Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Nohkan - The Noh Flute

The flute - called a 'Nohkan' - is the instrument that begins a noh play and signals the entrances (and sometimes the exits) of characters. There are particular forms for the moments before the play starts, and for the entrances of different kinds of characters - both human and supernatural. Unlike wind instruments in other musics, the noh flute is part of the rhythm section - it leads the drummers and the singers, giving them a reference point around which to base their timings (which, in turn, are based on the actor's own timing). This clip is the Nohkan entrance music for the first character in the play Sumidagawa.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Spitalfields, Sumidagawa, Sound

Christchurch Spitalfields: I can't think of a more brilliant and imposing location for a theatrical production.

 I've wanted to see something there for years. But, when I went there to see my first London Noh - Sumidagawa in double bill with Britten's Curlew River - last Friday (after I'd got over the excitement of actually being inside it, having walked past so many times) I realised that it's only a brilliant location if the church itself has a leading role in the play. My experience of the play was interesting but strange. The church altered the play much more dramatically than I was expecting, so that it became almost unrecognisable from the noh I've studied and loved this past year. And it was almost all because of Sound.

The inside of any big church would have been a good five times as high as a normal enclosed noh stage's roof: Hawksmoor's cathedral-like masterpiece was even higher. A noh stage is its own special contained space, predictably the same everywhere - a roofed, pillared building 6 metres square, with a walkway extending diagonally from back stage right:

 In some of the bigger venues in Japan, the noh stage is built as a separate entity within an existing 'normal-shaped' auditorium. At the National Noh Theatre, the noh stage looks like a giant set piece for some huge production or other:

To look at, the organisers had done a brilliant job creating a noh-friendly playing space - raised, closed off at the back and one side, with an entrance that functioned pretty well as a bridgeway. But there wasn't much they could do about the echo. In a church, sound bounces off stone like it's playing a very energetic kids' ball game:

On a noh stage, noises sink - into the polished cypress floor and solid back of the stage, and into the close layered tiling of the roof. Sounds under a lower part of that roof, where the drummers and flautist sit, sound quieter and disappear faster - under the high part, louder. The only reverberant sound happens on the pretty rare occasions when the actor deliberately stamps as part of a dance - a deep but contained sound created by huge urns under the floor. But even that fades after about a second. At Christchurch, the 'hit' sounds (stamps and drums) became even more eerie and exciting than they usually are. They sounded...and sounded...and sounded. But the voice of the main actor - always quieter anyway because there is a wooden mask between between him and the audience, but full of richness and depth - was often lost behind them.

It was brilliant to be able to see a noh play in London, in a church I'd always wanted to be inside. But for me, the relationship between the music and the voices, interesting though it was, was just too different to how it 'should' sound for me to get used to it in the just over an hour in which the play ran. I heard afterwards that the feeling was even more pronounced for the actors themselves: I think they were trying to compensate for the longer, more confusing reverberation by going more slowly. But since there is so much microtonal vibrato in a noh voice (which you need on a noh stage to liven up the rather dead acoustic, or, when the stage is outside, to stop the voice from disappearing off into the distance) it just meant that Christchurch's walls and floor and curlicues, and roof, had even MORE fun. Gah!

So, I was all set to start hating the church for what it had done to the noh. But then Curlew River started. Britten was heavily inspired by Sumidagawa when he wrote the opera - the narrative is almost exactly the same - but the whole thing (and especially this production with its busy staging and relatively naturalistic acting) plays very much from a western tradition. A line of men file onto the stage at the beginning, singing a latin hymn in unison. And it was utterly beautiful (as was much of the rest of the opera, musically). I finally realised why its's so important for choral voices to have such a pure, bell-like quality. The church does the rest, whether you like it or not.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Atsumori by Torchlight: Ai-Kyogen Preparation

In the midst of a whirlwind of rehearsals and line-memorising for the performance of Atsumori in Bloomsburg, I took a short break to write a guest post on the Theatre Nohgaku blog about my part in the proceedings.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Noh Notes: Feeding the Addiction at NTP 2012

On Saturday 14th July, my latest adventure began when I flew to the US to start the Noh Training Project 2012. After a night hanging around Manhattan 24-hour fast food restaurants starting conversations with all kinds of strangers, and a 5 hour bus ride, I found myself in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, my new home for the next three weeks.

Technically, I was a 'first year' - I'd never studied noh on this course before - but unlike the me of last August, this summer I knew at least a little of what to expect.

So, I wasn't terrified when, on the first day, a ream of paper full of strange musical notation and numbered patterns whammed down infront of me

...I was used to the rather frantic sound of paper shuffling as the teacher announced the next song we'd be singing. I even had my own folder full of special compartments for different song books:

...I not only knew what Tabi were, but I had three pairs, one of which has the rather dubious honour of being irreparably dirty from use on fake noh stages (a noh stages is so clean that a surgeon could do an operation on its surface)

...and (perhaps most importantly) I was used to the utter humiliation of getting a dance or a line of sung text so wrong that you can see the teacher momentarily at a loss for where to even start correcting you.

So secretly, I was feeling rather smug. I was ready for this.

Or, so I thought, just before my first day in the NTP 'returning students' class.Within the first minute, sitting infront of two people who sang with a strength I would give three years of my life for, and danced dances I'd learned but with a weight and grace that I might dream of but only if I was having a daring sort of a night, I realised just how wrong I was. I was a caterpillar among giants.

I tried to escape into the first year class, which is really where I belonged. But I wasn't allowed. I was going to have to endure the humiliation, stick it out, and try my best. I set to it, practicing and memorising words, going to rehearsals, trying to sing in the noh version of 'in tune' and to at least keep my balance when I was dancing.

