The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

October 24, 2019 at 10:32 am (By Amba) (, , )

bunraku

I wrote briefly to a friend that I had seen this performance, and he responded:

I had heard or read the word bunraku  before but didn’t know what it was.  I searched You Tube and was delighted with what I found.   The marionettes are quite magical but the sound is beyond magic.  Listening to classical Japanese music is like walking among the redwoods in the early evening mist.  There is room in the air for everything that might come along.  In a way, the music is not created sound.  It’s more like the result of applying a filter to the sound of nature so that certain frequencies, among the sounds that comprise the world, have been selected out at that moment.  I’m not aware of any other musical tradition that evokes so convincingly the natural world without sounding forced or merely imitative.

That prompted me to write more about it:

What a marvelous description of Japanese music. That is certainly true of Zen music, shakuhachi and the very spare string accompaniment (shamisen?). But the music that went with this melodrama, which was really a kind of opera (“the sung narrative particular to bunraku,” says the program)—the text was part sung and part recited, really acted—was in large part more social and courtly (in the sense of an aristocratic court) than natural. It doesn’t say when it was written, but the Tokugawa shogunate apparently BANNED it in 1721 because it was provoking copycat love suicides (like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther) and wasn’t performed again for more than 200 years! A very ritualized, courtly kind of Buddhism, with pilgrimages and prayers and chants of “Namu Amida butsu,” in search of liberation, plays a part in the story. It’s about a prostitute (age 19) and her client (24) who really love each other and face insurmountable practical and social obstacles that drive them to despair.
Despite my long acquaintance with Japanese culture, the surface of the music was very alien, agitated and atonal (Webern’s got nothing on these guys). So it took me a while to penetrate the surface and begin to comprehend that this was a human comedy as well as a tragedy. A lot of the falsetto and hysteria in the (all-male) voices was probably as satirical as it sounded: behold the pathetic obsessions of these touchingly frail humans. (The helpless passions enacted by the colorful puppets contrast starkly with the enigmatic dispassion of their black-swathed manipulators.) Subtitles were projected above the stage, and quite a lot of the goings-on were about business and money. The author, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, is called the Japanese Shakespeare, and this story was quite a lot like Romeo and Juliet, another tale about very young people, which is foolish, flowery, and even funny for much of its length, until the tragic ending. In this tale, right up to the last minute the young people are coming up with all sorts of natural reasons (e.g. breaking their families’ hearts) for not going through with it. But then they do, in a gruesome, graphic, determined way. And in a forest, away from all the noise of society—and at that point the music becomes exactly as you describe it.

 

 

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