The speed of time

This year’s Kaki-kenkyūkai (summer training meeting) took place on August 12th at the Dentōgeinōkaikan in Ōtsu, on the Biwa lake. Unlike the Noh stages that belong to families, the  Dentōgeinōkaikan is ‘non-confessional’: it is used by various Noh groups. The venue is also used for other forms of performance and traditional arts, such as tea ceremony. This stage is very close to Miidera, a beautiful temple of important historical heritage, famous for its feud against the Enryaku-ji temple after a schism of the Tendai Buddhist sect, and for its bell, which is portrayed in the homonymous Noh play. This is not the first time for me to perform here: I already attended a summer training meeting last year, and I used the stage in order to rehearse for Monique Arnaud’s Makiginu in 2010. However, this year’s meeting was particularly thought-inspiring.

This is how the Dentōgeinōkaikan stage looks like.. when people are not on it. I am sorry for the lack of pictures, but it is not easy to run back and forth between gakuya (backstage) and stalls in order to take pictures. When a kai like this takes place, with more than 20 people involved, there is very little time for souvenir pictures, as your efforts and concentration are 100% projected towards observing, learning, and being ready to help whenever it is needed… I wish we had a professional photographer to document the day!

Kurai wa karukatta! (‘you were too light and superficial’!) Isogashikatta! (‘it looked like you were not in control of time, so you sped up everything’!) Hayakatta (‘you were too fast/too early’!)

These are the comments that I received for my attempt at Kiyotsune maibayashi. I was not expecting anything different: I knew that I was still too unsure of how to perform certain movements, and most of all of how to time myself properly and follow the hayashi and ji-utai in a meaningful way. In my view, being able to harmonise with the music really is one of the characteristic that distinguish an amateur from a professional. My only ‘consolation’ is that being ‘fast’ and ‘light’ (this being a consequence of not pacing pauses and movements appropriately) is a widely shared issue.

Amateurs (and, to be fair, professionals, too) of all arts share the same issue: when in doubt, they speed up. We don’t seem to be able to stay put and appreciate this, say, slow passage before a quick and abrupt stepping forward, or this pause, charged with symbolic meaning, where Kiyotsune stares West before jumping from the boat and drowning himself. ‘Gyutto shite!’ is a remark I often hear from my teacher. Gyutto is an onomatopoeic word suggesting tightening: in this case it means ‘be as compressed and concentrated as possible’. Though this seems to be possible during rehearsal, once on stage concentration and time-control seem to loosen up, and I cannot find that quality of compression I very much enjoy when I notice it in other performers. It seems that whenever the actual performance begins, my sense of time changes, and with it my ability to control and pace myself. Being able to sense the ma, the interval, or pause, which is central to Noh aesthetics, is crucial to a positive movement execution. 

But what does ‘sensing the ma‘ mean? Well I think part of this sensing is in fact sensual: in order to feel a pause, one must enjoy it – and in order to enjoy it, one must be present, there, and not let one’s mind wander off to other places, or – even worse – feel ‘performance anxiety’. We are so full of thoughts and worries about our future that we often forget that the purpose of being here.. is being here, not there! I am becoming too Zen-like now so I will stop here. I just wanted to say that I think that Noh is an activity that goes beyond the ‘mere’ artistic performance, as the polished surface of the big, resonating stage offers a mirror in front of which we confront with our fears and anxieties. I am pretty sure that this very much is what provides motivation and willpower to continue the study of this tradition.

Japanese aesthetics #1

One of my main academic interests, which was also one of the frames of my PhD thesis, is the intersection of aesthetics and ethics, especially in the intercultural experience. European philosophy has developed ways to relate to the the spheres of the ‘beautiful’ and the of the ‘good’ in very different ways if compared with Japanese thought. A recent book by Saito Yuriko, Everyday Aesthetics (2008), discusses many of these differences in extremely lucid and insightful ways, drawing examples from from fine arts, architecture, and other crafts, and has greatly inspired my work on the aesthetics and ethics of Noh theatre.

The other day I was doing some Christmas shopping at Juliet’s Letters in Tenjin, Fukuoka when I bumped into this agenda.

Sorry for the bad quality of the photograph.

The cover reads:

‘The philosophy of my life.
Aesthetics 2012
For every single day
Remember to add beauty, nobility, elegance, and tenderness to daily life’.

Those of you who live in, or have visited Japan are used to the rather awkward sentences written in  English on bags, clothes, notebooks, etc. This could be a good example of this bizarre fashion. However, I think the agenda gestures to the attitude that Saito eloquently describes in her book. Japanese culture fosters care and attention for beauty in the objects and gestures that populate our every day life. ‘Beauty’ is a rather broad term, which the creator of the agenda above accompanies by ‘nobility’, ‘elegance’, and, most interestingly, ‘tenderness’. Certainly the form of beauty the author of the plain white-clothed agenda above is not of the sophisticated kind, and its quality of ‘nobility’ and ‘elegance’ do not belong to the aristocratic sphere. It is a ‘tender’, sober (jimi) beauty that this Japanese agenda represents.

Of course it seems to showy for me to carry an agenda that says ‘aesthetics’ on its cover. This, again, provides interesting material for a reflection of the aesthetic sense ‘in translation’ – or, the perception of Western aesthetics through Japanese eyes. Probably, a more sober agenda would not have a sign pointing at itself, saying ‘hey, look at me! I’m sober hence elegant!’

Diego Pellecchia

The end of it all

If there is something Noh teaches, and is really good at it, is to fight against expectations. What is an expectation? The logic conclusion of a process based on the probability of this occurrence to happen – this is mathematics. The possible conclusion of a process based on our hopes for this occurrence to happen – this is humanity.

In both cases, the focus of our thought is the aim of the path we are following, rather than the path itself. We struggle to keep the balance on the line we are stepping on – look down or on the sides and you only risk to fall. Hence, treading this path becomes an individual, autonomous process, excluding whatever happens around us. Reaching the end of the path is our only interest. There is a tendency to build up expectations on the target of our mission and its achievement becomes the symbol of what we are doing, but not seeing now, blinded by the light of the end of the tunnel. Humans are self-referential entities, with a tendency to consume, rather than live an experience. How to escape the projection of ourself in onto the world? How to be ‘otherwise than being’ (Levinas)?