The Look of the Feel (Pt. III)

Contributed by Michael Gardiner

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


There are numerous scholarly sources describing the construction and basic principles of the noh flute, so I will forego such commentary here.  Since I ended my last discussion (on the ōtsuzumi drum) by hinting at some spectral relationships with the flute, let me begin instead by outlining some of these (perhaps unexpected) tone-color connections.

To those of us who play the nohkan, we all fear the hishigi, a four-note figure that starts and ends with the flute’s highest pitch, located in octave 7 (3 octave above middle C), with additional overtones extending into the upper end of human hearing. Many noh plays (not all) begin with a hishigi, so it’s probably a familiar, piercing, sound.

In college I distinctly remember orchestration teachers telling us never to begin a passage in an instruments highest range, let alone the highest possible pitch on the instrument—rather, we were taught to build up to such apex points, to give the performer a chance to ‘warm up’ for the difficult passage.  But then again, composers such as Mahler and Stravinsky often broke such rules to get a kind of ‘strained’ sound/color that they desired for their orchestrations; Stravinsky’s famous bassoon line at the beginning of the Rite of Spring, and Mahler’s obfuscated and blurred low register harp, contrabassoon, and gong at the opening of the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde present two such examples of rule breaking.  The hishigi presents a third.

Figure 1 presents hishigi examples from three different performers. In this high range, flute players need to use a great deal more energy and breath to produce tone—when beginning a phrase, the performer releases a strong burst of air, coloring the sound with a percussive band of noise.

Figure 1  hishigi phrase with attack noise from breath (circled)

The circled vertical bands of noise activate almost exactly the same frequency range as the ōtsuzumi attack noise (from its chon stroke) shown in my last post.  Often, as listeners we tend to ignore these kind of features. But if you listen for them, they become quite pronounced and form an integral aspect of the music’s color. Noise is a critical aspect not only of tone-color perception, but linguistic perception as well. If you cut out all the consonants (most of which are noise formations) from a recording of spoken language, leaving only the vowels, it becomes unintelligible. However, if you cut out all of the vowels from the same recording, research shows that people can still understand the utterance. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions concerning musical perception from this linguistic example, but will simply emphasize say that noise is crucial to music’s color and yet remains, perhaps, the most ignored parameter in musical analysis.

In octave 6 (the principle octave of the flute’s melodic material) the nohkan part forms another interrelationship with the ōtsuzumi. Figure 2 shows the sustained pitches of the nohkan perfectly bisecting the ōtsuzumi’s primary formant region (around 1,600 Hz). The sustained note in these examples is the most common structural pitch of the flute [I will describe the pitch using the fingering LH: 1, 2/ RH: 1,2,4; since the pitch varies on different instruments]. After an intense attack-point from the ōtsuzumi, the flute provides a trail or echo of tone-color, maintaining the characteristically bright qualities of this octave.

Figure 2  Ōtsuzumi register 6 formant (circled) bisected by sustained nohkan pitches

These brief examples show how the drum and flute reinforce each other’s sound. When I listen to this music, the interrelationship between the nohkan and the ōtsuzumi is reminiscent of a traditional Japanese aesthetic; the relationship between yoin (echo) and ma (the space between). During a moment of ma, in the same way a listener might contemplate the echo of a fading tone, so might one contemplate the echo of the flute as it sustains the octave color of the drum. At the same time these tone-colors are strikingly modern and call to mind painter Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992) technique of blurring color/figural forms with dry sponges to get smeared zones of interaction … (to be continued.)

“We are immersed in sound just as we are immersed in air and light.”
(Michel Serres, Genesis, 7)


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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