Sunday 10 May 2009

Quotation For Early May

A Japanese Biwa, image courtesy of Centre for Nonlinear Studies,
Institute of Cybernetics at
Tallinn University of Technology

A sawari mechanism on a Shamisen, 'Sawari is a mechanizm of making buzzing sound purposely to put the first string off the upper bridge of shamisen, and the touch the string to top of the dent and then we can get the buzzing sound like biwa.(Biwa has this mechanism in all strings.)' text and image from a Japanese blog I can't work out the title of, here.

Tradition of Sawari

The biwa could be called the mother of Japanese music. The major characteristic that sets it apart from Western instruments is the active inclusion of noise in its sound, whereas Western instruments, in the process of their development, sought to eliminate noise. It may sound contradictory to refer to 'beautiful noise,' but the biwa is constructed to create such a sound. That sound is called sawari, a term that also has come to be used in a general sense, as we shall see.

On the biwa the sawari is part of the neck of the instrument where four or five strings are stretched over a grooved ivory plate. When a string is stretched between these grooves and plucked, it strikes the grooves and makes a noise. The concave area of the this ivory plate is called the 'valley of the sawari,' the convex area the 'mountain of the sawari,' and the entire plate simply sawari. When a string is stretched between these grooves and plucked, it strikes the grooves and makes a noisy 'bin.'

The term sawari may also mean 'to touch,' but this term, more than referring to a part of an instrument or touching, contains a much wider significance useful in understanding Japanese aesthetics.

In a book from the Edo period [1615-1867], the biwa player is advised to try and imitate the sound of the cicada. The biwa is deliberately designed, with sawari plate, to create such insect sounds. This is also true of the shamisen.

The term sawari, which also means 'touch,' may additionally mean 'obstacle.' Thus, sawari is the 'apparatus of an obstacle' itself. In a sense it is an intentional inconvenience that creates a part of the expressiveness of the sound. Compared to the Western attitude toward musical instruments, this deliberate obstruction represents a very different approach to sound.

In the kabuki repertory there are many long works such as Chushingura. When one sees only the famous scenes this is referred to as 'viewing only the sawari.' In this sense sawari is a very important part of a work.

What we call hogaku today is that collection of pieces developed and refined by the Edo population. Why did those people bring sawari (understood now in the sense of obstacles) into their music?. Whether the reasons were political, religious or social is not clear to me.

The monthly biological function in women is also referred to in Japanese as the 'monthly sawari' - a natural inconvenience for women but essential in producing children. For me there is something symbolic about this: the inconvenience is potentially creative. In music the artificial inconvenience in creating sound produces the sound. The resulting biwa sound is strong, ambiguous, deeply significant. While the Japanese biwa cannot execute the fast passages that are part of the Chinese p'ip'a technique, it is capable of complex, profound and wonderful sounds.

We can see that the Japanese and Western approaches to music are quite different. We speak of essential elements in Western music - rhythm, melody and harmony. Japanese music considers the quality of sound rather than melody. The inclusion in music of natural noise, such as the sound of the cicada, symbolises the development of the Japanese appreciation of complex sounds.

Tōru Takemitsu; Confronting Silence. (US astore link)


Dan said...

One of my favourite books ever. Why do so many musicians hate this book?

In many ways this coincides with the ideas you mentioned earlier about consonance/dissonance and culture; we must admit there are multiple ways to "listen" -- and that these are nurtured differently in different societies. I suspect even temporal aspects of music are subject to this; most modern Japanese don't have the patience for Gagaku, and I have a hard time with some of Feldman's most time-consuming pieces no matter how much I love the guy.

But also, I can almost pinpoint the first time I became aware of the "surface" of sound, rather than the "notes" (fluffy terms, I know). I became interested in electronics as a result. That kind of paradigm shift might happen again one day, I don't know. I hear new things in Beethoven sometimes -- tiny shifts happen all the time, big ones not so often.

The exciting thing is knowing I'll never reach the end of it, because like you said, there are no absolutes.

Some other instruments with intentional noise elements:
- kalimba thumb pianos, etc ... with the rattles
- overdriven guitar amplifers
- "Bartok" pizzicato
- Tom Waits
- snare drum

E.L. said...

Not sure why musicians hate the book, I don't know anyone else with a copy of it so I can't comment based on my own experience.

Perhaps it's a bit 'philosophical' for some. He certainly has his own way of presenting his ideas, something you have to get used to (could be cultural differences too I suppose), but I wouldn't expect anything else frankly (the title of book kind should give readers a hint as to its content.)

Regards the noise issue, the fact different societies have different taxonomies of sound/noise should come as no surprise to anyone (those who care to think about it honestly anyway), writers like Takemitsu remind us our Western viewpoint is ideology/culture, not science or the 'truth.'

True that electronic composers tend to focus on the quality or 'surface' of sound more than many acoustic or 'paper' composers (though perhaps that is changing a bit now, post Lachenmann and Sciarrino etc), some like Jonty Harrison have written about the bias towards the 'architectonic' aspect of composition in contemporary music (I don't agree with him when he starts going on about quality vs quantity, structure/form has 'quality' too, but I can agree about sound vs the organisation of it in our culture, we could do better at appreciating sound on its own terms)

His essay is here

(I have been meaning to write about it here for a while, i'll get round to it soon, ish)

tom said...

Thanks for the quote ed. It's a beaut.

E.L. said...

no probs tom, and always good to see the abbreviation of 'beauty' used sincerely, a first on this site I think, kudos.