Experiment explained



This research is a personal journey towards what could be one of the many ways of translating Japanese poetry and some specific aesthetic elements into Western music. As a medium for that adaptation I use my voice and various Western instruments (modern flute, double bass, electric bass, soprano saxophone,

piano percussion instruments and electronics), which allow improvisations and compositions to channel my jazz background, world music ineterests, and my EVT voice technique knowledge (EVT 7.1).


To achieve that, I have chosen to keep the azimuth of the essential elements of Japanese art according to renowned scholars and of my personal preference. It is a path of discovery past the myriads of poetic forms practised since the ancient times; through astonishingly beautiful imagery of Shogun and Imperial castles and its screen-art dating back to 15thc., fusuma sliding doors decorated in Kano and Rimpa School style, countless ink painting scrolls, through Ukiyo-e prints, gagaku court music and the exoticism of its instrumentation, the diversity of articulation used by flute players, timbres of material used, scales and harmony. It is a subjectively navigated course, unravelling a foreign culture and shaping the impressions encountered into a new modest creation, which will hopefully be meaningful to the listener as much as the author.


The broader approach to the literature studied did fuel a wide scope, self-steering search taking me into yet further investigation. From the fruit of that process I have established a knowledge base which serves me as cultural treasure-box, a reference from which the more organic skill of improvisation has been and is being exercised.


Playing with combining the composed pieces, derived from the various inspirational elements such as the theme of the poem or the sonority of the instruments used (aspiring to finding the sounds similar to those produced by the Japanese instruments in essence, but not copying them) and adding the freely associated -to a different degree- improvisations is the basis of the Sketches.


The alertness to the instrument's own characteristic sound (most of instruments used are Western instruments) and their textural sensitivity transformed by Japanese techniques (for example string plucking of biwa or koto) is also at play. Using selected tanka of a different atmosphere and imagery, strung together constructs both verbal and musical narrative.


In the flute recording session and improvisation session I looked for the purely musical characteristics of the instrument: the tone production (airy attack and sustain, versus clear; non-vibrato versus deliberate vibrato techniques likes yuri; tonguing technique) as they could be relevant for me as a singer.

As Japanese classical music uses various percussion instruments-membrane, bamboo, wood, stone and metal ones- I have taken the freedom to experiment. The Japanese gagaku ensemble, for example, uses different small drums throughout the performance. The rhythm is played in a clear pattern of two or more strokes but strokes are delivered without what we could call in the West a “determined” beat-bound precision. That seemingly open execution of drumming is a part of the aesthetic vocabulary.  It is outside that court music genre, we find music where drums set a tight rhythmical pattern, which could be described as a steady beat, and where an element of groove is explored in a manner closer to our sensitivities. 

I have decided to use those different approaches in my comprovisations:

-the rather open, “free to fall” strokes of gagaku style;

- and the rhythmically clear, determined, dance-like patterns to be encountered in folk music and taiko. The outcome of the combining of those two rhythmical languages with the poem's story can be appreciated best by listening to the music itself.

The more concrete meter delivered quite some zest and tension to the pieces which in my opinion presented the text in a surprising context. The question appears, was that poetry meant to be received in such a strongly outlined context?

To answer that I would invite you to the paragraph on Akiko Yosano’s emancipated approach to tanka writing (The Heroines)


The sounds of the string instruments required thinking outside the box. The sound of the biwa lute and the koto could be replaced by the lute, the harp, cimbalon or the guitar. My experimentations took me to the strings of a grand piano and the double bass. The original instruments have to be plucked, pulled (stretched to alter the pitch up or down by a halftone). Plucking can be done by hand or finger plectrum (koto), biwa comb.

 One of my aims was to recreate an ensemble of Japanese-inspired wind, string and percussion instruments (those three groups being the body of Japanese classical music) and place them in new musical and acoustic contexts; letting the classical techniques feed the modern instruments, using centuries-old scales and chord progressions as departure points for re-harmonization.


The recipe.

Each piece is an exploration, an essay having few given elements; like a poem, a specific instrument, a scale or mode, rhythmical pattern, sound of a word, an image or painting technique which serve as material to be transformed into a short musical sketch.

All of those departure parameters are played with in a composed (read; preconceived) or improvised (read: seemingly accidental) way to a different degree.

