Noh as Intermedia
The construction of Noh as intermedia is intricate, original and somewhat paradoxical. Although media layers are independent of each other in their specialization, they are expressively unified. Materials in loose synchronicity seem inseparable as intermedia, fitting together like a glove. Several guiding principles explain this artistic feat. Not surprisingly, many can be traced back to the general context in which Noh was developed – the culture of the samurai, Japanese Buddhism and Chinese philosophy. It is a testament to the ingenuity of Noh artists that while engaging deeply with ideals of their time, they created an art that is timeless.
The Breath of Yin and Yang
Metaphorically and literally, ‘breath’ is one of the primary unifying elements of Noh. It is the central model for the form. The recurring cycle of inhaling/building-up energy and exhaling/releasing it, is fundamental to Noh's structure. If Noh is a fractal design with ‘breath’ as its basic element, it repeats in every possible time-scale and media layer to create an infinitely complex and self-similar form. Conceptually, ‘breath’ also reflects the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition that describes the world as a constant balancing of Yin (dark, moon, female, inhale) and Yang (bright, sun, male, exhale). According to this philosophy, the two seemingly contrary forces are complementary, inseparable, and dependent on each other.
Breath is foundational for Noh actors. They develop a lower abdomen (hara) breathing similar to that of Japanese martial artists. They learn that precise control of breath is essential to convey appropriate expression of the chant as well as posture and movement of the body. It underlies the rhythm of kata. From the basic walking step to circling around the stage with a group of kata, actors follow the energetic and spatial shape of a breath.
Mastering breath is crucial for the drummers as well. The komi 1 is a particular kind of breath that is taken in silence, marking the beginning of drumming patterns. It consists of a sharp rhythmic inhale, and holding the breath deep in the abdomen for a while. After the build-up of internal energy through the komi, a vocal call breaks the silence and leads to a release by a strike. The sequence of a kakegoe shout followed by a drum-hit is ubiquitous in Noh and is a Yin and Yang pattern of its own.
On a slightly higher formal level of the eight-beat unit (honji), there is oscillation between the ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi. Ōtsuzumi leads in the first half of the honji and is answered by the kotsuzumi in the second half. On the next level, when looking at the construction of a shōdan, sparse, rhythmically flexible mitsuji patterns often alternate with the more dense and decisive tsuzuke. Following the same ‘breath’ model, a typical short shōdan involves gradual acceleration of rhythm and a build-up that leads in the second half to a resolution, sometimes accompanied by an entrance of the nohkan, ending in a brief slowdown (like in sashi of Kokaji). Longer and more complex shōdan may consist of more than one ‘breath.’ The principal sections of a jonomai dance called dan, hold within them a special moment of significant deceleration called oroshi. Musicians talk about it as of a ‘stream reaching a pond.’ These slowdowns apply not just to music but to dance, which at this point comes to a standstill.
The typical energetic trajectory of a large-scale dan (a group of shōdan in an act) matches the same pattern: a gradual extended acceleration and build-up, followed by a fast closure with a short but clear slow-down. Often, this maps also onto a pattern, in which the earlier parts of the dan use more prose recitation and non-congruent chanting while the later ones involve more poetry and congruent chant. Each of the two acts also creates its own gradual build-up that resolves with a fast movement that closes with a slowdown. The play as a whole shows the same pattern with the second act raising the tempo and energy higher than it was in the first act, reaching the most cohesive section and closing with a rapid section as its ‘exhale’.
The 'breath' can also be seen as a reference for synchronization between performers. In most sections of Noh, there is no attempt between performers to adhere to a shared and regular pulse. The actors and musician meet at intervals marked by larger units akin to breathing cycles. There can be a strong and sometimes very direct correlation of actions during these intervals.
The most important synchronization signals for the shite are the patterns of ōtsuzumi. To illustrate, at several points in the Jonomai, the uchi-hanashi pattern of the ōtsuzumi serves as a signal to continue with the next sequence of movements. The pattern consists of a silent “tsu” on beat 8, “chon” on beat 1, and a particularly characteristic extended kakegoe “yo” from the second beat and half on. The interactions can be observed in the following three examples: in the kakari section, at the point when the shite is facing front, while at Square 3. The pattern "tsu-chon" stops the dancer and the extended kakegoe “yo” signals him to turn left and start to walk across the stage; in the first dan, similar stop and start occurs on Square 2 leading to walking across the stage; and in the second dan the dancer at Square 4 synchronizes with uchi-hanashi pattern to stop, turn to the right and walk backward.
The synchronization of the flow between the actors and the nohkan is less direct but it is also related to 'breath'. The actors are aware of the important role of the nohkan to underline emotions in crucial moments, outline form, or embellish the music, but many do not know what melodic patterns will be played when. Unlike their attention to the strokes and kakegoe of the ōtsuzumi, actors do not need to follow the the nohkan's specific notes. There is, however, a parallel between the rhythmic flow of dance routines and that of non-congruent flute playing. Both the nohkan phrases and sequences of kata are shaped as breaths and preceded by breaths. Even if not strictly synchronized, the intermittent action and resting creates a similarly fluctuating energetic stream. Overlapping nohkan patterns and adjacent dance routines create a connection between them while retaining a highly desired fluidity.
