Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Exploring honkyoku with Minoru Miki

Minoru Miki is one of Japan’s leading contemporary composers. His orchestral works often champion Japanese traditional instruments such as the koto and shakuhati, while his operas are performed to considerable acclaim worldwide (of Joruri, Andrew Porter wrote, “the audience seemed spellbound, and at the close the silence that is the deepest mark of appreciation yielded gradually to cheers and a long standing ovation”). The University of Rochester Press has recently published his classic work, Composing for Japanese Instruments. Here, its translator, Marty Regan, reflects on the origin of the project:

I first met Miki in 2000 when I was enrolled as a government–sponsored research student at Tokyo College of Music. The composition faculty knew I was interested in learning how to compose for Japanese instruments – and urged me to sit in on his classes. These classes – which never had more than half a dozen participants – consisted of listening to Miki’s works and enjoying sometimes hours of anecdotal stories, following by a casual dinner as a group. By the second year, this “class” had dwindled down to two students, and I officially requested Miki as my composition teacher. Early attempts at composing for Japanese instruments were futile. Then, one day Miki asked me to show him the honkyoku – a term used for classical shakuhachi repertoire from the Zen Buddhist tradition – I was working on for my shakuhachi lessons. The ‘scores’ for these pieces, like traditional Japanese texts, are read from right to left and top to bottom. He took the score to this piece and turned it vertically so that what previously appeared to be vertical lines to indicate sustained pitches of indeterminate length now appeared to flow from left to right. In a moment – like a moment of satori, or enlightenment – I discovered how I could compose for Japanese instruments or even Western instruments and imbue them with a Japanese aesthetic – I had to remove the bar lines to allow the music to ‘float’ through time and adopt the graphic ornamentation symbols of shakuhachi honkyoku as a means to notate ‘Japanese’ ornaments in Western staff notation. There were countless moments just like this with Miki, and the original Japanese version of this book served as an invaluable source of reference for my lessons. This allowed me – and his other student! – to come prepared to our lessons with ‘basic’ knowledge such as the ranges of instruments, various idiomatic techniques, and their respective notation. The book helped to demystify these instruments on a profoundly practical level, making the learning curve less steep.

In 1964 Miki founded the Pro Music Nipponia, an ensemble of instrumentalists devoted to creating new repertoire for traditional Japanese instruments. As Artistic Director of the ensemble for over twenty years, they performed more than 160 concerts abroad in an effort to globalize Japanese instruments. Through his collaborations with the members of the Pro Music Nipponia, Miki had an opportunity to perfect his craft and arguably became Japan’s – and hence the world’s – foremost authority on composing for traditional Japanese instruments. Those experiences form the basis for this book. As Miki himself writes in the Afterword after thanking his former colleagues from the Pro Musica Nipponia, “The theories and descriptions in this book are based on notes I have been taking for many years.” I hesitate to simply call this book an orchestration–instrumentation manual, although this is somewhat of the role that it may fulfill for many potential readers. Rather, it is also partly autobiography/aesthetic treatise, as Miki contextualizes the practical details of the instruments into his lifework and musical ideas/compositional approach. Composing for Japanese Instruments was also translated into Chinese, which, according to Miki, has resulted in countless numbers of idiomatic compositions for Japanese instruments by Chinese–literate composers.

Despite the fact that I finished the translation eight years after our initial meeting and felt that I had come a long away in my own creative work with these instruments, having to translate this book for an English–speaking audience forced me to address personal gaps of knowledge. In short, although I had used the book in my lessons and read it in Japanese, for this translation project I had to approach the book with more precision and degree of detail. As I translated the book and struggled through many difficult Chinese character readings and opaque passages, I became aware not only at the extensiveness of Miki’s intimate knowledge of these beautiful instruments, but also his love and passion for them. I sincerely hope, and in fact, predict, that the English translation of this book will lead to an embracing of Japanese traditional instruments on a worldwide scale. Composers from around the world who have wanted to delve into the world of Japanese instruments now have the resources to do so.

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