Thursday 5 July 2018

Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance & workshops at Kings Place

Noh Reimagined - Kings Place - mu:arts
Noh Reimagined - Kings Place - mu:arts
Noh Reimagined; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on 29-30 June 2018
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

A weekend of performance & workshops exploring Noh theatre, focussing on the Mugen Noh play "Izutsu (The Well Curb)"

Izutsu Yoshimasa Kanze (Photo Shinji Aoki)
Izutsu Yoshimasa Kanze (Photo Shinji Aoki)
As part of their world music programme, Kings Place hosted a weekend of Noh theatre, No Reimagined, 29-30 June 2018 with concerts, talks, neuroscience and workshops. As a Noh novice I threw myself in to the experience. It became apparent that the audience was wide ranging, from those connecting with their cultural heritage (identifiable from their tabi socks in the workshop and kimonos at the concerts) to the curious but uninformed.

Like any classical art form, Noh is steeped in incomprehensibility for the uninformed. Imagine, if you have only listened to pop music, going to a foreign language opera for the first time without reading the synopsis and without surtitles. Only, at this opera there is no acting as you know it, instead there is a very minimal ballet going on, where the hand gestures have significance, but you do not know what they are. The main actor wears a mask and gorgeous oversized costume, which prevents ordinary body language from seeping through. On top of this add 650 years of refinement and stylisation to the music and you are there.

However, what this weekend did so well, with its gently enthusiastic explanations and the recurring common thread of the Mugen Noh play "Izutsu (The Well Curb)", was to bring the audience together - regardless of experience. Carrying everyone along to the splendid finale on Saturday night.

The weekend opened with a welcome from the Managing Director of Kings Place, Robert Reed who introduced the collaborators in the project curated by Akiko Yanagisawa (mu:arts). This was followed by a brief history of Noh by Professors Semir Zeki and Atsushi Iriki, and their interest in Noh from the perspective of neuroscience.

They explained that Noh theatre was developed by Kan'ami and his son Zeami in the 14th century, and that most of the 240 plays still performed have been preserved in their entirety. Noh encompasses ideas, such as beauty being half perceived, but totally felt; an altered perception of time; events happening out of sequence; the audience becoming the music; and ambiguity allowing for multiple/ individual interpretation. Overall this means that the audience is required to do some work and be engaged with the play rather than passively observing. The two professors touched on how a specific part of the brain is involved in understanding abstract ideas and how this is essential in Noh for perceiving yūgen, the invisible beauty that is felt not seen.

Consequently Noh is not simple to learn - children begin at the age of three and may become professionals by the age of thirty. It was also explained that new Noh tend to take on the form and spirit of classical Noh rather than be faithful reproductions.

Kings Place - Noh reimagined
Kings Place - Noh reimagined
Professor Reiko Yamanaka talked a little about the different forms of Noh. This weekend was focussed on Mugen Noh, the Noh of gods, spirits, ghosts or phantasms who appear in the shite (main protagonist) role. The waki (counterfoil) is often a travelling priest to whom the shite appears in a dream, looking for redemption for, or resolution of, something in their life.

She also described the structure of Noh as jo-ha-kyū, where jo means beginning, ha means breaking, and kyū means rapid, in relation to the evening's performances including "Izutsu".

Performers throughout the festival
Yukihiro Isso: nohkan flute
Masaki Umano: shite main role actor
Jiichi Asami: chant/ waki
Mitsuhiro Kakihara: otsuzumi hip drum
Kiyoshi Yoshitani: taiko stick drum
Kyosuke Tanabe: kotsuzimi shoulder drum

The Sublime Illusion of Mugen Noh

A Noh performance would traditionally include several pieces, starting with a highly refined Shinto religious rite, Okina, is and this evening's entertainment was no different. The first half began with very loud, attacking flute, nohkan, which demanded attention. The flautist's fingers flew, yet whenever not in use a finger would be held spikily away from the instrument rather than being curled in readiness. Similarly the drummers moved their arms in a very dramatic and stylised way and used vocalisations as part of the rhythm. In a Q&A session the next day it was explained that these are integral to the music, and that even if the musicians are asked not to vocalise for a specific performance they vocalise silently.

The music from Okina was followed by dramatic dance music and a small scene from "Kakitsubata (the Iris) ". Looping sections and non-standard rhythms were minimalist in character, but not intent. At the end of every section the musicians would carefully put down their instruments, fold their hands away and pause.

The second half began with a modern Noh, "Sokuryutekiha", composed in the 1980’s by tonight's flautist, Yukihiro Isso, which represents an evil or vengeful spirit, dancing wildly over varied rhythms. This was followed the second half of "Izutsu" with the main actor in full costume and mask. In "Izutzu" the dead wife of a famous poet tells of her life with him, their difficult relationship and his philandering, and their time together as children playing by the side of the well. At the climax of the play wife looks into the well and sees her image transformed in to that of her husband.

