Cultivating the Flower – Zeami on lute playing

Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
Bach, Weiss and Nō

This is part two in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. In these lessons I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. This time I turn to for inspiration.

Nō is an ancient form of Japanese theatre involving mime, role playing, poetic chanting and music. On a bare stage, devoid of all props but the one ubiquitous pine tree an absolute minimum of actors, whose facial expressions are hidden behind a mask, present a story in archaic Japanese, underscored by ritualized movements and accompanied by alienating music. Under these circumstances any words, movements and sounds, however slight, take on an extraordinary significance. In Buddhism, one would say ‘the hidden truth of things can be expressed only when sensual illusion is shorn away.’ This is what happens in Nō and it touches at the heart of all performing arts. Nō expresses in the most condensed way possible what all actors, dancers and musicians try to convey to their audiences. A lesson in Nō, then, is a lesson in lute playing, too. And whom better to turn to for this lesson than Zeami Motokiyo, son of the founder of modern Nō Kannami Kiyotsugu and author of the Fūshikaden, a book of secret teachings written between 1400 and 1418.

Fūshikaden can be translated as ‘Transmission of Style and the Flower’ or ‘Teachings on Grace and Presence’. In the book Zeami introduces the reader to the concept of the Flower. Although a clear definition is beside the point in Zeami’s writing, where the concept of the Flower can mean many things simultaneously and where the Flower should be understood instinctively rather than intellectually, the Flower might be defined as a condition of the performance that creates a unique impression or sensation of charm and beauty for the audience, in other words the Flower is that which is attractive in a performance or in a performer. Zeami literally writes “The Flower, that which is interesting, and which is that which is unique – these three are the same at the heart of the matter.” How then, can we cultivate this Flower, in other words, how can we play attractively? Zeami has divided his book in seven chapters, and I will attempt to translate the teachings of each chapter into a practical lesson for lute players.

Chapter one: Concerning Practice and Age

Zeami stresses the importance of going through all the stages of developing your playing. Don’t run before you can walk, so take your time to master all the different levels. Don’t skip any lessons and study each piece till you can really play it. But also be aware of the Flower you posses during each of the stages of your development. A beginner for example might have a natural charm, however simple the pieces he is playing. But also be aware of your limitations and do not try to play beyond them. So besides the obvious lesson that only hard work will get you further, there is also a positive lesson: you can be an attractive player, whatever your level.

Chapter two: Role Playing

Know your styles. Know how to articulate in Baroque music, how to phrase in Renaissance polyphony, what a Sarabande is like, how a Gigue should be played and what makes Italian Correntes different from French Courantes. Know all these things and more. But if you want to play all these things convincingly, to know what to do is not enough and to imitate is fake. You must grasp the essence of a style and of a musical form to show your Flower. You should forget your self and become the style. But to do this well, Zeami teaches us, we must practice. On all aspects of our art we must work: we must study and practice till perfection.

Chapter three: Questions and Answers

The Fūshikaden is a collection of the secret teachings of Zeami’s own Nō group, to be handed down to his successor. The teachings were so secret that ordinary members of the group were not even allowed to see the book. But as most teachings were transmitted orally, there is also a chapter in the traditional form of questions and answers. There are a few valuable lessons for lute players in this chapter too.
• Check your stage and check your audience. If necessary, adapt your programme to the circumstances.
• Don’t rely on your reputation but make an effort to show your Flower every time.
• Know your own weak points and study the strong points of others. Even if they are players below your level, you still might learn from them. In the words of Zeami himself: “Strengthen your practice, don’t be conceited.”
• Put effort in your practice to reach the next level.
• Always observe a graceful and subtle elegance in whatever you do.
• The wilting of the Flower might be even more beautiful than the Flower itself. This is a very Japanese lesson, to do with the aesthetics of wabi sabi and with the Buddhist concept of the fleeting nature of all things. A wilting flower in nature reminds us of how truly beautiful a flower is, precisely because of its perishability. How to translate this lesson into lute playing might not be immediately obvious, but you might for example connect it to the fleeting nature of any live performance, or to the perishability of the sound of a lute.
• Don’t let the temporary Flower be a substitute for the real Flower. A virtuoso technique or a dazzling performance are examples of temporary Flowers, as these will attract the audience but for a short while. The real Flower will last long and the cause of its blooming and falling is the will of the player. So make sure you play your music with content, and not with empty showmanship. Zeami writes that those in the audience that know, will watch with their minds instead of their eyes. We would perhaps say these people listen with their feelings instead of with their ears. So in order to reach these people, we must be able to play with our feelings as well.
• The seed for the Flower is technique, so never neglect your practice.

Chapter four: Matters Concerning the Gods

Know the history of your instrument and its music.

Chapter five: Praising the Deepest Principles

The Flower is the very life of lute playing. You must play attractively, or ‘with graceful and subtle elegance’ as Zeami teaches us. So do not aim at momentary fame but follow the Way of the Lute honestly and abandon your self-interest. You must love and respect your audience, so have them in mind when deciding what to play for them.

Chapter six: Cultivating the Flower

Write music. The benefit for study purposes is obvious: to know a style really well, you have to write music in this style. It is the ultimate test and the ultimate challenge. For the healthy continuation of Nō it was necessary that the leader of the group would add new Nō plays to the repertoire of the group. For early music too, there is a strong argument that to keep it alive and to give it current relevance, it is important to write new pieces as well.

Chapter seven: Additional Oral Traditions

In this final chapter Zeami has collected a number of afterthoughts and additions, and stresses once more some of the important points he already mentioned in the other chapters. Here are a few of his thoughts, relevant to our Way of the Lute.
• Understand the flower in nature to understand the Flower in lute playing. A flower in nature will only bloom in its season, so only play the appropriate pieces to the occasion and the pieces that you are able to perform well, so you can show your Flower. You must sow a seed for a flower to come up. In other words: study your styles and practice your technique.
• Don’t forget the mind you had as a beginner. The natural charm that attracted your audience then, can still be used today.
• Don’t imitate but be; grasp the true essence of the music you perform.

Nō is strongly linked to Buddhism, especially to Zen-Buddhism. And like in many other traditional Japanese art forms such as tea, calligraphy, archery and sword fighting, in Nō too we find many references to the Zen concept of letting go of the self and becoming one with what we do. Zeami often quotes Zen teachings, one of the most famous ones is by the 13th century Zen-teacher Dōgen:

To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by all phenomena. When actualized by all phenomena, your own body and mind, as well as the bodies and minds of others, will be molted away.

A possible translation for the purpose of our lutedō could be:

To study the lute is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to become one with the music. When becoming one with the music, your own body and mind, as well as the bodies and minds of your audience, will unite in the music.

This is the Flower we should cultivate in our playing.

David van Ooijen 2010