article 83: Sayonara Nihon

I‘ve not written anything for this site about one of my great passions: the ancient Japanese theater form called Noh. Through a series of coincidences Naoko and I became friends with the head of the largest of the five officially sanctioned guilds or schools (ryu), Grand Master (o-iemoto) Kanze Kiyokazu, who is something of a demigod here in Tokyo, where I happen to be writing this.

A number of things have me in a valedictory state of mind. Foremost among them is a virus which has struck us both down, unluckily on the eve of a concert Naoko is to give tomorrow. “Gambaro", say the Japanese — broadly equivalent to "the show must go on" — but it ain‘t gonna be no wienie roast. The offerings we made last week to the kami of Kyoto and Nara must have been insufficient.

And the horrors of jet-lag seem to become more of a problem as I age. It‘s been ten days now and my circadian rhythm refuses to budge.

Then there is the general atmosphere of downtown Tokyo: antiseptic glass-steel-concrete colossi, eyesores all, sometimes built into the husk of a prewar building which only renders their aesthetic poverty more pathetic; the vast, impenetrable maze of Tokyo Station; the machines which constantly talk at you; the cascades of impeccably dressed, largely miserable humanity on the subway stairs; vapid consumerism and cultural barbarism manifest on all sides; and the absolute impenetrability of the beautiful Japanese language for an old codger like me.

And yet looking out of our 34th-story window I can see a sliver of green and a fragment of gray stone wall: the remains of the old castle of Edo, which became the Imperial Palace when the capital was moved here from Kyoto at the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the place was renamed To-kyo, the "eastern capital". The Kanze family, tasked with performing Noh for the shogunate since the 14th century, wisely switched its allegiance to the imperial faction and performed there until the B-san (Curtis LeMay"s B-29s) pulverized most of the buildings. Now the huge former compound is an island of green in the great wasteland. The constitutional monarchy bestowed on Japan by Douglas MacArthur has its seat there.

So where does music come in? It was the music of Noh which hit me hardest on my first visit to Japan in 2011. Minimalistic in a sense of the word from another galaxy than that evoked by "minimal music": with two or three drummers chanting “yo” in the longish intervals between single blows, a flutist who mostly sits silent, a solo voice and an eight-man chanting chorus — and yes, I do mean of the male gender, as all professional Noh performers are — it seems to me that more musical substance is produced in ten minutes than in an entire Mahler symphony. The expressiveness achieved with drastically reduced musical means is flummoxing.

The strangest thing is that you have to experience Noh live. Any electronic intervention eviscerates it utterly. Go figure, but it‘s a fact. Naoko‘s only contact with the noblest art of her native land had been on TV, and she was skeptical about our first encounter. But after seeing “Ataka" she was as hooked as I was.

That intangible immediacy is part of what makes Noh such a polar opposite to modern life. The minimalism is another contributor. And Noh slows time down, radically, rather than trying to speed it up, as do most aspects of modernity. Since seeing Mr. Kanze perform “Uneme" the other day — one of the saddest stories ever told — I feel more intensely than ever that this world has terminally lost its way.

I doubt if I can ever face the onslaught of alien viruses again, not to mention a 13-hour flight and an eight-hour time difference. So this will likely be a farewell to Japan, where civilized behavior is still the norm and everything is clean and orderly and they apologize when the trains arrive a few seconds early. (What all that hides under the surface is another matter.) Japan…which gave the world its most beautiful architecture, first novel*, best food, most admirable work ethic…and which gave me my beloved wife.

March 11, 2023

* ”The Tale of Genji” (Genji monogatari), largely written (to a degree still under dispute) by an emperor's lady-in-waiting known as Murasaki Shikibu around 1000 AD. Her diary also survives.

Postscript, March 14. Yesterday Naoko rose as from the dead after a Day of Noro and performed brilliant continuo with a fine young Japanese recorder player after a single rehearsal; but more especially, two long and difficult solos. She made the simple Italian harpsichord sound like a Baroque orchestra. The performances ranked with two other astounding conquests of impossible conditions: playing suitable pieces on 22 different harpsichords (almost all of them ghastly) and three clavichords at an instrument exhibition in Kofu, and a recital in Moscow of devilishly difficult suites by Gottlieb Muffat on an instrument regarding which my gorge rises every time I recall working to make it halfway playable until half an hour after starting time. Firewood. Talk about “gambaro”…Then today, the inevitable relapse. The little miracle worker lay inert all day. But by evening we were fit enough to have a final drink at the Palace Hotel, after which Naoko took this picture of the old East Gate to Edo Castle.

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