The Kōan of Playing Lute

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

This is part nine in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. Here I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. For this lesson I will turn to the use of kōan to solve some puzzles in my lute playing. Maybe you can do the same to improve your own lute playing.

In studying lute music we encounter many puzzles that are seemingly impossible to solve. Especially in 16th century polyphony we are confronted with the limitations of our instrument in almost every measure. How do we sustain a melody on an instrument that has a tone that fades so quickly? Even more puzzling: how do we sustain two, three, four or more independent melodies simultaneously? We can think of many more questions about lute playing that seem to have no answer.

The traditional, logical answer to these questions is to improve one’s technique. Of course, to improve one’s technique is always a good answer. If there is a passage in a piece of lute music we cannot play to our satisfaction, we should analyse the problem, turn that problem into an etude and work on that etude until we can play the passage to satisfaction. But for some problems, a good technique is not enough; we need more to solve them. Focussing on technique might even be a hindrance to solving these problems, because some problems have no technical answers. Furthermore, when we focus on technique, we might forget about the music. The result can be that we play technically correct but musically boring. So we have to transcend our focus on technique to express the music.

This where I turn to Zen. In the Rinzai-school of Zen, kōan are used as an aid in breaking through logical thinking and thereby reaching enlightenment. A kōan can be seen as a question without an answer or a statement without meaning, but the student who is given the kōan is supposed to meditate on it until he finds a solution. A simple answer is not enough, instead the student has to demonstrate his insight. There is no one correct answer to a kōan. To test the insight of a student, the teacher may ask follow-up or testing questions, called sassho.

Perhaps the most famous kōan is the one that asks about the sound of one hand clapping. A student of Zen might sit and meditate on this kōan for years before coming to an insight that his teacher will approve of. Instead, let us give ourselves a kōan more appropriate for our lutedō. Let us imagine a passage of three-part polyphony with a middle voice that is impossible to sustain, because the fingers of the left hand that should sustain the middle voice are needed to fret the notes of the top and bottom voices. Our kōan will be: ‘How do I sustain the middle voice in that passage?’

When we search our mind for an answer to this kōan we will first come up with the logical answers. One logical answer might be to use dynamic differences in the three voices, and differences in tone colour, to distinguish the three voices, thereby making the polyphony clear to the listener even though we are unable to sustain all the notes. Another logical answer might be to play certain notes on other strings or even re-write the passage so we are able to actually play it. These are all valid answers to solve the problem in this passage.

But let me suggest another answer to this kōan that came to me when contemplating more traditional Zen kōan. Many kōan are intended to make us transcend the dualistic view we have of the world around us. We tend to see object and subject as two different things, but Buddhism tries to teach us a non-dualistic view of the world where object and subject are one, though not the same. In other words, we are in unity with all around us, but at the same time we are individuals living our own lives.

If I apply this non-dualistic view to the polyphonic passage, it means the three voices and me are one. So playing three voices means I am the three voices. Not sustaining the middle voice does not alter the unity of the polyphonic fabric of the composition and I am still expressing all of the music through my lute. That we are all one does not mean we are all the same, however. The audience will hear one composition, but will also be able to identify three voices and me, the performer. For the audience a non-sustained middle voice will not break the unity of the composition nor of the performance. Instead of hearing the offending passage as an imperfection in one of the voices, the audience will hear the whole polyphonic web of voices, and in that web each individual voice is carried through by the other voices, because they are all part of the one composition. In that unity, the audience doesn’t need to hear where each individual voice is at every moment in time; knowing where a voice came from and where it is going to can be enough. And that path of each voice is made clear by playing the attack of the notes, sustain is not always needed.

For me, the ultimate kōan in my lutedō is how to play polyphony. My question does not concern so much problems like the one described above. In any polyphonic piece there are many such problems, and there is a danger that concentrating on solving all those minor details I lose the bigger picture of how to play polyphony at all. And that for me is the ultimate question: how do I split myself up in three, four or more independent parts and play all those parts on one lute? The technical difficulties are already hard enough to overcome, but the musical challenge to play three or more independent parts convincingly needs an answer that transcends logic. Playing the polyphony with a non-dualistic approach, being one but not the same, is an answer that works for me. Just like a choir of four singers will act as one while being four individuals, I can imagine being four voices on one lute. The interaction of the four voices, the imitations, the playing a counter theme against the main theme, the individual entrances and cadences, the stepping aside of one voice to let another voice get more attention, the being totally together and sound like one voice in homophonic passages, all this I can do by being those four voices simultaneously. I cannot do this when instead like a juggler I try to keep those four individual voices in the air while thinking of my fingers at the same time. That is too much for me and I think too much for any individual. Again, think of a choir of four people: the only way they are going to make good polyphony is by being one while maintaining their individuality.

Does this make sense to you? Perhaps it shouldn’t, as someone else’s answer to a kōan is useless to you. You must come to your own insight. But I suggest you seek an insight beyond the boundaries of logic. How do we know our insight is valid, how can we test it? Our sassho will be the next measures and the next pieces. If our insight is valid indeed, we will be able to play those better as well. If my non-dual approach to playing polyphony is a valid approach, I will be able to play all polyphony better.

Once we have found our answer to the kōan and we have reached the nirvana of being one with the music we are playing, are we able to play all music without any more study? Of course not. Think of this other famous kōan: ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ In other words: the moment we know we have reached nirvana, we have lost it and we have to start our search again. Because realising that we have reached nirvana, means we are looking at ourselves and nirvana as two separate entities, which means we are no longer one with it. So, the moment you listen to your own playing and think it sounds fine, you have lost the state where you were one with the music because you have become an outside observer. This means we will always have to go back to the one answer that comes first to all questions: study. Study your technique and study the puzzles in your music. Study your own etudes and study your own kōan. Study is the only way to improve your playing. In our lutedō, there is no goal but only Way, and the Way is to study.

David van Ooijen

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