Clive Bell muses on the biwa as vehicle for Japanese epic, and finds parallels in Irish folk ballads and beyond
The biwa is the medieval Japanese lute used by composer Toru Takemitsu in his early 1960s film scores for Seppuku and Kwaidan (both directed by Masaki Kobayashi). It was also employed, to striking effect, in Takemitsu’s breakthrough orchestral piece “November Steps” (1967). That’s literally striking – the biwa’s massive wooden plectrum is traditionally employed to give a hearty whack to the body of the instrument, whether plucking a string or not. Scraping the plectrum along the strings is another eerie effect in the biwa repertoire, though I’m not claiming Hendrix learned the technique here. The biwa is never less than dramatic, but traditionally its role is accompaniment while the same player gives voice to heroic narratives about warring samurai: for example, The Tale Of The Heike (Japan’s War Of The Roses). It’s a case of epic poetry: the musician, often blind, sings tragic tales, propelled by a few decisive slashes of the plectrum. And the epic is a worldwide genre: from Homeric bards recalling the Trojan War, to the shaman musician-healers of central Asia, all involved in word-driven, long-form musical performance.
Takemitsu himself studied biwa for a couple of years, though he was less keen on the vocalising. As he told an interviewer, “[Biwa player] Kinshi Tsuruta often sings about how [12th century hero] Yoshitsune did this or that, but I’m not interested in all that. What interests me is the landscape produced by qualities of the sound.” Nevertheless, the biwa tradition is inseparable from song. Dublin resident Thomas Charles Marshall studied biwa in Japan for over a decade, after encountering his teacher Fumon Yoshinori by chance. I’m imagining the teacher as a biwa-wielding bard performing for a small audience of samurai cognoscenti, but as Marshall explains to me, the tradition is more complex: “I learned the Seiha – it’s a more understated method of recitation. Less concerned with entertainment, and more associated with developing one’s own personality spiritually, and morally as well. Many of the tales would be laments for someone who lost their life in battle, or songs in praise of the Emperor, usually celebrating peace. In Kagoshima [in Kyushu, west Japan] learning the biwa was part of a young man’s education. Texts would be sung to children to give them an idea of the values contained in the songs.”
For this music, the audience is not necessarily human. Marshall continues: “The tradition of the lament in Japan, as I’ve come to perceive it, is a kind of requiem to appease spirits. So the Heike biwa is all about telling the story to quieten spirits that had died in a very difficult manner. Biwa hoshi [players], many of them blind, were described as living on the border line between life and death. Traditionally people who couldn’t see were regarded as dwelling between the land of the living and the land of the dead. So there’s this idea of the biwa being able to communicate with both worlds.” Then Marshall draws an intriguing distinction between his own austere Seiha tradition, and the more entertainment-oriented styles of 20th century biwa. One example of the latter is Kinshi Tsuruta - a striking woman with dark glasses and severely combed-back hair, who collaborated closely with Takemitsu. She performed his “November Steps” around the world, and, until her death in 1995, was Japan’s best-known biwa player. “If you listen to Kinshi Tsuruta,” confides Marshall, “you get a sense of spooks coming all around you, calling the spooks towards you. Whereas in Seiha it’s more a case of appeasing the spirits and just putting them at ease. It’s a different approach.”
Tsuruta’s student Junko Ueda now lives in Granada, Spain. She continues the biwa tradition while embracing contemporary music, and has recorded Takemitsu’s powerful composition for three biwas, “Voyage” (1973). She has also created a website, Biwa Vocab, devoted to explaining the instrument in exhaustive detail. Here you can enjoy the colourful terms only biwa nerds know about: just the top end has a crane-neck, a heaven god and a shrimp tail. You can also listen to soundclips illustrating the scraping plectrum techniques mentioned at the top of this piece.
Among the contemporary Japanese audience, Marshall reckons, most would expect to be provided with an explanation of the text, but would still pick up resonances from their knowledge of Japanese history. And performers are still busy creating new texts: a recent song series deals with the life of St Francis of Assisi, while in the 1960s biwa players lamented the assassination of President Kennedy and celebrated the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “In the 1930s,” says Marshall, “biwa music was immensely popular. A lot of songs were written about the Russo-Japanese War and the Sino-Japanese War. The biwa had strong military connotations, and that’s what caused it to suffer after WWII; people associated it with that whole military episode and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. That led to a very sharp decline in interest in the biwa, right up till maybe five years ago. It seems to have turned a corner at that stage, because young people don’t have those associations any more.”
We think of bards or epic poetry as museum art, a musical long-form so lost in the past as to be almost unimaginable in a society where mass communication is the norm. Where is the electric guitarist equipped to occupy a stage for two hours or more, summoning up the tragic struggles of, say, Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill? Yet the biwa reminds us that traditional forms may leak into the present in unexpected ways. It’s a puzzle to ask what echoes of Epic there might be in contemporary life. When I invite Marshall to consider this, he points to his own Dublin backyard. Here Irish ballads continue to be popular, their historical texts still offering emotional reference points, in the same way that a clued-up Japanese audience can still become involved with a medieval battlefield drama. Marshall also offers rap as having a great deal in common, “though the biwa tends not to be critical of rulers or the establishment,” he says.
Which leads me to wonder if somewhere, a Japanese hiphop artist might be grappling with the biwa’s exceptionally high frets, bending those strings and flexing the plectrum. But Marshall is not so sure: “Japan is a very walled society," he says, "and the walls tend to be quite high.”