Celtic noh draws on two cultures’ essence

by

Special To The Japan Times

Noh is a uniquely Japanese form of musical drama that dates back to at least the 14th century. However, it took 600 years before this performing art surfaced in Western culture — notably with Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ noh-inspired 1917 play “At the Hawk’s Well.”

Afterward, that work was twice revised as classical noh productions — first as “Taka-no-Izumi” (“The Hawk Spring”) in 1949, then as “Takahime”(“The Hawk Princess”) in 1967 — with both versions still often performed in Japan to this day.

Now, to mark the centenary of the publication of Yeats’ poem, as well as 60 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan, and a half-century since the first production of “The Hawk Princess,” a so-called Celtic noh version of that work will be staged jointly by leading noh artists and the Celtic choir, Anuna.

Telling the tale of the Hawk Princess, the guardian of a magical spring, and an old man and the fabled Irish hero Cu Chulainn who wish to drink from it, the new work is itself set to be magically enhanced by Anuna, whose haunting songs are well suited to noh.

Indeed, in a recent press conference, Michael McGlynn, Anuna’s leader and one of directors of this production, pointed to similarities between noh and Celtic culture, saying, “Japanese and Celtic peoples have very old and refined cultures, and though we have to cherish them, we should develop them, too.

“Besides, both cultures have the idea of ‘another world’ and also a peculiar admiration for nature. So noh and our music have a great deal in common.”

Those feelings were echoed by McGlynn’s co-director, the noh master Umewaka Rokuro Gensho, who will play the princess.

“I think Celtic choral music and noh are similar in both being abstract arts,” the designated Living National Treasure observed. “So we have no need to hesitate and can just make all the creative sparks we wish.

“Well, that’s how I feel, and I have collaborated with many artists including a ballerina, an organ player and so on.”

As for this production, Gensho said “The Hawk Princess” was like a classical noh drama … but also innovative.

“Before now in this piece, I have played the princess, the old man and a rock. In my opinion, the princess is a symbol of eternity, but you can interpret the meaning of the old man or Cu Chulainn or the rocks around the spring in several ways. This time, I dance behind the scrim (open-weave) curtain in the first scene, then gradually appear in front of the audience.”

With noh actor Yoshimasa Kanze in the role of the old man, and Cu Chulainn played by the kyōgen (traditional comic theater) artist Norishige Yamamoto, Anuna’s singing will be supported by a traditional noh vocal chorus and noh musicians playing a flute, hip drum, shoulder drum and a large taiko drum.

Outlining his approach to composing the music for this work, McGlynn said, “Basically, European 12-tone music and Japanese traditional music are different. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to combining them.

“For Anuna, the big challenge is, along with the noh performers, to express realms both intangible and invisible.”

“Takahime” (“The Hawk Princess”) will be staged at 7 p.m. on Feb. 16 at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo. For tickets and/or further details, call 03-3498-2881 or visit plankton.co.jp.