narrating the actions on stage, emotions of the characters, and the scene at the battle of Ichinotani between Atsumori andKumagai no Jirô Naozane, who later becomes the monk Renshô. In addition, I play the nohkan in the maibayashi (dance-instrumental piece) of Hagoromo.
The nohkan has helped me understand the noh theatre as a whole, and the transformation of music throughout history. I began learning the nohkan in 2005, when I went to Japan for my dissertation research. However, my fascination for the instrument began two years before my departure for Japan, when I was first introduced to noh in my Japan/Korea Area Studies Ethnomusicology course. As a Western flute player, I was immediately drawn by the sound of the nohkan. I was mesmerized by its eerie sound that consisted of white noise and embellishments foreign to Western flute playing, yet puzzled by its unique scale and fingerings. (I later found out that the tube or nodo, literally meaning throat, within the tube distorts the natural acoustics of the instrument. Please read David Surtasky’s entry to learn more about the construction of the nohkan.)
Learning the nohkan in Japan, while being immersed in the culture, language, and people, I have come to learn how music continues to evolve over the course of history. Just within seven years of living in Japan, I have been able to hear and observe the changes in playing style of the younger generation; they retain techniques from their teachers (i.e., father, grandfather), while incorporating musical aesthetics and embellishments of other nohkan players as well as personal preferences.
My most significant realization through learning the nohkan was that noh is a comprehensive art form, which the instruments cannot be taken out of context. Initially, I had traveled to Japan to learn the nohkan, not realizing that it was part of the larger whole that would require me to learn all of its components: utai (chant), shimai (dance), ko-tsuzumi (shoulder drum), ô-tsuzumi (hip drum), and taiko (stick drum). By the end of my dissertation research period, I had learned all of the aspects of noh to a certain degree.
As we rehearse and prepare for our torchlight performance of Atsumori at NTP, I have noticed that my ears have become aware of the interweaving dialogue not only between the actors, but also between the drums and actors as well as the drums and chorus. Since there is no conductor to keep the ensemble together, even though there are constant expansion and contraction of the beats, the kakegoe (drum calls) are invaluable in keeping the ensemble together. And because of my training in noh, I am beginning to understand these intricacies, which were (obviously) completely foreign to me when I first entered the world of noh.
I am constantly amazed by where the nohkan has led me in my life. It has been a challenging but exciting journey. I look forward to the journey ahead as I share my knowledge with my students.