The Look of the Feel (Pt. II)

Contributed by Michael Gardiner

(Part II of A few thoughts on instrumental tone-color and the noh spectrum.)

To look at the musical colors of noh I will use spectrographic images, which allow one to discuss in detail elements of the acoustic spectrum. Musical tone-color is not a fixed entity, it is interactive and contextual by nature. I define tone-color as the psycho-physical perception of a sonic context (‘psycho-physical’ not just ‘physical’, because sounds are always interacting with a brain, a brain that interprets them). These contexts include a bundle of sonic elements such as the number and arrangement of partials (or ‘overtones’), non-harmonic bands of noise and resonance (i.e, unpitched noise elements such as the sustained “shh” or “ff” sounds in language), formants (main areas of energetic focus), the register (i.e., ‘octave’) or registers in which these materials sound, their relative intensity (volume) and duration, as well as the arrangement or distribution of all these elements over time.

Let’s start with the ōtsuzumi drum. The heads of this drum are kept dry and are heated before performance, giving a ‘sharpness’ to its sound. The drum has two strokes, chon, a strong hit, and don, a weak hit. The spectrograph in figure 1 shows three different occurrences from three different plays (Funabenkei, Hagoromo, and Matsukaze) of the ōtsuzumi’s sound. [The chon and don hits are indicated along the horizontal axis at the top of the image and the drummers’ elongated vocalizations (or kakegoe), pronounced “yo” and “ho,” are indicated along the bottom.

Figure 1    Tone-color profile of the ōtsuzumi

[The horizontal axis of the spectrograph shows the flow of time, read from left to right, and the vertical axis displays the frequency range in cycles per second (Hz, or hertz), with lower frequencies on the bottom and higher frequencies on top. Intensity is measured with a grey scale; the less intense frequencies appear in a lighter grey while the more intense frequencies appear in a darker grey or black.]

Okura Eitaro. Photo: Kazuhiro Inoue

Given the above image let’s look at two main features, both of which contribute to the ‘sharp’ sound of this drum; the attack noise, and the peak areas of energetic resonance, or formant regions. The ‘attack noise’ of a drum is a non-pitched element, similar to the sound made by slapping your hand on a table-top, present in most percussion instruments, including the piano, or vocal sounds that begin with “p”, “t”, or “k”, for example. Actually, to say it is ‘non-pitched’ isn’t really correct, in truth it activates so many pitches, one stacked on top of the next, that no single pitch is reinforced (as would be the case with the sustained note of a flute, violin, etc.). This noise can be seen in the spectrograph (figure 1) as the circled element that vertically cuts through the spectrum. In some cases this noise spans the entire human hearing range (from roughly 20–20,000 Hz).

The second contributing factor to the tone-color of the ōtsuzumi is a formant region—the region that contains the majority of its energy—located in octave 6 (two octaves above ‘middle C’ on a piano). This region can be seen on the spectrograph as a burst of intensity (in this case a darker shade of grey) around 1600 Hz. Above this primary region, secondary regions of intensity can be seen in octaves 7 and 8.  Since I began using spectrographs (some fifteen years ago) I have gravitated more and more towards hearing noise as more colorful than pitch. With pitched elements, melody in particular, my ear is drawn towards musical language (scales, intervals, apexes and nadirs of lines, etc.), but noise opens the color of musical space more directly. Let me explain—it’s a bit of an oversimplification, but every musical octave (or register) has its own distinct color, the lower octaves are ‘darker’ and the higher octaves ‘brighter’. This is, in part, what allows us to distinguish between the different vowel sounds in language, each has a spectral profile that activates a different octave (or set of octaves, sometimes there are holes or gaps in the profile).  The ōtsuzumi shares a brightness with the vowels [e] and [i] (“eh” and “ee”) and as we will see, overlaps with some of the noh flute’s (nohkan) color attributes.  To be continued…


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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