Introduction To The Nohkan Flute: 能管の紹介



The nohkan, similar in size and shape to the ryuteki used in gagaku, is a transverse flute with a unique construction and role in Japanese music; and in its fabrication do we see a distinct feature, the insertion of the nodo (‘throat’) into the instrument. This metal tube changes the pitch relationship between finger holes, so that fixed intervals (according to some kind of temperament) do not occur. Plus, on instruments made of bamboo, the actual tube lengths and distances between finger holes vary due to the quality and nature of the wood. The lack of fixed pitch means that are no two flutes that do or can play the same pitch though the intervals may be similar. On the ryuteki, melodies must be homophonic with the hichiriki in most pieces, and in tune with the harmonic accompaniment provided by the sho. Since there is no harmony in which the nohkan plays a role, fixed pitch is not demanded or considered strictly necessary. The idea of fixed pitch in relation to a series of notes or scale is non-existent in Nōh music, nor is there a perfect fifth or octave, and this would seem to be consciously avoided by the insertion of the nodo.

The music written out for the nohkan is unique in two important aspects as well. In the traditional method of writing notation, there are no indications of rhythm. In Noh, we find melodic and rhythmic cells that function together or independently of each other as the play progresses. But mathematical, measured rhythm as such is non-existent. Of the (two) types of rhythm encountered in Noh, it is ashirai we will discuss as part of my thesis. Ashirai is ‘non-controlled rhythm’ used to accompany a song or instrumental piece such as a prelude, interlude, or an exit piece. A distant connection might be made to the netori intro of gagaku, but the purpose of the ashirai is different. The key feature of ashirai lies in its free rhythm. The melody cell of the flute is not connected to, but superimposed over the associated rhythm cell. This is not a mathematical unity, but a layering that can create the effect of an uncounted polyrhythm. The beginning and the end of the superimposition are defined, but the cell content is left to the free interpretation of the flautist. Even the Japanese word ashirai comes from the Japanese verb ashriru (to answer), implying some sort of call and response within the music, though there is no interplay of drum and flute.

So the pitch fluctuates endlessly, and I consider this is a vital feature of the music. Japanese musicologist Akira Tamba, however, points out that the nodo affects the power of the first partial. This would be important for projecting the sound in the outdoor, firelight performances of Noh (takigi) in Buddhist temples or Shinto shrine courts that were customary of the distant and recent past. He also suggests that this development explains the forceful and sharp timbre of the instrument, developed empirically to meet the need for this power. In this case, Tamba sees a special role devolving from the dramatic intensity, and the production of the nohkan is conditioned by this objective of a need for a special forcefulness. The nohkan is easily recognized by its fundamental sound, which is very different from other Japanese flutes. Its fundamental sound is intense (80 db), there is a distinct lack of a second harmonic, and the third harmonic is weak in comparison (20 to 30 db below the level of the fundamental). The physiologically impacting intensity of the nohkan is greater than the Western flute for example, with a harmonic dispersion in the 70-75db range. This intense sound is used to colour the emotional tone of the work of the actors creating the scene visually. Also by design, the field of pitch is highly varied by the use of semi-stops on the finger holes and angling the mouthpiece. In this manner, the nohkan player is able to play all the pitches allowed by the range of the instrument, giving the flautist the ability to add extremely subtle tonal shadings to the pitches required by the performance. In this manner, the nohkan presents the opportunity to create a kind of tonal and/or timbral “colour” improvisation that makes every performance unique and unrepeatable, like non-idiomatic improvisation.

The second unique aspect of nohkan music is the melodic notation. Since we are dealing with a decidedly unfixed pitch instrument, the objective of the notation then, is to transcribe a sonorous melodic contour constituted by specific elements that were previously determined. This is accomplished through the system of fingering notation and solmisation based on onomatopoeia. The table of fingerings does not indicate fixed pitches (through the ‘correct’ pitch of the fingering can constantly be achieved with correct blowing and fingering technique). Therefore, using the onomatopoeic syllables to shape each pitch in a sequence of solmized notes, the shape of the pitch will change if the syllable ‘ha’ for example, is at the beginning or end of a sequence of fingerings. This method of playing is an efficient way of apprenticing (chōka) on the nohkan, for the student learns the melodic theme and content of the cell simultaneously. The key point here is that due to flute design and the system of solmisation, the melody is primarily a set of fingerings with no strict note attached. The phrases played by the nohkan player are determined by the nature of the flute and the nature of the syllabic interpretation of the artist, leaving a lot of room for spontaneous pitch adjustment and emotional colouring within a strictly defined musical border of cell structure.


©2009 Daniel Schnee
©2013 Daniel


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