composing for s

 Shō is a Japanese free reed mouth organ, and has been used in the context of Gagaku (Japanese court music) for over a thousand years. Seventeen bamboo pipes of different lengths are attached to the wind chest, neatly and securely bundled together by an outer metal ring [Figure 1] [Figure 2]. Its’ shape resembles a Ho-Oh, or Chinese phoenix, folding it’s wings, and the sound, a cry of that legendary bird. Performers breathe through the mouthpiece of the instrument while inhaling and exhaling, and the instrument’s primary role in the Gagaku orchestra is to play the chord accompaniment for the melodies. 

Figure 1. Shō. Photo by Author

Figure 2. Shō. Photo by Author

 Today, fifteen out of the seventeen bamboo pipes are equipped with reeds, although many compositions of today require the instrument to have reeds on all seventeen pipes. The pipes are named as shown in [Figure 3]. A common misconception is that the height of the pipe is roughly equivalent to the height of the pitch. However, this is untrue, as it is the height of where the byōjō (a rectangular window on each pipe) is placed, which determines the pitch. This is a result of the preservation of the structural beauty of the symmetricity seen in the shō.

Figure 3. Pipe arrangements of the shō, seen from top

  Each pipe is assigned to a pitch, as shown in [Figure 4]. Pipes mō and ya have not had reeds attached since the Nara Period (710-794), as it was deemed unnecessary in Gagaku. However, the pipes remain on the shō to preserve its’ physical beauty. As such, William P. Malm (1928-), a distinguished scholar of Japanese music, calls the instrument “an interesting compromise of beauty and practicality" (William P. Malm, 1959). Attaching reeds on these two pipes are often necessary when performing music for shō composed after the 1950s.

Figure 4. Pitch assignments to each pipe, transcribed in Western notation system

  As a chord instrument, the shō primarily plays eleven types of aitake, or tone clusters, in Gagaku. Each chord accommodates five to six notes in the tone clusters, mainly dissonant* to the Western ears. The name of each chord is titled after the name of the pipe of its fundamental tone. [Figure 5] shows the eleven types of aitake in the Western notation. With the repetitive usage of the breathing techniques, these chords act as a continuous textural soundscape for the melody, and they are by no means a harmonization of the melody.

*Here, I use dissonant in the context of Western musical term dissonance. According to Oxford Music Online, dissonance is defined in the Western musical context as a “discordant sounding together of two or more notes perceived as having ‘roughness’ or ‘tonal tension’”, and has no correlation with the perception of beauty.

Figure 5. Transcription of the eleven types of aitake used in Gagaku

  The shō is performed by covering specific finger holes, located on each bamboo near to the wind chest, and breathing through the instrument, while inhaling or exhaling. The aitake of Otsu, for example, is played while covering the finger holes on the pipes otsu (fundamental note), gyō, shichi, jyō, hachi, and sen, in order from the lowest to the highest pitch. Due to the structure of the instrument, it’s inflexible fingering system, and the small size of the finger holes, techniques not used in Gagaku, such as pitch-bending, is extremely difficult even for skilled performers.

  The shō is tuned in the Pythagorean temperament to A=430Hz in Gagaku, and A=440Hz (or A=442Hz) when performed with Western instruments. When preparing a shō for performance, all pipes are detached from the wind chest, and the metal reeds are carefully lifted off from the lower ends of the pipes. Next, the reed is painted with grated malachite in liquid state, and is dried. A small weight created with lead and wax will then be fixed on the reed. This miniature weight is highly important, as the slightest alteration of weight affects the tuning. The process is a lengthy and arduous task, which could take days to complete. Therefore, it is common for shō performers specializing in both Gagaku and the Western art music to own two or more shō, each tuned accordingly to the relevant pitches of the musical styles.

publications 

Shō in New Music: Study on Cultural Appropriation [read]

Gagaku-Dayori Vol. 62 (July 2020)

Shō in New Music: Acoustic Analysis and Composition [read]

Gagaku-Dayori Vol. 61 (April 2020)

Shō in New Music: Time Identity and Notation [read]

Gagaku-Dayori Vol. 60 (January 2020)

A Study on Japanese Instrumental Training Methods for Non-Japanese Students [read]

Senzoku-Ronsou Vol. 47 (February 2019); Co-Authored by Dr. Hanako Yamamoto

Shō in New Music: Perspectives from New York

Gagaku-Dayori Vol. 49 (April 2017)

 

conference presentations

 

"Composing for Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques"

ICTM World Conference 2019, Bangkok, Thailand

"Learning Japanese Traditional Music beyond the Boundaries"

ICTM MEA Conference 2018, Seoul, South Korea

"Shō in Compositions Today"

nief norf Asia Summit 2018, Knoxville, TN, USA

lectures

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

CUNY Baruch College, New York, NY (December 2019)

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

Conservatoire de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France (July 2019)

 

The Etchings Festival: Seminar on Shō

The Etchings Festival, Auvillar, France (July 2019)

Conference performative de Chatori Shimizu et Iván Solano

Le Conservatoire de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France (June 2019)

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (March 2019)

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

CUNY Baruch College, New York, NY (March 2019)

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York, NY (March 2019)

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

CUNY Baruch College, New York, NY (October 2018)

 

Shō in the Context of Contemporary Music: Lachenmann

Manhattan Schol of Music, New York, NY (April 2018)

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York, NY (April 2018)

 

Merging Boundaries of Genres

Columbia University, New York, NY (April 2018)

 

Introduction to Shō: Notation and Extended Techniques

CUNY Baruch College, New York, NY (April 2018)

 

Japanese Instruments Used in the Context of Western Music

Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, Kawasaki, Japan (July 2017)

 

Seminar in Asian Music

Shobi College of Music, Tokyo, Japan (July 2017)

Shō in the Context of Contemporary Music: Lachenmann

Manhattan School of Music, New York, NY (April 2017)

 

Composer Workshop Meeting,: Composing for Shō

University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA (March 2017)

De Japón A Puerto Rico

Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico (May 2016)

Notating Shō: Guide to Composition and Analysis

Manhattan School of Music, New York, NY (January 2016)

 

Seminar in Asian Music

Shobi College of Music, Tokyo, Japan (June 2015)

 

Gagaku Workshop

Tamagawa University, Tokyo, Japan (June 2015)

 

Seminar in Asian Music

Shōbi Music College, Tokyo, Japan (June, 2014)

 

reviews

米国コロンビア大学で雅楽と邦楽を学ぶ学生代表によるワークショップがありました

Tamagawa University Press, 2015 [info]

Tones, Timbres, Technology: Japanese Heritage Instruments in the 21st Century

Columbia University Department of Music, 2015 [info]

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