Nesting of the Cranes

April 5, 2012

Like many traditional instruments, the Japanese shakuhachi, or bamboo flute, has a rich history. Perhaps greater than its evolution as an instrument, however, is the depth of its repertoire, which encompasses melodies passed down through the centuries and pieces written by contemporary composers, the latter often in multi-instrumental and cross-cultural settings. Having attempted for a short period in my life to play one, I can attest to the utter dedication required to attune its character to the undistracted self.

In light of my recent critique regarding the pitfalls of Western classical notation in representing birdsong on the page, I found my mind wandering to the notation practices of shakuhachi music:

The form differs from what the classical musician might expect. Not only is it read from top to bottom, right to left, but also uses scripted note values and diacritical marks with at best implied meters.

One classic piece in the shakuhachi canon is Tsuru no Sugomori 鶴の巣籠 (Nesting of the Cranes). It evokes a full narrative in which the eponymous cranes arrive on wing, find and rejoice in their nesting place, hatch their egg, witness the departure of their offspring, and pay their respects to heaven in having fulfilled their duty. Here is an abbreviated version played by FUJIWARA Dōzan for Japanese television:

Are Western notation practices sufficient to capture these nuances? Perhaps not, though it hasn’t stopped people from trying:

In the end, of course, interpretation wins out over the ways in which a piece might be scored. Any self-respecting shakuhachi player will likely tell you that the best way to learn is by ear, that notation serves only the purpose of guiding the solo performer to a state of total embodiment. Such mastery of mind and body is the lifeblood of this music. Through it one meditates not on what has been written, but on what can be erased. -Tyran


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