Today, two weeks later, when the sun is shining in the right direction and I'm in a good mood, I can just about see how much I've learnt. All the other times, my brain feels like it's gone from this:

to something more like this:

Noh is a truly wonderful, exhilarating, all-consuming art form (or collective of loads of them). But, working to get better at doing it rides so close to the precipice of 'shovelling shit', that I'm extremely relieved that noh, for me, is also an Addiction. So, onward, into the final week, a recital, a show, and all the fun of the fair!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Sugar Architecture (or, American Sweets 101)

This is neither a dishwasher tablet, a urinal crystal, or a strangely cut piece of washing up sponge. It is Food. More specifically, it is a Warhead:

These monuments of blue raspberry deliciousness are only one of my many delightful (but more often than not unfortunately named after weapons) sugary discoveries since I came to America last week. I am a lover of the English pineapple chunk, Green Apple and Kola cube - but oh, the American Sour (not Mega-Sour, not only inedibly lip puckering but which carry a health warning about stomach ulcers as well as the more usual tooth decay, obesity and ADHD flags) Warhead: whether alone in a city of giant salt and pepper shakers...

...or in a gaggle with its colourful companions...

...that beautiful, tasty and utterly artifical cube might be the best yet.

Tomorrow it's a toss-up between acid green pistachio muffins, and triple chocolate cherry frosted pop tarts. Or perhaps something completely new - who really knows?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Noh Notebook: June 2012 and on

It's just as well I'm at the 2012 Noh Training Project in Bloomsburg, Pennslvania. I'm an addict: I've only been away from Japan for 3 weeks and already the thing I miss most is live noh theatre. Whole afternoons shooting past in a twilight zone of stylised other-worldliness and serendipitous marriages of music, and story, and movement, and beautiful things to look at.

On June 24th, for the last time in a while, from my usual seat in the Kita Theatre, I watched and savoured an afternoon of professional noh theatre. Waki actors sitting in their spot at front stage left...

...waiting for the shite main actor to arrive onstage, often in disguise at first...

...but not for long because after the shite's real identity is revealed, the action really begins. Sometimes, gorgeous heartbreaking dances...

...and sometimes, a no-holds barred demonic sound and light show:

And then, there's the Ai Kyogen interlude actor who appears while the other actors get changed, and either sits and retells the story...

...or prances around to lighten the mood a bit

Ai Kyogen hoeing dance

Now, I won't have to suffer quite so badly now I'm at the only Noh Training Prject in America! Who would never have thought that the most noh you can get outside of Japan would be Pennsylvania? But that's where I am ad what I'm doing. Slightly looking forward to Friday,...in a good way.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Being a Kid: Backstage at the Barbican

Backstage passes are always fun to have, but gaining no holds barred access to the Barbican's Cool Stuff Cupboard...

...may just be the best backstage pass I've ever had.

Being an adult clowning around in rooms full of toys and 3-5 year olds is fun enough...

...but being a kid yourself? Still better.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Sights, Smells and Gateways to Hell, Hokkaido

I saw a lot while I was in Hokkaido (the Northernmost island of Japan) last week. Some places, like the Ryusei and Ginga waterfalls in Daisetsuzan National Park's Sounkyo Gorge...

...were so dazzling I couldn't contain my excitement. This was taken just before I danced (yes, danced) down about 30 flights of stairs:

Other highlights of the natural world included ann extremely large pine cone

and the view from the top (well, as close to the top as the chairlift would take me) of Mount Kurodake

At a park in the middle of nowhere, I found architecture that turned me into a giant...

...and then, I vowed never to eat eggs again after being blasted by the acrid smoke rising from a place everyone calls 'Hell Valley'

Far more hellish than this, though, was the place the train dropped us off on the way. Just outside the station, in the middle of the busiest season of the year, was a completely, utterly deserted fairground:

I was a little unnerved - especially when the next place we arrived looked equally like a lot of people's (including my) version of purgatory

Tomakomai Ferry Port

A night and several beers later, though, we finally made it to the famous Matsushima Bay

...which, of course, called for a Japanese-style celebration!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Sound of the Week: Tokyo's Mutant Rain

My abiding memory of Tokyo in June will be the sound of performance-enhanced raindrops. They sound far more solid than liquid water has any right to - on my roof, anyway. Listen here!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Wish! Fulfilment: Return to Yokohama

In Japan, the school year starts in April, so the kids I told stories with last September are now officially one year older. And so am I! But neither party was any less excited, I'm pleased to say.

At Tamaplaza Nozomi, I managed to stop the kids from climbing into my story bag for just long enough to give a whistle-stop Japanglish rendition of the marvellous Momotaro. Lots of people's favourite part of the story is the bit where Momotaro bursts out of the peach and shocks his new 'parents':

...but not this lot. I had thirty budding foodies on my hands. Like me, their favourite part is the bit where Momotaro gets his packed lunch:

Kibidango - a malty, chewy, utterly delicious Japanese sweet with which Momotaro bribes a bird

a dog

and a monkey

...to join him in his quest

to fight the demons of Onigashima

Soon, though, it was time to leave Kibidango behind, and go on to the next stop on what was becoming more of a food than a story tour of Tokyo nurseries, was the Umeboshi Plum Festival at Shouka Hoikuen.

I received an important piece of advice from some very wise thee-year-olds...

...about how you should NOT eat raw umeboshi plums. Three hours of indigestion later, I wish I'd followed it.

I was coerced into doing my first outdoor performance (in the rain)...

and into giving more piggybacks than my own back could really stand without complaining...

But it was only my back that complained. I had far too much fun to have anything to complain about. Although. I have to say, I'm pretty glad I escaped School Dinners:

Another marvellous outing. Roll on the next!