The combining factor is my own musical perspective. By that you may understand: a Western music trained, specifically in jazz idiom, improvising vocalist.


Sketches in detail, possible inspirations for a composition.


Poetry as a departure element:

-poems meaning
-poems imagery
-poems atmosphere
-poems rhythm
-poems sound in its original language (Japanese, English, possibly my native language; Polish)


Japanese music as departure element:

-Gagagku7.2 instrumentation, sho in particular, classical chords aitake7.3
-flute technique and ornamentation as inspiration for the vocal piece
-Goeika7.4 chant (voice use and form of call and response, harmonization)


Visual art:

-Sumi-e7.5 ink painting. Composition, spacing, wet in wet technique (possibly soundscapes compositions playing with electronics and reverb)
-Ukiyo-E7.6, layers
-Kano7.7 or Rinpa7.8 School. Nature abstract and representational combination. Possibly a corner composition
-Haiga7.9 music, image, poem



On singing the poems.


The voice.

Using the voice means communicating. Speaking the words or not speaking them, singing, playing with the sound of the voice, playing with sound of the words. Each human voice is a unique instrument and therefore can be employed in countless ways to carry the poem in a unique way.

 As a compass for composing and improvising on a poem, using my voice as a tool, I have taken following elements into account: 

-character, images used (energy level, high or low)

-phonology of the language used (natural melody, accents, and percussive elements of the languages)

-abstracting from the sound (using only the vowels or consonants), reversed syllables

-free associations (playing with the sound and taking it from there)

-using the sound of other instruments or their technique relevant to the voice to inspire the sonic color possibilities, interplay with the other instruments

-rhythm of the phrases, the number of syllables- quite determined in haiku and tanka

-length of the poem, creating short or long musical theme

-length of the phrases rather than meter.


To sense the Japanese language, to experience it on articulatory level I needed to look closer at its sound building blocks. 


Phonology of the Japanese language as a theme for vocal improvisation.

What can be called the sound of a particular language is a tapestry of many acoustic elements playing with our perception all at the same time. It is the melody of the words strung together, its pitch inflections, ascending questioning lines, descending statement like lines (last two features differ in different languages). It is the color of the vowel influenced by the soft palate position resulting in the vowel's orality, nasalization or closing into nasality. It is the perceived darkness coming from the lowering of the larynx, lightness coming from a high larynx position, and palatalization. It is the degree to which lips round forward and lengthen the vocal tract from its source to the exit point or open to the side broadening the oral cavity, shortening the voice's sound trajectory and creating therefore two distinctively opposite sonic images. It is also the degree of narrowing the aryepiglottic sphincter which translates into a sound perceived as “sharp” (which can be experienced by frequencies between 2000 and 4000 Hz), in contrast to “warm” and “dark”, which are devoid of that aforementioned "twangy" quality.


Our perception of a language is also greatly influenced by the way the vowels vocalize their onset and offset, either being “direct” (glottal), perceived as: sudden, confident, explosive to a different degree, “smooth” (simultaneous/ soft) perceived as: gentle, lyrical, elegant, or “airy” (aspirated) perceived as: soft, quiet, whispery, indirect.


Whereas in both Japanese and in English the way the vowels are pronounced at the beginning of the word is very similar, there are differences in the way the words are concluded. Let us take a closer look: Japanese words are divided into sound units called moras, these correspond loosely to our Western concept of syllables. They tend to always end on a vowel, unless the word is of foreign origin. This gives an impression of openness and vocal flow: “mi-da-re-ga-mi” (dishevelled hair).


In most European languages we are confronted with longer words than in Japanese, filled with double consonants and therefore in our languages dividing the words into smaller parts makes the chance of ending on a vowel or consonant equal: hello! Morning! Depending on grammatical rules, de-pen-ding- on- a- si-tu-a-tion we divide them into syllables. As vocalists though, having enjoyed a proper singing education, we strive for a syllabic division that makes our words end on vowels: Whe-nwee- si-ng-a-wa-y! This approach makes the sound easier to vocalize, causing the sound to continue and not crash on the closing properties of most consonants. Is that perhaps unconsciously a bit Japanese? –


So, it seems, that in both languages we tend to use the carrying qualities of a vowel (when we sing that is) above any other. But as English speakers let their vowel sound out at the end of the word with the vocal folds vibrating until the airflow stops naturally, the Japanese language asks in some cases to voluntarily stop the phonation with an abrupt glottal closure. The air that collects under the vocal folds as the result of that obstruction is released in a brief puff just shortly after the word is spoken. This particular sound, characteristic of Japanese language, brings a new sound to the vocalizing vocabulary. That brief, undescriptive nose/ mouth expulsion of air is a new color in an improviser’s toolbox.


