Some Thoughts on the Noh

I.In the Noh, I am told, your 68th birthday inaugurates an important year in your life as a performer. Admittedly, by the time you turn 68 it has probably been 20 to 30 years since you were at the peak of your physical ability. But when you were at the prime of your technique, you had not yet accumulated the life experiences needed to best exhibit your potential. 68 is the year in which your now declining technique and your life’s life meet at their highest, most harmonious point.

II. In Noh, you might hear about the early idea that a spirit or God resides within each Noh mask and that, by putting on the mask, you are welcoming this spirit or God to fill you from within. I ask Tatsushige if he believed this and he says, well, notreally, but that as an image it is still very powerfully and good. He then pauses and says that, once— maybe in his early twenties— he did feel like the God had entered him through the mask, for just five to ten seconds.  But that was once, and it was a long time ago.

III. The Noh mask is carved out of a single piece of Japanese Cypress (檜). The same wood is used to construct the Noh stage, itself.


IV. Suddenly, I need story. In the past— Watson and otherwise— I’ve often focused my training on exploring the non-narrative elements of performance, driven by faith in the possibility that the most fundamental aspects of onstage presence exist somewhere beyond scripted story. I thought that studying and watching Noh would complement this search. Witnessing a Noh performance is like smelling the bare ingredients to your favorite meal while sitting in a nearby room. It lives in reduced suggestion, attempting to perform the distilled essence of actions and feelings from stories that can sometimes already feel fantastical or esoteric. Zeami, whose writings on Noh serve as something like the Aristotelian Poetics of traditional Japanese theatre, writes in his Shikadoh treaties:

"You should know the matter of essence and function of Noh. Essence is like the flower, while function is like the fragrance. Again, this is like the moon and its light. If you are able to understand essence, function will come into being on its own. Thus, in watching Noh, those who know watch with their minds, while those who don’t know watch with their eyes. What is seen with the mind is essence; what is seen with the eyes is function."

Although I sometimes find— or am given or told— a summary of the Noh play I am about to see performed, I often enter the theatre completely blind. Reflecting on the bulk of these experiences, I was surprised to realize how even the barest of narrative outlines could so greatly help my ability to remain engaged throughout the performance. I found I needed story. 

Yet, I have the impression that once I am equipped with this basic story knowledge I am elevated to a level of comprehension shared by most Japanese audience members. Often, Noh chanting is slowed and stretched to the point where words’ meanings fall way to individual sounds. Additionally, most audience members struggle to understand the chanting even when it is delivered in a more colloquial style because the classical Japanese spoken is now so far removed from contemporary language. I’ve heard a few people equate it to Shakespearean english, but my experiences have left me thinking that Chaucer might be a better analogy. Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of march hath perced to the roote…

I sometimes see audience members following the performance with the play’s script in hand. A couple performers have told me, however, that they feel this is the improper way to experience Noh. It is too intellectual, too much viewing with just the eyes.

V. Zeami again— "Even though you may be conversant with various types of role-playing, if you do not understand what it is to have the Flower, it will be like collecting grasses and trees when they are not in bloom. The flowers of a thousand grasses and ten thousand trees are all different colors, but to the mind that sees them as interesting, they are all the same: flowers."


VI. Because the Noh is so still, so contained and so reduced, the bigger movements feel exceptionally large. One dance told the tail-end of a story about two lovers who disobey their parents and continue to meet each other in the cover of night. The parents decide to break the bridge that the two cross to meet one another, thinking it will put a stop to their romance once and for all. In the next night’s darkness, the two lovers fail to see that the bridge is broken and plunge to their deaths. When the story of the dance reached the moment that the lovers should fall, the Shite, standing on one leg, suddenly dropped into a seated position with his head hung low. The abrupt change in rhythm and unexpected fall felt electrifying. My heart pushed through my chest as if I was watching death-defying stunts, its kinetic energy echoing through the stillness and silence.

VII. The music of Noh has been unlike anything I have ever heard before. The rhythms follow 5 and 7 counts but are then fit within an 8 count, as well. Entire phrases might all fall on the same note, and when the notes do change, they do not jump in octaval patterns. Single notes are stretched and phrases build as if in conversation. I once told one performer that I can tell he knows exactly what he is saying when he chants, but he told me that, on the contrary, he often only understands a paraphrased meaning at best. 

