Kaija Saariaho's latest opera, Only the Sound Remains, will be presented November 17–18 as part of this year's White Light Festival. Since the opera's two stories are based on classical Noh plays, we asked Noh performer, director, and teacher David Crandall to explain the fundamentals of this Japanese theatrical style, which has been transporting audiences to mystical, meditative places for more than six centuries.
Stillness is at the heart of Noh, but problems arise when we try to define it. Certainly, tight physical control is one essential element: all Noh actors must train to maintain solid footing, move smoothly, and stay sway-free even under the constraints of a heavy, brocaded silk costume and a mask that severely limits field of view. That kind of stillness, though not easy to do, is at least easy to understand, since it can be perceived and objectively measured. But what about stillness of the heart?
Noh in its present form emerged in the late 14th century during the great flowering of Muromachi culture that also gave prominence to Zen meditation, ikebana flower arrangement, and the tea ceremony. Through the centuries Noh evolved into a michi, or "way," that is as much about self-cultivation as it is about entertaining an audience. The plays performed today can be understood as vessels specifically designed to amplify stage presence, a presence directly connected to the profound root of human consciousness beneath the veneer of personality. Plot is rarely a priority; instead, the focus is often on a single emotional state and the inability of the main character (usually a ghost) to find salvation by letting go.
Space and time are shared in heightened awareness by performers and audience. Inexplicably, stillness happens.
At their best, Noh performers help audience members touch their deeper selves in much the same way Zen masters help acolytes reach enlightenment by "pointing to the moon." Their task is to direct attention away from themselves and toward the deeper, communal reality of human beings sharing a particular space and time. When actors, even prominent ones, head home after a performance, no star-struck fans clamor for autographs outside the stage door. Celebrity is not the point.
In the 14 years I spent receiving Noh training in Tokyo, first as an amateur and later as an apprentice at the Hōshō Noh Theatre, the spiritual dimension of the art was never mentioned. Emphasis was placed on imitation and repetition, not personal expression. Professional Noh actors often start training at a very young age, before they can even read. They listen to their teacher's chant and repeat it back, line by line. If their rendition is satisfactory, they go on to the next line; if not, they try again, with a minimum of commentary. For movement, very young students will sometimes stand on top of their teacher's feet to practice the steps, their arms manipulated like a doll. Training consists of relentless repetition and memorization until the forms are thoroughly absorbed by the body, unimpeded by conscious thought. It is only after actors fully mature that those forms, finally mastered, are naturally infused with artistic intent.
Tsunemasa and The Feather Mantle, filtered through Ezra Pound's highly selective and sometimes distorting lens, are the two Noh plays that provide the source material for Kaija Saariaho's opera Only the Sound Remains. The originals offer contrasting examples of the relationship between chaotic day-to-day thought and the stillness of underlying awareness. The eponymous hero of Tsunemasa is a ghost drawn to his own memorial service by a favorite lute placed on the altar in his honor. As his spectral fingers brush the strings, he yearns for the delights he knew in life: youth, prodigious musical talent, and aristocratic luxury. But Tsunemasa, though only a reluctant warrior, is doomed to eternal battle in the afterlife because he has killed. Desperately attached to the attributes that defined him as an individual, he's denied release into the calm of universal consciousness.
The Feather Mantle offers a much more hopeful story. A fisherman named Hakuryo finds a moon angel's feathered robe hanging on a pine branch and claims it for his own. The angel calls to him, cautioning him that the robe is not for mortals and asking for its return. Hakuryo refuses at first, but when he learns that she will perish without her robe he finally relents. The angel rewards this flicker of compassion by agreeing to dance for him.
On stage, just before the climactic dance, the Noh performers create a taut silence that highlights a single, beautifully choreographed beat on the taiko drum. The masked actor playing the angel brings his well-practiced hands together in a prayer pose and chants: "In humble submission I call upon the angels of the moon, manifestations of Seishi, the Gainer of Great Strength." Seishi is a bodhisattva who serves Amida Buddha, lord of the Pure Land of Perfect Bliss. His great strength of wisdom enables him to save people who are lost and suffering in karmic delusion. By submitting and calling upon her sister angels, our angel is connecting to her deeper self, and by extension to Seishi, the ground from which all moon angels arise. She is quite literally "pointing to the moon," and the audience is invited to peer with her into the very heart of enlightenment, which is compassion and empathy. In this moment, a tiny crack opens in daily routine. Space and time are shared in heightened awareness by performers and audience. Inexplicably, stillness happens.
The stillness of Noh is not simply the absence of movement. It is a positive force, brimming with potential, created by performers whose physical training helps them bypass the pitfalls of self-absorption. This is not to say that Noh performers are spiritual sages; indeed, history has shown that they suffer from the same failings as anyone else. But when they are onstage, submitting to the rigor of tradition, they can and do turn our attention toward a realm that is deeper and larger than all of us. And, as Only the Sound Remains attests, the art they serve can inspire other stunningly beautiful ways to explore the quiet mysteries of human consciousness.
David Crandall is a writer, composer, translator, and performer with training in both Western and Noh musical idioms. He is a founding member of Theatre Nohgaku and the founder of the Rogue River Noh Center, which is dedicated to helping artists develop new work and train in Noh techniques.