Zen Mountain Monastery “Sumida River” Rehearsals (Pt. 1)

Contributed by Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
Photographs by Kevin Salfen

Monday, June 2, 2014

IMG_4863On a bright summer day in rural New York, the sweet smell of clover and the sound of medieval chant fill the air. Theatre Nohgaku is in residence this week at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York, rehearsing an English-language version of the classic noh Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), which the company will perform this coming Sunday for a group of residents and guests.

I’m playing nohkan for the performance and so will be spending my days committing to memory a variety of ashirai—pieces that loosely coordinate with the other instrumental parts but involve a considerable degree of freedom. Learning how much freedom I have in relation to the other instrumental and vocal parts is one of the most exciting, and challenging, aspects of the process.

IMG_4843Not everything has to be a symbol; sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. But I can’t help feeling that the coordination of parts in noh—the evolving negotiation of musical leadership—fits right in with the shared work toward a common goal that characterizes monastery life.

Today I met Y—, the monastery’s gardener, whose work brings a wealth of summer salad greens to the table of his fellow residents (and guests). I talked with C—, who has coordinated four delicious meals so far for all the people in residence. I spent a few minutes observing the monastery cat, M—, who by the look of him does his fair share of reducing local rodent populations. And I had good conversation with longtime friend of Theatre Nohgaku, J—, who picked us all up from multiple airports, ferried us to Mt. Tremper, answered numerous questions, and has been in many other ways the ideal host. They all have their practice—even the cat, I suppose—and so share a kind of goal while performing distinct functions. Even if it isn’t a perfect comparison, monastery life feels different, instantly, to a non-resident; the method of coordinating people is itself a lesson. And this is how I’ve often felt performing noh. As a “non-resident” of noh, its method of coordinating people feels different, instantly, and it feels like a lesson.

IMG_4873Things will change tomorrow. The members of Theatre Nohgaku will begin to have the opportunity to participate in the meditative life of the residents. We will begin “sitting” in the evening, after an introduction to the basic principles of meditative practice by the abbot. I find myself wondering how, over the course of the week, engaging in this practice will change our performance of a work that turns so powerfully on prayer. The grieving mother of Sumida River chants “Namu Amida Butsu,” and the spirit of her dead child appears out of the grave mound. Her practice changes the normal order of the world. But before any questions about the performance can be answered, I must sit. And practice.

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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