From the actor’s point of view, the Yin and Yang dichotomy is important in two ways. First, as outlined above, it helps them create an effective pacing of performance. Second, it dictates that characters or situations that represent one, either Yin or Yang, must also represent the other. This adds depth and subtlety to their acting. A common instruction states, ‘in rain, be bright; during the day, be calm.’ As the actor Tastushige Udaka explained2, ‘you should imagine that you are dancing even if you are sitting still.’ Mastery of acting in Noh is not about literally portraying extreme emotions but about evoking them in a powerful but subtle way.
Fluidity of Time, Space and Identity
All in Noh is always fluid and gradual. It comes, among others, from striving for the Yin and Yang equilibrium. The timing of events within individual layers of intermedia, as well as synchronization between them, is intuitive and flexible. Regular and shared beats are reserved for moments of intense focus and occur smoothly, almost imperceptibly. The performers are interconnected, maintaining an intermedia flow but often without the need to synchronize strictly.
The drummers take the komi together but its duration is flexible and depends on each musician. The following beat is approximate and the kakegoe that precedes it is freely extended to match more general expressive needs. Many sections and layers of Noh are in non-congruent and flexible rhythmic setting. Even when percussionists start coordinating pulse in a strict rhythmic setting it does not mean that the chant or nohkan will do the same. The jonomai or maibataraki dances with all instruments rhythmically aligning are rare and serve as a climax. But even there, the dance is only loosely synchronized with the musical beat. For instance, when the musicians reach the oroshi in the Jonomai, the dancer will end up stopping entirely, although there is no strict beat when that needs to happen. This is because the flow of energy that underlies the movement of bodies on stage is equally fluid. Even angular or sudden gestures result from an internal control that is continuous and 'smooth.'
The fluidity of the aesthetic form expresses the fluidity of content. The minimalism of staging or even lack of references to particular locations allows for the space to be constantly redefined. Like in Kokaji, a few hints in the text allow viewers’ imagination to adapt and turn the imperial palace into Munechika’s home, workshop, or the road to the Inari Shrine.
The polyvocality of text and transfer of identity between shite, waki, and jiutai add to the fluidity. The main actor can speak as a narrator, sharing a description, quote a poem, entering into a dialog with other characters and deities, and communicating their inner thoughts. Moreover, their voice can be transferred. An example of this occurs at the beginning of Kokaji’s first ageuta. Typically, the first line of text of an ageuta’s is recited by the shite or waki, and then repeated. If the jiutai repeats the text, it implies that it took over the communication of the thoughts of the character.
Most Noh plays’ plots unfold around the identity of the shite. The audience is invited to discover the shite's identity and empathize with them. Noh is based on the Buddhist doctrine that stipulates that identity is an illusion. The action in mugen Noh plays, considered by many its artistic pinnacle, could very well be the waki's dream or illusion. The main character appears in the first act as a ghost hiding in the body of someone whom the waki could normally encounter in the dramatic present. By the end of first act we may learn the true identity of the original host of the spirit but when they return in the second act, they remain a mere spirit, rather than the person they once were. They are on the journey to enlightenment, or as in Hashitomi, they may not even know whether they are a spirit of a woman or of a flower. The fluidity of expressive means is a reflection of this fluidity of identity.
It is interesting to observe how intermedia constructs this instability of identity. In Hashitomi, when the shite appears, the first clue is visual. The actor wears a mask of a young elegant woman and a costume that depicts flowers along fences. The movement is graceful and slow. Since the waki has spoken of performing a mass for flowers it is equally possible that the main character is a spirit of a flower or a village woman. The text, sung by the shite in the Rongi gives the name "Yūgao," but because this is a common flower name the identity remains ambiguous. As the play progresses, the flower's name becomes a woman’s nickname. In the ai-kyōgen as in the following shōdan, the name is associated with Genji's lover, Lady Yūgao. The dance imitating her, when Genji talks about Lady Yūgao, establishes the most direct connection. Through intermedia, the richness of the identity develops.
Intermedia, through immersing all the senses, can imitate reality, although theatrical traditions differ in the level of realism of representation. Noh is on the abstract side of the spectrum. Its acting is highly formalized. The actors' faces are covered with a mask that prevents them from showing emotion. Their movement and dance comes from a prescribed vocabulary of aestheticized kata, only some of which are even symbolically mimetic. Their speech is recited or chanted using standardized patterns shared by all plays without regard to their different stories. The ‘voice’ of the protagonist is frequently separated from their body, being transferred to the jiutai. The costumes indicate categories of characters by defining their gender, profession, and rank, with garments, colors and patterns that are strictly prescribed by tradition. The stage props are symbolic and often limited to a single one placed centrally. The music is composed from a fixed collection of rhythmic and melodic patterns that are reused in a play, and across different plays. The text is the only original element in each play, although the language is formal, quotations from poetry are prevalent, and the plot is minimal.
