Instruments in their natural environment

1. 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
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part twelve in my series on Zen and lute playing. In these lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. This time I turn for inspiration to the preface of a book on composing for traditional Japanese instruments by Minoru Miki (1930-2011), a composer of contemporary music. This preface is about Japanese instruments and the relation they have to their natural environment. These thoughts helped me to think about the lute and its natural environment. The author’s thoughts on these aspects of Japanese aesthetics can help us in establishing our lutedō. Some of the remarks by Minoru Miki can be incorporated in our lutedō, while others make us realise that ‘East is East, and West and is West, and never the twain shall meet’.

Some Japanese instruments seem extremely inconvenient and impractical to use. If, however, value judgement is based on the instrument’s relationship to the natural environment, there are instances where Japanese instruments demonstratie great strengths. 

A lute, too, especially strung with gut strings, can be very inconvenient and impractical: too soft, quickly out of tune when playing complicated music or in high positions and prone to buzzing when played too loud. I have to deal with criticism on these aspects of the lute from time to time in my concert life. However, these negative characteristics only become apparent when we take the lute out of its natural environment. The natural environment of a lute is playing lute music in an small concert venue with an ensemble of period instruments. When we play inappropriate music on a lute, in a large concert hall and with an ensemble of modern instruments it is indeed an inconvenient and impractical instrument. But the lute was never made for those environments, it was made for lute music in intimate settings with a few listeners and matched instruments like a viol, a traverse flute or a human voice.

Historically, the Japanese have cherished timbre. When improving instruments, there has never been an attempt to increase functionality or acquire a greater volume of sound at the expense of destroying the instrument’s traditional timbre. Materials unique to Asia (bamboo, paulownia wood, mulberry wood, silk), are decisive in determining the timbre of Japanese instruments. When substitute materials are used, approximating the original timbre to the greatest possible extent is always of primary importance. 

We can see a tendency among modern lute players to conform to the demands of modern concert life. They change their strings from gut to synthetic materials, they increase their string tensions to have a greater volume and opt for bigger lutes, or historically inappropriate lutes, for even more volume. All these choices are practical and understandable, but take the player and by extension his audience away from the intimate world of the lute where timbre is more important than volume. The sound quality of low tension, gut strings on period correct lutes cannot be recreated by modern materials and historically inappropriate instruments.

Imitating the sounds of Japan’s natural environment is a fundamental precept in composition and performance. The non-musical sounds produced by the instruments are also considered an integral part of the music.

In Japanese aesthetics there is the concept of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a combination of suggestion, irregularity, simplicity and perishability. It can be seen in things that show minor flaws, a certain roughness and an apparent lack of perfection. This is a concept alien to Western classical music where perfection is the highest goal to strive for. We are trained to avoid non-musical sounds on our instruments; we should not let our strings or frets buzz and we should not make audible changes in position. But this is an aesthetic concept we find in modern, classical music training only. Many forms of popular music, blues and flamenco guitar playing to mention just two, would be inconceivable without the noise of fingers on the strings. And also in early music we find evidence of an aesthetic that includes non-musical sounds. The sound of the Medieval bray harp, the hurdy-gurdy and many early wind instruments all incorporate non-musical sounds to some degree.

Under the influence of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, the value of breath and the weight of one strike – the concept of enlightenment through one tone – corresponds with the function of Japanese instruments. 

Although Zen Buddhism and its idea of enlightenment is a concept that has not much to do with Western philosophy or aesthetics, it is worthwhile to think of every note as an important note. Individual notes in Western music are connected within phrases and within these phrases they have a hierarchy that excludes treating them with equal importance. Yet giving every note its appropriate attention is important. Exactly because each note is connected to all other notes, we can say that the whole composition is in each note. Therefore each note needs to be played with the attention that the whole composition deserves. This might be an Eastern concept again, but one that might find recognition in Western music.

Also closely connected to Buddhist thought is the concept of free meter. The space between one note and the next is not considered a ‘rest’, but rather an important space containing the absence of sound. 

Another concept in Japanese aesthetics is ma. Ma is the space between things, and is at least as important as the things themselves, because without space between them, objects are not defined, and without silence between notes we cannot distinguish between those notes. Connected to ma is free meter. Modern classical music training gives great value to playing in time; metronomical accuracy is a highly prized skill. But in musical performances we must deviate from this metronomical accuracy and play in free meter to some degree. In Renaissance music we learn about freedom within a regular pulse, in Baroque music about ‘stealing’ and ‘giving’ time and in Romantic music about rubato. These are valid approaches to give life to otherwise mechanical performances. I think the concept of ma provides an alternative and equally valid approach to shaping the timing of your performance.

In Japan the union of human culture and nature has been held as an ideal since ancient times. In buildings from stone, where the outside is completely separated from the inside, sounds echo for extended periods of time and rich harmonies are born. In buildings open to the outside, however, such as those found in traditional Japan, which use materials such as tatami and fusuma that absorb the sound, one cannot hear high harmonics. In traditional Japanese music, bright sounds rich in harmonics were considered undesirable. As a result, sounds containing percussive elements  become important. These aesthetic preferences are considered evidence demonstrating that in Japan, there is no conception of creating an artificial sound world in confrontation to nature. 

Here the world of the lute is clearly not the world of traditional Japanese music. The natural environment of a lute is a resonant room, concert venue or church: a room made of stone walls and a wooden (or stone) floor and ceiling. A room separated from the outside, creating an artificial world. A room that favours harmonics, sustained lines and the playing of chords. The large cathedrals with their even more resonant spaces were the birthplace of heterophony, something not present in traditional Japanese music. The West with its closed, resonant spaces was the birthplace of harmony, also something not present in traditional Japanese music. So here ‘East is East, and West and is West, and never the twain shall meet’ indeed. But the underlying lesson that we must think of the instrument in its natural environment is a valid lesson, a lesson we can apply to our lutedō.