In one song, I struggle with a particularly long passage of equal length, same note sounds— つ か い は き た (Tsu-Ka-Ee-Ha-Ki-Ta). The repetition leaves me uncertain, doubting dynamics and how to fill the phrase. It all sounds the same. After a particularly frustrating go, I decide to pretend that I am secretly saying “Today-I-Went-To-The-Store."  Suddenly, it all sounds much more decisive, like I know exactly what I mean to say.


VIII. While entering into the musical composition was difficult at first, I found the musical notation used in Noh very intuitive. Each note is denoted through wisps and lines that look to me like strokes of paint that might have been made by the path of the sounds. When I sing the notes of a Noh chant, I easily imagine these shapes coming out from somewhere inside of me. I pretend my voice is the paint.

IX. In addition to the chanting, one to three different drummers and a flutist accompany the performance— each with their own rhythms, as well. They bob and weave around and atop one-another and the chanting, quickly alternating between complementary and contradictory rhythms. At first, it is overwhelming— not quite a cacophony but enough to leave me marveling at the performers’ and musicians’ ability to all keep their places. The chanting chorus will pause for minutes and then re-enter the fray at just the right moment.

X. Even the way you fold your rehearsal clothing has a strict form to learn and follow.


XI. During class one day, Tatsushige tells me that sometimes he feels like he is a puppet when performing. Moving through a series of set forms, donning a mask and assuming the identity of another character— these aspects of Noh acting can leave him feeling like he has separated from himself. But during the best of his performances— Tatsushige continues to tell me— he feels as though he is the puppet master, as well. It’s like there is a little Tatsushige sitting inside of big Tatsushige, controlling the performance, he says while laughing.

XII. Without a doubt, Noh is a total work of art— but maybe not in the Gesumptkunstwerk framework. Tatsushige began studying when he was 3. He is now 30, but it will still be a long time before he is considered a master. I took this idea seriously from the start, but I will admit that, at first, I related to it as though it were some sort of charming philosophy or Zen teaching— perhaps as a little factoid I could tell a fellow American to highlight an artistic or social perspective not so oft-adopted in the West. After only three months of study, I now see a practical reality to it, too— one that resonates more deeply. 

Each Noh performance features a collision of numerous musical, movement, and narrative elements. Accompanying this is the unavoidable fact that everyone onstage must know everything— actually, more than just know everything. It must be like breathing. You can control it if you want, but you can also trust it’s there without thinking. As an actor, Tatsushige does not play the drums or flute, but he tells me that when he’s at his absolute best, he feels as though he is secretly playing them all inside himself. He sometimes practices them in his free time. When we practice chanting, he can play multiple drum rhythms, denoted through hand claps with distinctly different tambours, while still supporting me in chanting, as well.

Everything within a performance that can be set is set. Only then can the performers begin to effectively engage with all the elements that aren’t or can never be set— the air temperature, the audience, your own feelings, what you are for breakfast.

In the mime class that I’ve been teaching in Kyoto, I try to help cultivate a feeling of opposing yet complimentary forces within one’s own body. It’s the feeling that as I lengthen up through my spine, I am also firmly rooted in the earth; that as I find a forward intention with my heart and the weight in my feet, I still remain in place. Such forces exist in Noh, as well, but Noh has drawn my attention to other kinds of forces, as well. Here the varied rhythms of the drums, flute, and chanting pull me in opposing directions. Here there is a collective sense of breathing shared— or sometimes debated— among the performers; Here, the importance of the story’s build tugs at me through each moment. When successfully managed, these combined forces tether me dramatically as much as my own forces tether me in physical space. It is difficult.

A Noh performance is like the most delicate of machines, one that requires numerous rare, hand-made parts. It’s a machine that can, at times, feel cantankerous. To reach its maximum potential, it requires the utmost perfect of operating conditions. Because of this, it’s now a machine that some people have discarded for what appear to be newer, more efficient models. But when everything aligns, the Noh performance hums like a machine yielding a product you just can’t find anywhere else. The room sings.


(When I cite Zeami in this post, I am quoting from a wonderful translation of his works written by William Scott Wilson. You can find more information about his work here)

Samuel GoldComment