The Look of the Feel (Pt. IV)

Contributed by Michael Gardiner

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

Figure 1 Tone-color Profile of the Kotsuzumi

Although the kotsuzumi is smaller in size than the ōtsuzumi, figure 1 shows that the pitch it produces is about two octaves lower than that of the latter. The kotsuzumi has four strokes, named po, pu, ta, and chi onomatopoetically after the sound each hit makes, but there really are only two pitch levels resulting from the ropes either being squeezed (ta and chi) or released (pu). Chi is the softest hit played with the ropes held tight, ta is a strong hit also with the ropes held tight, but po is the stroke that creates the characteristic descending slide by loosening the ropes while striking the drum. The excerpt shown in Figure 1 compares the more common chi and po strokes.

The primary pitch, or fundamental of the kotsuzumi is located in octave 4 (near the ‘middle C’ of a piano), and a secondary region of intensity, most easily seen in the more powerful strokes, stretches from roughly 800 – 1500 Hz. This secondary region of energy overlaps with the primary region of the ōtsuzumi—not only do these two drums interlock their rhythmic patterns, but their acoustic spectrums, their tone-colors, are also interlocked. Just where the intensity of the kotsuzumi spectrum begins to loose energy (in its secondary formant region) we find the ōtsuzumi’s primary formant.

The location of the kotsuzumi’s fundamental forms yet another interlock that further impacts the overall spectrum—the drum’s principle pitch sits in the frequency range of the male voice where it tends to pass into falsetto, and therefore acts as a kind of ‘ceiling’ for the full voice. Most often it is the drum calls of the ōtsuzumi that pass into the falsetto (a familiar sonic signifier of the art), but there are a few calls in which the kotsuzumi player activates a falsetto as well. Figure 2 shows the location of the kotsuzumi fundamental at the falsetto threshold of the male voice.

Figure 2    Kotsuzumi fundamental and the ‘falsetto break’ of the male voice

The interrelationship between the kotsuzumi and the voice leads to the topic of drum calls, or kakegoe. Even though kakegoe is not a type of singing (utai), the atmosphere it creates is nevertheless an integral element of noh’s sound world. The role of kakegoe is two-fold: to keep rhythm and pacing of the piece, and to help create the emotional mood of a play.  Some teachers have even said that kakegoe is more important than the sound of the drum itself.

The unique atmosphere surrounding the drum calls relates, in part, to their location in a high vocal range, a range most often above the actors’ singing range.  Kakegoe drum calls describe a liminal vocal space—that is, they operate in and around the falsetto threshold with varied patterns of vocal sliding. The “yo” and “ho” calls of the ōtsuzumi player pass from a full voice into falsetto, while the same calls of the kotsuzumi player sound just at the ceiling of the vocal range, creating a small arch-formed contour, but do not usually pass into falsetto.

Without attempting to identify any specific connection, as a listener, when I hear this outlining and sliding between vocal planes a palpable sonic affect results, one capable of coloring any number of subjective, metaphysical, or existential scenarios in noh. It could be said that the plots of numerous noh themselves trace a liminal space, located as they so often are at the matrix of two worlds, prone to frequent visitations by ghosts, gods, demons, and memories that freely pass between. (to be continued …)

“The qualities deemed essential to the style [of yūgen] are overtones that do not appear in the words alone and an atmosphere that is not visible in the configuration of the poem … It is like the situation of a beautiful woman who, although she has cause for resentment, does not give vent to her feelings in words, but is only faintly discerned – at night perhaps – to be in a profoundly distressed condition.”
(Bowser and Miner, p. 269; Sen’ichi Hisamatsu and Minoru Nishio (anno.), Karonshū Nōgakuronshū, in Nippon Kuten Bungaku Taikei 65 (Tokyo, 1961): 87-88.)


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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