Composing Zahdi, Pt. 1

Photos and Contribution by David Crandall

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part of the continuing conversation surrounding Carrie Preston’s  Zahdi Dates and Poppies, premiering on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston.]

In their delightful posts, Carrie and David S. both talked about adapting existing structures to accommodate the material at hand, whether a personal story to be told or a piece of wood to be carved. I’d like to continue that exploration by talking about how I modified noh’s traditional musical structures to accommodate both Carrie’s poetry and the needs of Zahdi as a newly created performance piece.

Talking about specifics can quickly get bogged down in technical details that few will find interesting, but I hope I can keep this lean and easy. Maybe I should start by sharing some rules of thumb I follow when I compose noh-based music.

1) If traditional structures provide the desired effect, use them.
2) If traditional structures will provide the desired effect if they’re modified, go ahead and modify them.
3) If no traditional structure provides the desired effect,
make something up.


Noh has many structures that have stood the test of time and are indisputably wonderful. But that doesn’t mean that traditional structures are the only possible choices, or that equally wonderful effects cannot be achieved through newly devised means. For me, the use of traditional structures is really a matter of convenience: they’re already familiar to the performers, making it easier to learn and play the piece. To my mind, though, there’s nothing inherently superior about the traditional structures themselves.

When I say “traditional structures,” I’m talking about shodan, the building blocks of noh. These are often defined in equal measure by words and music, although purely instrumental shodan also exist.

Let’s take a look at a shidai, a structure that often starts a noh. Here’s one from the traditional noh Atsumori (the Hōshō version):

Ryo-ha-ku-ni-u-ki-wa    i-ri-ya-i-no         (7-5)
Ryo-ha-ku-ni-u-ki-wa    i-ri-ya-i-no         (7-5)
Ka-ne-ko-so-to-ma-ri    na-ri-ke-re          (7-4)

旅泊に憂きは 入相の
旅泊に憂きは 入相の
鐘こそ泊まり なりけれ

The sadness of my fleeting sojourn   fills me at sunset
The sadness of my fleeting sojourn     fills me at sunset
When a temple’s vesper bell      bids me stay the night.

L1010915Textually, a typical shidai has three lines with syllable counts of 7-5, 7-5, and 7-4 and the second line is an exact repetition of the first. The content often sets the scene for the entire noh with a general statement that hints at thematic material more fully explored as the piece unfolds. Musically, all shidai have a similar melodic contour with predictable pitch intervals, although the exact places where the melody goes up and down vary somewhat, with different amounts of ornamentation from piece to piece. Once one gets familiar with the contour, though, it’s very easy to identify a shidai despite the variations.  (Please note that we’re talking about yowagin (melodic singing, also known as wagin) here. A shidai can also be set in tsuyogin (dynamic singing, also known as gōgin), which sounds quite different.)

In her first draft, Carrie wrote a “perfect” shidai with the typical syllable count and a repeated first line:

The California poppies   hold tight fists at dawn   (7-5)
The California poppies   hold tight fists at dawn   (7-5)
But open petals of flame   in the sun’s warmth      (7-4)

After reviewing it, however, she took out the first “The.” She also abandoned the exact repetition of the first line, deciding instead to introduce vivid colors and a “clenched” tension that tie in with the motifs of poppies, sand, flame and anguish interwoven throughout the work. The result is a more potent and evocative opening that functions as a shidai but no longer adheres to traditional rules:

California poppies    hold tight fists at dawn                   (6-5)
Gold and orange poppies    clench like fists at dawn     (6-5)
But open petals of flame    in the sun’s warmth              (7-4)

We’ve moved away from the traditional structure, but not far. Musically, Carrie’s lines can be set pretty much like a traditional shidai (modified a little because of the missing syllables in the first two lines).  It sounds something like this:

In my next posts I’ll describe the musical characteristics of a typical shidai and share some of the compositional decisions that led me away from traditional usage. For that to make sense, though, we’ll have to consider another crucial element in noh: rhythmic organization.



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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