Fife and Drum and Shruti Box: The Music of Cordelia

All lines in a Noh play, except in the interlude, are sung or intoned in a stylized way, rather than spoken.  The vocal styling is a sort of chant that takes many years of training to perform proficiently.  The shite–in this case Cordelia–does not necessarily sing all the lines that represent the character’s utterances; often, the shite sings only the first line of a “speech,” and the chorus sings the rest while the shite dances.  Some vocal lines are performed a capella, others with instrumental accompaniment.

The vocals for Cordelia are not traditional but are strongly suggestive of Noh, certainly in those lines which are tremulously intoned as opposed to being sung, but also in the degree to which the melody is molded to the text.  In places the vocals have a dirge-like heaviness, in others they are ominous and urgent, conveying the awful strain that eventually leads Cordelia into her climactic dance.  The effect of Shakespeare’s language performed in this style, whether a capella or with instruments playing eldritch harmonies or rhythmic patterns, is original and captivating.

In classic Noh, the vocal lines can be difficult to understand, even for a Japanese audience familiar with the underlying story.  This characteristic derives largely from the history of the genre, which in the centuries following its invention was adopted as an elite art form by a ruling class that exalted connoisseurship.  Only during those periods when Noh temporarily lost favor with the Shogunate were troupes compelled to appeal to non-expert audiences.  But Zeami, the fourteenth-century actor, writer and theorist most responsible for defining Noh as an art form, was more generous:

“When one thinks over the real purposes of our art, a player who truly can bring happiness to his audiences is one who can without censure bring his art to all … An actor must perform so as to keep always in mind the feelings of his audience and the customs of the place.”  (from Fushikaden)

The Theatre of Yugen is similarly dedicated to the accessibility of our work to our audience.  Thus, you can expect to understand Cordelia’s words and will probably find yourself singing some of them at home afterward (to the consternation of children and the bewilderment of family pets).  Zeami’s words of advice for the playwright also apply to Suki O’Kane’s score and to the collaborative process evident in rehearsal yesterday:

Again there is another point that a playwright should strive to grasp…A truly fine play involves gesture based on chanting…It is this combination that creates a real sense of interest and emotional response on the part of the audience.  In order to compose such a play, the writer must choose words and phrases that, when heard, can easily be understood and combine them with elegant and appropriate melodies, with a suitable flow between the two…” (from Fushikaden)

Our production will be unusual in that the chorus has only one member.  The chorus of a traditional Noh play has several members, one of whom is the designated leader, who adjusts the pitch set by the shite and accommodates the tempo of the chorus to the shite’s movements.  In Noh, the concept of “dancing to the music” has almost no relevance:  the shite most often leads, although control over pacing fluctuates in a complex way between the shite, the chorus, and the musicians.

Kanze School Utaibon

Kanze School Chant Book

The notation used for representing vocal music in Noh looks very different from Western musical notation.  Here is an example of an utaibon, or chant book, used by the Kanze school of Noh performers.  Even an experienced Noh performer doesn’t “sight sing” from a score like this one.  Noh chant is taught by having a teacher sing, and a student imitate, lines and eventually longer segments of a piece. 

Musicians at work, playing

The instrumental music for a Noh play traditionally consists of flute and drums.  Although the score of Cordelia is more modern than traditional, it gestures to Noh in its instrumentation, which includes flute, bass flute, and chanter played by avant-garde flute player, improviser, and composer Polly Moller, piccolo snare played by percussionist Anna Wray, and shruti box played by ensemble member Sheila Berotti. 

A person who comments that a musical score is innovative is not usually referring to its appearance, but look at the scores that Cordelia composer Suki O’Kane has posted on her website!  You can also listen to snippets of the music, played on piano, and read Suki’s reflections on the project:

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