Tanka by Yosano Akiko, aitake chords, sho sonority.


   This beautiful tanka by Yosano Akiko coming from her highly acclaimed volume “Midaregami” (Dishevelled Hair) published in 1901 contains many images which resonated in me and asked for a musical translation. There are two worlds present, the outside expressed in words like: snow, stars and the movement of the falling, descending from the skies. And the inside, placed “down below” (on Earth?) in the intimacy of your lover's presence with hair let loose, one might imagine long hair falling and embracing the face of a lover. The contrast of high and low, cosmic and microcosmic, grand and ruled by the laws of nature to gentle and small. All silent, still.

How to catch that atmosphere? It seemed interesting to me to reach for an instrument that in traditional setting of gagaku would express the grace and perfection of the night sky, the heavens in both a physical and spiritual sense, scattered with stars. That instrument is the sho. The next logical step would be to look closer at the way that this instrument would be played (technique) and the harmonic context in which it would be placed (traditional chord progressions).

Since I did not have access to the traditional instruments for the recording and at the same time I wished to make my music adaptable to available instrumentation I decided to use what I had; my own voice and Western instruments.

The stage was set for a new piece of music with the following ingredients:

-Sho (or its replacement), Tanka in English.

-Harmonic elements: aitake chords, recreating the complexity of the sho clusters; tanka imagery referring to heaven, sky, moon, night.



Sho- mouth organ. A wind instrument consisting of 17 bamboo pipes out of which two are mute. It looks like a phoenix with wings resting. There are metal reeds placed in fifteen of the pipes, the remaining two are mute. All pipes are mounted on top of a round resonating basin chamber called the kashira. The sho must be taken care of in a very special way. It should be kept dry in order to produce sound. It is used in a gagaku court music ensemble. Its sound represents the godly element or “the sound of heavens”. It can produce a maximum of six notes at the same time. Such a cluster is called aitake. There are 11 classical chords (exhibited below), where the fundamental plays the central role. The most common technique of connecting the chords together in a legato- like manner is called te-utsuri. The instrument's single pipe produces a very gentle tone and for a greater volume more tones are played and more than one sho is played simultaneously. The organ can be used up to 20 minutes at a time due to moisture from the breath collecting in the pipes. During the performance it must be dried above a special heater. In a gagaku ensemble the sho often performs together with the ryuteki flute (the Dragon flute) and hichiriki (a small short instrument with a penetrating twangy sound. Representing the earthly sound, the people).


Aitake chords- chords are a chain of consonant and dissonant chords build respectively on the following scale.







At the beginning

Of the night the whispering

Snow fell, and now the stars

Fill this world below on the

Dishevelled hair about my face

“Tangled Hair” Yosano Akiko





Each tone is used as a fundamental, although not always played as the lowest tone in the chord. It is most common to play two chords during one breath, crescending from p to mf. Sudden shifts in dynamics are also common (subito piano, subito forte). Audible inhalation and exhalation are part of the sound as well.



Documentation of the process.


I have recorded the aitake clusters in three different ways to explore the sound colours. Here audio samples of some of the recordings:


-Six-part aitake chords with female voice (my own) and for very low tones a male voice.

-Six-part aitake with the soprano saxophone

-Six-part aitake harmony with the modern flute

My goal was to come close to the characteristic sound and playing technique of the sho organ. This could be expressed in few parameters:


- the airy attack and sustain of the sound (in Estill Voice Method: an aspirate onset followed by gradual or abrupt stiff vibration of the vocal folds)


-producing the sharpness of the high/mid frequencies of the instrument (in Estill Voice Method: sung with narrowed Arypeiglotic Sphincer, AES)


-the non-vibrato execution of the tones played (in Estill Voice Method: in vertical position of the cartilages of the larynx, or anchored tilted thyroid cartilage position)


The singing voices were not using vibrato just like a sho player would play, there was a noticeable but gentle airy quality to the sound which is also comparable. I have decided not to "twang" the sound of my voice, since the cumulative effect was too aggressive (read too loud and perceived as sharp, not in volume and character balance with the other instruments and therefore not expressing the poem’s gentle quality).


At the Beginning


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