Space In between

Following the concert Yukihero Isso got together with pianist Leon Michener for an hour of experimental fusion. Post apocalyptic tortured piano was added to looped sounds, extended flute techniques, including a range of flutes from transverse and vertical to animal horns, sometimes as many as three at once, and a hellish light show. One of the drummers also joined in part way through. Isso based his variations on music that would appear again the next day bringing an element of understanding and recognition to the future performances. Although this style of jazz is not for everyone, the audience could be overheard enthusing about how powerful it was.

Noh Movement Workshop: acting from the inside

On Saturday morning, people were given chance to understand the meaning behind the movements in Noh by having a go themselves. Led by Masaki Umano, who would appear later that evening in the concert, we were taken through basics of walking and using a fan, and the tiny differences between happy and sad, male and female.

Noh Mask, Noh movement: Illusory devices

Part video, part discussion, this seminar by Professor Reiko Yamanaka and Professor Keizo Miyamoto from Hosei University, Institute of Nogaku Studies, looked at the importance of maintaining a still centre of gravity in Noh movement, the history of the 80-110 different masks, and how masks allow the audience to use their imagination. They also discussed the importance of kami (spirits) in the shinto religion and how putting on a mask allows the actor to make the invisible, visible and so embody a kami.

There was also some discussion about Noh staging and audience etiquette. Unlike western plays, it was explained, the performers come on to the stage first and then the minimal set e.g. a representation of a well in "Izutsu" is brought on. At the end of the performance, once everyone has left the stage, the audience applauds. In other words both the entrance and exit of people on the stage is part of the performance.

Noh + Neuroscience

Following on from their introduction on Friday, Professors Zeki and Iriki talked in more depth about aesthetics and recognition of self (Rieken-no-ken), and how these apply to Noh. A short performance followed with the performers demonstrating how coloured shadows can be perceived, even though they are a construction of the mind.
Kings Place - Noh reimagined
Kings Place - Noh reimagined

Clod Ensemble: the creative journey

The pre-concert talk on Saturday was taken by Suzy Willson and Paul Clark of the Clod Ensemble, who described the creative process behind their work "Snow" specially commissioned for the festival. They discussed their research trip to Japan and talked through a slide show of the ideas contained within the work, including the snowed-over park facing their hotel, flowers, a Noh mask of the obsessed female demon Hannya, and words by Zeami. Clod enlisted the help of New York performer and traveller, Peggy Shaw, to write (and perform) the libretto for their interpretation of Noh based around the relationship between a traveller and a snow demon. As in Mugen Noh, time in "snow" is compressed and reordered and it was explained how the work makes use of the jo-ha-kyū structure.

The Transformative Power of Noh

Wiebke Leister’s and David Toop’s "Echoes and Callings" brought back the nohkan musical ideas and generated sounds from Friday night partnered with Toop's improvisations. A series of still photos, demonstrated by Leister, folded back on themselves showing the journey of a distressed woman, transforming through pain or betrayal, into the Noh demon mask of Hannya.

"Reflection", composed by Yukihiro Isso, story (and guest appearance) by Atsushi Iriki, explores symbolism and consciousness via Noh. Although the story was new, the work used the drummers and actors/singers in a more traditional-feeling play. As in "Echoes.." some of the nohkan ideas were introduced on Friday, especially the extended techniques and use of the horn flute in the kyū section. Isso's skill in using overblown harmonics and circular breathing were dramatically showcased.

"Snow" was performed after the interval, in almost complete darkness. Puffs of carbon dioxide, illuminated by a single glow of light, were used to simulate the snow demon, the light opening out to a beacon part way through; and the darkness of the stage invoked the narrator trapped under an avalanche. Nothing could be seen of the performers throughout so I cannot be certain that it was not a recording using surround sound. That said it was very beautiful and atmospheric. At times it was as though we were wrapped in a warm and comforting blanket of sound and light.

The evening ended with a glorious lion dance, Shishi, performed by Masaki Umano and the musicians. By the end of the evening the strangeness of Noh was becoming much more familiar. The vocalisations of the drummers was making and sense and, thanks to the workshops and seminars, the movements in the dance were more easily interpreted.

I cannot praise this two day festival enough. As someone new to the genre I found the whole experience to be well thought out and informative, and greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the performances. For those more familiar with Noh, the workshops and seminars were at a level that they still provided an opportunity to become more involved with the mechanics and history of Noh.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

Additional performers not mentioned above for "Snow"
Lighting by Hansjörg Schmidt
Sung by Emily Burn, Elaine Ashworth, Victoria Couper, Clara Kanter, Daniel Thomson, Gareth Treseder, Laurence Williams, Alex Ashworth

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Coming into focus: Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni returns to the Royal Opera  (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo  - interview
  • Handel's finest arias for base voice - Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Story-telling in America: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Each a world unto itself: Arvo Pärt The Symphonies (★★★★) - CD review
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