by Christopher Yohmei Blasdel
Noh actors follow strictly prescribed footsteps and movements across the stage, while the accompanying musicians look straight ahead, faces expressionless, singing lyrics full of pathos.
Gagaku court musicians sit cross-legged on a raised dais, all wearing identical costumes and playing highly formalized musical phrases which blend together with stunning timbres and harmonies.
A lone shakuhachi player in black kimono bows reverently to the audience before closing his eyes and performing profound, meditative music.
The traditional Japanese performing arts rely heavily upon form as a means to convey artistic content. A strict formalism determines much of the performance style: the position of the instruments onstage, the performer's costume, posture and handling of the instrument, makeup of the program and even the house management. Every aspect of the production has a certain style.
There are variations in the style, according to the school or ryuha, but within each school, formalism permeates all aspects of hogaku.
The process of learning hogaku, or keiko, is also dependant upon form. Teachers spend a great deal of lesson time on proper social etiquette and on handling oneself vis a vis the artistic discipline. Formal respect must be shown toward the teacher and the senpai (senior students).
Musical technique is also learned in the keiko process, but unlike the Western music lesson, where the teacher drills the student in technique, hogaku technical knowhow is usually picked up through years of exposure and mimicry.
Even those students who never actually improve technically are, with enough years and faithful adherence to the social forms, accorded the same respect as the musically deft ones.
When I began learning traditional shakuhachi years ago as a young musician, I was perplexed by the strong emphasis on form. I was enamored of the shakuhachi's musical content: a deeply Dionysian, spiritually free and meditative way of music. I wondered why I had to spend so much time on style and suffer those who placed importance on form over content.
I had come from a time and place -- the U.S. during the '70s -- where it was fashionable to destroy and deny the old forms, both social and artistic, for the sake of rediscovering true content. I was discovering that the hogaku world was not based solely on artistic creativity and technical merit.
I also saw extreme cases -- where artistic ability became a slave to form, when decidedly unqualified musicians took on socially important roles. As with any system or institution, politics and nepotism play a part in the traditional performing arts of Japan.
Although many of the sons and daughters of Japan's outstanding performers excel in carrying on the family tradition, there are cases of offspring who, either from family pressure or their own ambition, succeed to the position of headmaster with obviously substandard artistic abilities.
By any objective account, these players are not commensurate with their inherited rank. The strange thing is that everyone realizes this, but as long as the social and traditional forms are adhered to and all the rules obeyed, it is accepted. Such is the importance of maintaining social hierarchy and formality in the Japanese society.
Although this almost religious reliance on form was initially baffling, I slowly realized that formality in the traditional performing arts is a powerful and indispensable tool of discipline which, in turn, can actually nurture content.
This was made clear to me several years ago when I arranged for an American friend to study Tokiwazu traditional narrative singing and shamisen playing. After a few months of study, she was asked to sing in a student recital.
She was excited but also overwhelmed because she knew her abilities were still very basic, and she could barely get through the piece. She wondered why her teacher insisted on having her appear publicly and, equally puzzling, why he had spent a whole lesson teaching her the proper stage etiquette and how to behave during the performance. Why should the teacher worry about that when she couldn't even begin to sing the music?
I said that the success of Japanese performing arts is largely determined by form and not by content. She continued to worry, saying that her lack of singing ability will surely cause her to freeze up during the piece, making her bad singing even worse.
In such a case, form can be a saving grace. Even if she could not control or perfect her singing in the few weeks before the performance, she could learn and act out the formal stage manners.
Then, no matter what happened to her voice, she could always fall back on a well-practiced performance etiquette as a means to carry her through safely to the end of the piece. Even if she couldn't sing a note, adhering to the form would save her from loosing face and preserve her dignity on stage.
This explanation made sense to her and made the daunting concept of singing Tokiwazu music in front of hundreds of people easier to accept.
During the next few weeks she concentrated on learning proper stage etiquette. She continued working on her singing as well, but stopped worrying about whether it might be inadequate. In the end, her worries about the performance were unfounded -- she pulled it off without a hitch. Because she felt confident of her form, her voice followed suit and she sang better than ever. Her recital appearance was a great success.
Traditional forms foster growth and provide a vessel for tempering one's abilities. That, I have learned, is why it is so necessary to respect and master them.
Nonetheless, the mark of greatness in hogaku is one who can break forms when necessary. My teacher, though considered one of the most traditional and orthodox of all shakuhachi masters, would sometimes break tradition in his playing, though always very subtly. Form, for him, was just a tool for getting across the content.
My youthful ideas of breaking down the formalism to gain access to true content were correct after all, but one has to learn all the forms before this can be done. Like the old Zen koan of killing the Buddha if you see him walking down the road: One must be able to recognize him first.
Traditional forms of music can only be negated only after they are fully internalized, and this takes years of practice and adherence to them.
The Japan Times: Apr. 22, 2001