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12 January 2010

Chaos and Containment – creative inspiration from the vivid music of Japan

Lachlan Skipworth Image: Lachlan Skipworth  

Lachlan Skipworth reports from Japan where he recently spent three months as part of an Asialink Performing Arts Residency.

Like most foreigners, I find Tokyo a place of immense wonder and am constantly marvelling at the way a place of such extremes can function in such an orderly fashion. Temples nestled between skyscrapers set the ancient alongside the modern with a slight feeling of awkward impermanence, as if awaiting the next earthquake. The subway network appears an unfolding labyrinth of intersecting lines on a map, yet the rail system runs like clockwork. Trains seem about to burst open due to the crowds, but the people themselves are the depiction of politeness, aside from a few Friday night revellers who have had a little too much sake and karaoke. It's the constant battle to contain the chaotic elements into a rigid formality that make Tokyo a place of enduring interest. A similar struggle between musical extremes and strict form gives traditional Japanese music its mysterious allure.

Japanese instruments exhibit a certain wild potency as their seemingly simple design allows for much flexibility of pitch and timbre, coupled with a striking array of extended techniques. Raw and unrefined sounds are frequent in the traditional repertoire and are considered aesthetically pleasing. To this end, the instruments have not been 'modernised', so to speak, and their music has evolved around set limitations that the instruments' basic construction presents. For example, the end-blown mouthpiece of the shakuhachi allows a startling degree of pitch freedom and variance of tone colour. However a pentatonic scale is produced by opening its five finger holes in order, and fast movement between pitches outside this scale is troublesome.

Similarly, the shamisen, a three-stringed cat-skin lute, has freedom of pitch due to its fretless fingerboard. The music is bound always to the pitch of its lowest string, which is left a little loose at the nut to create a rough, buzzing sound. With sympathetic resonance, this takes on an incessant drone-like quality that reinforces the prominence of this pitch. In contrast, the movable bridges of the koto mean that any number of different tonalities is possible, however, once they are set, only small modulations are feasible. Players focus on adding colour and expression through varied plucking techniques as well as pushing and pulling the strings to manipulate the pitch. Japanese traditional musicians claim that the freedom to inflect the tone of their instruments makes theirs a living and breathing sound, whose animation more than makes up for perceived limitations.

An acceptance of free elements into form and structure also occurs on a broader level in the different genres of traditional music. In a series of lectures I was able to attend by the Japanese composer Ichiyanagi Toshi, he raised the issue of freedom in relation to time. In our modern-day world, he asserted, we measure time as absolute in minutes and seconds, whereas in old Japan, time was a relative concept. Each day was divided into six equal parts, and the lengths of these segments varied as the seasons changed. Many genres of music in Japan similarly allow for such flexibility of time. For example, shakuhachi honkyoku pieces consist of phrases which are drawn out to the length of one breath, which will differ between performers and performances. In my ongoing study of this repertoire, there is a strong focus on how to space the notes of a phrase suitably within the time of my own breath. In gagaku, the ancient court music, the final beat of each bar is lengthened quite dramatically in a way that disrupts the sense of pulse. This creates a floating and otherworldly mood, which is further heightened by the overlapping chords of the sho (a mouth organ) and the wandering melodies of the hichiriki (a double-reed instrument). Ichiyanagi also pointed out that no traditional Japanese music uses a conductor, therefore ensembles must listen closely to each other within the fluctuating time.

It was with this idea of a tug of war between chaos and containment in mind that I observed the gendai hougaku scene (contemporary music for traditional instruments) during my residency. A highlight of my stay was seeing my host ensemble Aura-J perform Miki Minoru's Concerto Requiem for 21-string koto and ensemble. The soloist, Kimura Reiko, is a leading exponent of the 21-string koto, and Miki's skilful writing for the instrument allowed her to show off the entire range of her expressive talent, from delicate harmonics to strong percussive attacks. What became immediately clear was that Miki had explored the limits of soloistic virtuosity, while still allowing space for the raw elements, the subtle pitch inflections and resonance of the more noise-like sounds, to really bring Kimura's performance to life.

This was a major lesson for me, as other pieces I saw during my residency, that failed to utilise the distinct range of sounds available to the instruments, were at times bland and uninteresting. At the opposite end of the spectrum, pieces that used the pitch freedom and extended techniques excessively, or in an unrelated fashion, became a foray too far into the abstract to maintain the liveliness of the performance. My recent experience of Japanese instruments has confirmed that to write music which encompasses the wild and chaotic within a structure, for Japanese or Western instruments, I must pursue a musical world where juxtaposing extremes of expression coexist in a balanced way.

Further links

Lachlan Skipworth - MySpace
AMU podcast featuring Skipworth's MODART work Aida (ABC Classic FM)
MODART diaries part I and part VIII by Lachlan Skipworth on Resonate
Asialink (University of Melbourne) (http://www.asialink.unimelb.edu.au/)

Lachlan Skipworth is a Sydney-based composer and shakuhachi player. He recently spent three months in Japan as part of an Asialink Performing Arts Residency (with funding from the Australia Council and Arts NSW), hosted by Aura-J, an ensemble focused on presenting new works for traditional Japanese instruments.


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