In Only the Sound Remains, part of this year's White Light Festival, composer Kaija Saariaho and director Peter Sellars have conceived an introspective, transformative opera inspired by the rich tradition of Japanese Noh as seen through the mind of poet Ezra Pound.

During my last trip abroad, a kind man stopped to ask me if I was lost. I was walking through an untouristed area, off the map in the useless guidebook tucked under my arm. I said, "Yes, but no. I mean, I think I want to be here, but I don't know where I am." He described what he loved about living in that part of the city before going on his way. The rich potential of getting lost and finding exactly what you were looking for is almost a cliché experience for any traveler.

Peter Sellars, co-creator and director of Only the Sound Remains, Kaija Saariaho's opera inspired by a pair of Japanese Noh plays, is fascinated by "the power of getting something wrong and finding something else—of discovery when you don't understand. A new space is created that is neither one culture nor another."

Getting lost can jostle us out of our habits of seeing and hearing, and allow us to create and perceive something new. Sellars believes this happened for the poet Ezra Pound when, between 1914–16, he translated ancient Japanese Noh plays—in spite of his ignorance of both the Japanese language and the Noh form that developed during Japan's Muromachi period (1392–1573). Pound worked with the draft translations of the late Ernest Fenollosa, who, unlike Pound, had spent years in Japan, attending Noh theater and taking lessons in performance technique. The manuscripts were largely based on literal translations by Fenollosa's colleague, Hirata Kiichi, who was not particularly interested in Noh, but would become a famous scholar of English literature under the pen name Tokuboku. Like the "telephone" game played by children, errors entered the chain via each whispering voice.

Sellars says of the Pound-Fenollosa-Hirata Noh plays, "What I love about them is their fragmentary nature. They are incomplete.... They represent misunderstandings and at the same time moments of revelation. As in Noh, our mistakes are right next to moments of enlightenment."

Getting lost can jostle us out of our habits of seeing and hearing, and allow us to create and perceive something new.
In many Noh plays, the spirits of defeated warriors or famous lovers tell their story—often one of a tragic mistake—using poetic chant and ritual dance, wearing an elaborate costume and carved wooden mask, with one or two other characters, a chorus, two or three drummers, and a flutist seated onstage. The ghost's performance, historically connected to Buddhist and Shinto ritual, often brings peace and even Buddhist enlightenment to the suffering spirit. But in Tsunemasa (the source of the first part of the opera, Always Strong), no peace or enlightenment comes to the ghost of Taira no Tsunemasa, a famous warrior who died at Ichinotani (1184) in the war between the Taira and the Minamoto clans. In his lifetime, Tsunemasa had played a celebrated biwa (Japanese lute) called Seizan, but he abandoned his instrument for war. The priest of the temple of Ninnaji offers to help him play "Buddha's music," but Tsunemasa clings to memories of his death in battle so his spirit cannot achieve enlightenment.
It is all too easy to frame Pound as a thief of cultural treasures, much like the fisherman Hakuryo in The Feather Mantle who steals the magical robe of the angel.

Pound's version of Tsunemasa includes less than 40% of the original first performed at the end of the 15th century, missing the description of the battle that is so crucial to explaining why Tsunemasa cannot relinquish his regret and find peace. Many critics have deplored Pound's texts as bad translations or outright cultural appropriations. Certainly, Pound turned to Noh as a young artist, not yet 30, hoping to find answers to his own questions about how to reinvent poetry for the new century—and he did so with plenty of racist assumptions about Japanese people and art.

It is all too easy to frame Pound as a thief of cultural treasures, much like the fisherman Hakuryo in the opera's second part, The Feather Mantle (Hagoromo), who steals the magical robe of an angel. When she pleads with him, saying that she will not be able to return to her heavenly home without her mantle, he replies, "In this downcast age I should keep it, a rare thing, and make it a treasure in the country, a thing respected." Of course, the divine being could have taken the robe back from a mere mortal, but she sacrifices and suffers so that he will learn the pity and humility that will bring him closer to enlightenment. He finally returns her robe, and she teaches him her divine dance, leaving it for the "downcast" world. Beginning in a theft and ending in a dance lesson, The Feather Mantle also provides one of the origin stories for how Noh theater emerged from a divine encounter.

Did Ezra Pound learn pity, humility, and a new art form from Noh? It's hard to say about the pity and humility. But 30 years later, he remembered the translations while imprisoned in a cage at the U.S. Military Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa and wrote The Pisan Cantos, some of the most humble and beautiful poetry in his massive opus, The Cantos.

In our shrinking world, cultural contact and the intermixing of artistic traditions is inevitable and full of potential.

Sellars hears in Pound's Noh texts, "a young man finding his own voice and claiming it with a powerful rage and vision." It was a vision that introduced, if not precisely Noh drama, then Noh-inspired artistry to the English-speaking world and to major artists of the first half of the 20th century, including W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett.

Pound's fragmentary plays and confused creativity also provided Sellars, Saariaho, and stage designer Julie Mehretu with poetry and inspiration for Only the Sound Remains. The entire creative team is concerned about cultural appropriation; they know that artists who work with and learn from different traditions continue to face the accusations leveled against Pound's Noh translations from over a century ago. Cross-cultural art is risky, to be sure; it could offend those born into an artistic tradition or those who assume a tradition's purity. But why should the accident of birth into a culture determine who can learn from its treasures? In our shrinking world, cultural contact and the intermixing of artistic traditions is inevitable and full of potential. To avoid causing offense, artists need a humility that we probably cannot expect of Ezra Pound. It is a cultural humility that acknowledges confusion and incomplete understanding, even misunderstanding. It is the kind of humility evident in Sellars's acknowledgment: "The great Noh performers study Noh across their entire lifetimes. I could not possibly invite performers to make a Noh gesture after a week and a half of rehearsal. But I’m trying to internalize a Noh gesture and then—not quote—but create something that is itself rich, full, powerful, and evocative."

In Only the Sound Remains, the gains of cross-cultural work are well worth the risks. Audiences might feel confused by the evocative but unfamiliar gestures Sellars has created; by Saariaho's sound world in which the electronically processed flute and kantele take on the expressive range of the solo Noh flute (nohkan) sounding the entrance of the ghost; by Mehretu's massive full-stage paintings that seem to move and change as we watch. The piece invites our wonder. Go ahead and get lost.


Carrie J. Preston is the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Professor of English and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and director of Kilachand Honors College at Boston University. Her books include Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching (2016), and her essays have appeared in Modernism/modernity, Theatre Journal, Twentieth-Century Literature, TDR, and Modernist Cultures.