Monday, 22 November 2010

Japanese music and fine home cooking


Went to a performance of koto, shamisen and shakuhachi, featuring my mother-in-law's koto teacher. She's 81 years old, though you would not believe it to look at her, or to hear her play with such incredible speed and delicacy of touch.
We then went to a very tempting antique fair, but with the Yen so strong, there was nothing I could really afford this time. Perhaps when I am a wealthy minister...
This evening, my mother-in-law as usual cooked up a feast. This is the season for crab, for which Fukui is rightly renowned. We ate it in the Japanese style, with rice and vinegar. Alongside the crab, we ate Japanese vegetables stewed in sake, two different kinds of fish cooked in soy and sugar (saba and buri), daikon radish cooked in mirin and grated tororo with raw egg and soy sauce. Japanese home cooking is quite different from restaurant food, utilising soy, mirin and sake to create a subtle palette. You have to taste it to know what I mean.

Perhaps Fukui would be a good place to live for a while. The church is in need of new blood in the congregation, which is lively but depleted and aged. There is plenty going on here in the world of traditional Japanese arts. Perhaps I could stay here next summer, commuting to Kyoto once or twice a week to use the libraries at Otani and Ryukoku. It would be a great opportunity to practise Aikido at the local budokan and study shakuhachi, too.
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Midnight, and we´re watching a pristine TV recording of a shakuhachi and biwa performance that is mindblowing in its intensity. I was thinking earlier, at the live performance, how the Japanese instruments are free from the constraints of Western classical scales and harmony, and this performance of ´November Steps´ - played originally at Carnegie Hall, New York - shows the depths of their chaotic potential. Where western instruments are confined by the placement of their keys, say in the case of the piano or woodwind instruments, the koto, biwa and shakuhachi are more like guitars and brass instruments in their flexible tonality. They play with Dionysian atonality and vigour, taking the listener beyond the comfort-zone of our rational and even clinical harmonics to the realm of disorder that we try so hard to contain. And so, despite being in many cases very ancient music, it feels very modern to Western ears. The Japanese were there well before Schoenberg or Bartok.
It is probably not an exaggeration to argue that their music represents the proximity to nature that they are so keen to boast, as found in their Shinto tradition; and further, given that the Shakuhachi was traditionally the preserve of Komuso or ´Nothingness monks´ of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism, it probably also represents the ultimate non-duality of nature and artifice, things as they truly are and rather than as they merely seem. The rationality that we impose on that which is beyond all understanding is never quite enough to contain it: Japanese music at its best is honest - sometimes, almost painfully so - in maintaining this point.

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