The combination of all of these abstract intermedia elements forces the audience to be more active, projecting their own meaning onto the action. Like reading a book, watching a Noh play allows the audience to recognize ‘clues’ and engage them into one’s own act of imagining. The Noh mask epitomizes this projection, allowing viewers to piece together the ambiguity and richness of information from multiple dimensions. Because Noh is about the contemplation of a character, the best plays and performances elicit empathy with the protagonist. In such plays, the climax of the experience is not a dramatic plot twist, but the abstract dance with all of the musicians, including the nohkan performing in rhythmic synchronicity. When words cease, we are left with the pure spirit, beautiful and vulnerable to our gaze.
Noh actors and musicians often use the word kurai, which literally means ‘rank.’ The word was originally used to categorize plays according to the main character’s social status, dignity, and age. A higher kurai demands more subtlety and solemnity in the performance. It uses the most refined quality of masks and costumes, the pitch of the chant and kakegoe of drummers is lower and more solemn, and the tempo of music and dance is slower. On the contrary, a lower (lighter) kurai does not demand as much subtlety. Hashitomi and Kokaji both lighter in kurai, feature young character as protagonists; the plays are short; the dramatic themes are not particularly serious. Consequently, they have been included in introductory repertoire for young actors and musicians.
Besides this usage, Noh actors and musicians use kurai to identify the style of performance. In this case the word refers to the atmosphere created by the protagonist’s character, emotions, and dramatic setting. An actor or musician may say, ‘Let’s perform this music and dance in Hashitomi’s kurai.' Other actors and musicians immediately understand what is the proper tempo, timbre, gravity and atmosphere of the music and dance. They might imagine Hashitomi’s protagonist, a ghost of young lady (or a flower) who, in the evening of an autumn day tells of her encounter with a noble man, Genji. The intermedia nature of kurai and its importance is one of the main keys to understanding Noh as intermedia.
As an example, Act Two of Hashitomi includes a section called Jonomai, an instrumental dance without text or singing. The exact same dance is also performed in other plays, including Izutsu, Nonomiya and Eguchi featuring women who are older and have different life experiences. The style of performance differs between them reflecting each protagonist’s age and circumstances. Musicians and actors adjusting the music and dance according to the character's emotional state.
Another example of kurai is in the way musicians and dancers perform the same patterns in different contexts. The main section of the Jonomai dance is among others accompanied by the nohkan playing a fixed sequence of melodic patterns. The same patterns, however, are used in the Maibataraki dance in the second act of Kokaji, featuring a lively god as the protagonist. Although both use the same melodies, the kurai of both are entirely different. The choreography of the first section (kakari) of both dances is almost the same: the shite steps from square 1 to 3, turns left and goes to 5, then moves from 5 to 1, and performs a ‘circlet point’. The sequence takes place from measure 7 to 17 in Jonomai, and from measure 3 to 8 in Maibataraki. The two dances are different in tempo, size of steps, and dynamics that appropriately evoke each protagonist’s character and life circumstances.
Recognizing the proper kurai helps the performers achieve a better level of synchronization (or sharing of the Yin-Yang breath) of music and dance. In the IoI ranking list, the ‘non-congruent’ rhythm, which does not follow the standard 8-beat frame, and flexible drumming, which does not clearly present 8-beat strokes, occupy a large part of Noh drama. In the first stage of learning, each part is taught without any reference to the other parts. Dancers are taught only how to follow a fixed sequence of kata (prescribed movement) but not the music to which they will ultimately need to fit their dancing. Singers make it a rule to practice their singing without any reference to drum beats. The unique Noh pedagogy creates a path to “synchronization” or “congruency” on a higher level by introducing the kurai as connecting all parts together. Kurai combines media layers that would otherwise be "incongruent". The importance of the intermedia congruency is beautifully described by the actor, UDAKA Tatsushige who said: “If there is no nohkan playing in a Kuse, it is as if the peaks of the mountains were lost”.
Noh is an intermedia art form of great expressive coherence. It breaths Yin and Yang as if in a fractal design. Through the fluidity of intermedia materials, it embraces the impermanence of things and people. The abstract quality of its forms invites the audiences to engage more deeply and become part of a rich and unique intermedia experience of Noh.
For more precise explanation of komi see Fujita (2019a and 2019b) “Layers and elasticity in the rhythm of Noh songs: taking komi’ and its social background” in Thought and play in musical rhythm. Eds. Wolf, Blum and Hasty, Oxford UP, 2019. “The Community of Classical Japanese Music Transmission: The Preservation Imperative and the Production of Change in Nō.” ↩︎
Private interview with UDAKA Tatsushige, October, 2018. ↩︎