The consonants give us even more to contemplate on.

The Japanese use 27 consonants. 7 of them are identical in their pronunciation to English, 10 are similar to English but slightly modified, the remaining 10 are foreign to Western ears (although there are sounds that we can refer to in order to place them in our auditory awareness).


Here is a list of these consonants:


Seven sounding the same in Japanese and English:

-          b (but), z (zone), g (gown), h (heart), m (month), n (nice), s (slippers).

Ten that are similar to English but only gently emphasized by an amount of air by the onset:

-          d (donut), t (stoop)- rather Italian or Polish than English, less emphasis and air on the onset

-          p (penny), k (skip) – not as explosive as in English

g[ɡʲ](geek),k[](askew),b[](beautiful),m[ ](meow),n[ɲ](new),p[](piano)-high and broad tongue position, palatalized. Some Norwegian language flavour here.

The last group are truly characteristic to the Japanese language:

-          n[ɴ]  as in “song”- soft palled lowered, back of the tongue lifted, tone fully nasalized.

-          j as in “year”

-          glottal stop [ʔ] (mentioned in the paragraph above)- this sound or rather its arrest can also be found in the middle of the word creating an impression of prolonged vowel from the mora placed prior to the stop sound, or a true musical pause of a length equal to the neighbouring word beats (syllables if you prefer)

-          sh[ɕ] as in “shower”- voiceless sound, with a high frequency enhancing palatalization.

-          [ʑ] as in precision”-sound stemming from lightly voices “s” consonant.

-          ts [ts] as in “parts”-voiceless consonants together in a percussive cluster.

-          dz [dʑ] as in “jazz”- high tongue position voiced version of the “tsh” [tɕ](cheek)

-          hih [ç]- hissing “heat”, body of the tongue lifted almost to the roof of the mouth leaving just a tiny space for the air to pass through.

-          f[ɸ]- that is performed by blowing the air between lower and upper lip (bilabial) not as we know it in English by labiodental (lower teeth to the upper lip) position, a bit as blowing out a candle.

-          r[ɾ] as in “dotted” as a cross between “d’ and ‘l”, where the root of the tongue (its back that is) is lowered and the tip just faintly touching alveolar bridge. In English the action of the back of the tongue is far more athletic and the tip is pulled far more back into the mouth.

-          [ɯ̥] “food”- whispered (read: with additional air of onset) “oo”.

-           Long vowel [ː]- extended vowel articulation as in “re-education”.7.10

(sources; IPA- International Phonetic Alphabet, word examples my own)



So, what does that knowledge and time spent imitating exotic Japanese sounds bring to interpretation of the poem?

These new sounds open up new musical possibilities:

- the consonants that possess such nuanced percussive shades, with their explosiveness, bring short clear drum stroke-like sounds; the extendible hisses and their voiced and voiceless appearances create a world of their own. The world of maximalist spectrum of, by design, minimalistic volume expressions so often pictured in the tanka and haiku. How? By inserting verbs of whispering, cracking, breathing, howling etc. In picking up on sounds present in the nature. Sounds of insects, of grasses and trees combed by the winds, the rain, the fluttering of wings.

 -the vowels  are placed higher in the mouth cavity than we might be used to in English, bringing forward new colors from soft and nasalized childlike speech- like capturimg the melody of the Japanese in which the poems are written. 


The endless combination of those reshaped, known by association to our own language and the completely new sounds asks for experimentation and allowing new sound units to be added to the first layer of the text of the poem.

This is one of the dimensions of the improvisation which I set out to explore. Starting from the meaning of the poem, conveying the message of the poet, picking up the emotion hinted at behind the metaphor and finding possible ways of understanding it, engulfing my ears with the sound of the words until they blur their initial meaning and magnifying their phonetics to an almost three-dimensional manifestation. This stage of exploration through a process of improvisation is a highly intuitive one.



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