Bach, Weiss and Nō

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
2. Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
3. Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
4. Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
5. The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
6. Zen in the Art of Listening
7. Walking the music
8. One Moment of Music
9. The Kōan of Playing Lute
10. To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

Toyohiko Satoh has released a new CD with music by Bach and Weiss , played on his 11-course Greiff lute from 1611. He arranged cello suites BWV 1007 and 1009 by Bach and alternates these with three Ciaconas by Weiss (Carpe Diem Records CD-16305 (2015). This is superb music, played by one of the great lute players of the world, on an original lute strung in all gut and beautifully recorded by Jonas Niederstad from Carpe Diem Records.

Instead of writing a CD introduction or review, I’d like to incorporate some reflections on Satoh’s new CD into my series on Zen in lute playing, because I can find many points of interest in the booklet and in Satoh’s playing that connect to my Way of the Lute, or lutedō.

In the liner notes Satoh writes how his study of the tea ceremony and Nō have influenced his lute playing. These two traditional Japanese art forms are applied Zen: in tea ceremony and Nō the performers strive for a similar state of nothingness that students of Zen try to reach when they meditate in Zazen (sitting). In this state of nothingness you are nothing and everything at the same time, both zero and infinity. This state of nothingness is where art is created, as infinity comprises a world of fantasy, dreams and vision (mugen in Japanese) and a world of endless possibilities and nuances, which is what lute playing is all about.

In this state of nothingness you are also more susceptible to qi or life power, which could be roughly translated to the Western concept of soul.  Another way of looking at this is that in a state of nothingness you have shed your individual shell of personality and are closer to what in Zen is called the true self and which is something we all have in common. In other words, you can communicate directly with the world, instead of through the confusing layer of our personalities. A Western way of looking at this is to say that when you are less preoccupied with yourself you are more likely to be inspired by others. Satoh tells us he feels inspired by all the former owners of his 400 years old lute.

One of the striking features of Satoh’s playing is his timing. Tempi are generally slow and individual notes often seem to come late. In Zen there is a concept called ma. In part five of this series on lutedō I wrote about ma. Ma is the space between things and it is the silence between notes. This silence is where the tension between notes is and where the expectation for the next note grows. In kyudō the moment of release of the arrow is preceded by a build-up of tension; the archer waits for the moment when he must release the arrow to hit the target. He doesn’t know in advance when this moment comes, but when it comes he recognises it. In kendō a swordsman may stand still for what seems forever, building up the tension before it is released in a decisive blow. Again, he does not know in advance when that moment comes, but with his senses alert he will feel it when it is there. Satoh uses time in a similar way, waiting for the right moment to play the next note, in other words using ma, to create tension between his notes. This moment cannot be calculated by a metronome, but must be felt intuitively, like the archer and the swordsman have learned to listen to the silence between their actions to know when to release his arrow or strike his blow. So instead of coming late, each note actually follows its preceding note at exactly the right moment, thereby connecting to it in a stronger way than any metronome ever could do. Every note Satoh plays is worth listening to precisely because it is given the attention it deserves by the creation of silence around it. Satoh’s playing is silence in which individual notes are connected by the tension between them. These strong, individual note to note connections in their turn chain notes into melodies, phrases and harmonies. The resulting music speaks especially clearly because it is embedded in silence.

When listening to Satoh’s playing on the CD do we hear all this Zen? Perhaps we have to reach the same state of nothingness to feel Satoh’s qi, in other words perhaps we have to be less preoccupied with ourselves to be inspired by him? I’d like to think that listening to Satoh’s playing will help us to reach that state of nothingness. Or to rephrase this in a more Western way, listening to Satoh’s playing will help us to forget ourselves for a moment.

Then, is listening to music also a form of applied Zen? I think so: listening to music can make you forget yourself, it can transport you to a world of dreams and visions and it can make you feel inspired. Is Satoh the only musician who can do this? Of course not, ever since Orpheus took up his lyre to calm the winds, make the rocks weep and even soften the hearts of the gods, musicians have the power to move people and to transport them to another world. In olden times musicians were thought to be divinely inspired. In Zen the divine is within yourself. Many modern musicians seem unaware of their connection to something in themselves that transcends their personality and could connect more directly to their audiences. Satoh deliberately uses his tea and experiences to make this connection. Zen may seem an alien concept to use when playing Western music, but I hope that I showed that much of the ideas can be translated into Western concepts that would have been familiar to lutenists in the time of Bach and Weiss.