The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The world of Hidetaro Honjoh – pursuing shamisen music as a traditional Japanese folk art, and even venturing into British contemporary theater
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
Listening to your performances in hauta and other types of music, I would imagine that you like the type of aesthetic world Tanizaki creates in Inei-raisan (In Praise of Shadows).
    Rather than calling it a world I like it, I would say there is a certain resonance that I feel in common with it.
    For Shun-kin I have composed the music solely based on the movement of the play and a feeling for the inner beauty of the Japanese mentality, while trying to keep the sound as simple as possible. I believe that people in Western style music use chords to create music but, as I mentioned earlier, the shamisen is an instrument that can create images with just monophonic notes. When I’m performing in hauta concerts as well as other cases, I want to create the kind of music where the listener can be drawn in naturally, and once they are, I don’t need to make any displays of technique. I only need to give them the notes one by one as they flow from the strings, and allow the listeners to use those notes to weave their own world of music. So, I don’t play dramatically or with flourishes most of the time, just mostly in a straightforward, unadorned way. The shamisen is an instrument with the potential to create images in that way. And I will be happy if the audience at this play can feel the beauty of the sound of the shamisen.

It sounds like you began by getting Simon to understand the shamisen as an instrument, but did he have any specific requests regarding the music you composed?
    There were instances where he said things like that he wanted a stronger sound, but basically the music I was doing was in line with what he wanted, so there were no requests that he made in that sense. At times when he seemed to be thinking and not satisfied with what he was hearing, I would happen to be there and get an image of what he probably wanted, and when I changed to that sound, his expression would change and I’d see that he was now satisfied. And there were also contrary cases where listening to the music seemed to give him or others images on how the play should move.
    That finally gave birth to the classic piece Awayuki, an original piece of mine, Koi no Tamoto from Kanginshu (a collection of popular songs compiled in 1518) and Yugao in the Tale of Genji. When the main character dies at the end of the play to that song plays, it is one of the themes of Shun-kin, I believe. It is all right with me if the Japanese audience hears it as a regional folk song or if it is heard simply as straightforward shamisen and simply ordinary music.

You have performed on the shamisen in collaborations with the musician Haruomi Hosono and with electronic instruments like the synthesizer, as well as with musicians performing on Western instruments. When you play with musicians using instruments that don’t employ the “ambiguity” [tonal variance] of the shamisen, how do you deal with that difference?
    Actually, I don’t look at the synthesizer as a Western instrument, I consider it similar to the geza music (offstage background musical accompaniment ensemble) in Kabuki. When I’m playing on the yamadai (onstage podium for the main musician) in Kabuki for example, the music coming from the geza is the same as that from a synthesizer. With that attitude, there is nothing awkward for me about playing with a synthesizer, rather it is quite familiar and I can ask for the kind of sound I want them to play. I get them to play lots of sounds and I search for the sounds I should play.
    That was the case when I created the group ATAVUS, because I believe that music is fundamentally playing with sound. If you are true musicians, you can always play together, no matter how different your instruments may be. If you put a group of musicians of true weight and they come together on stage, they should surely be able to produce great music. I just want to share that experience and joy with people who love the stage. Because music has the kind of effect that can make you come to love another musician for the quality of the sound they can make, even if you don’t like them personally at first. Also, when you are performing in a collaboration, you have a tendency to let the other musician do their thing. It is fun to listen to the other person when they are making interesting music, and that can stimulate me to come up with interesting sound in response. What attracted me about working with Simon was that kind of feeling of stimulating each other to produce something new.

What was the biggest new discovery for you that came out of working with Simon?
    I don’t know if you would really call it a discovery, but it was very stimulating to see the perspectives that he looked at things from, and the things he was sensitive about. For example, there was the device of having the actor holding a single bamboo pole to symbolize the shamisen. That is somehow similar to the kind of Shamisen character I was talking about earlier. It is extremely simple, but from that single pole a whole world of expression can be imagined. It had a deep rhythm and at the same time it spoke to the viewer with the simple warmth of contemporary art. I am very grateful for my encounter with Simon.

Since the main character in Shun-kin is a professional shamisen player, it must seem affected to you to see an actor who is not a professional pretending to play the shamisen in the play. It creates a poor image, doesn’t it?
    What the actor is holding is just a bamboo pole, but that device was effective for giving the audience the image of a musician playing. In theater, it seems that you have to leave that kind of room for the audience to use their imaginations to expand on what is actually seen on stage. The performers can’t do it all for the audience, there has to be a shared effort with the audience to create the world of the play. Shun-kin gave me a renewed appreciation of the unique enjoyment of performing live that comes from the fact that it only becomes complete when there is the audience that has come to actively listen and watch what is going on up on the stage. I now have a sense that working with Simon this time has brought me to a new turning point in my performing career.

What do you especially want the people of London to appreciate in Shun-kin?
    The simple, monotonal sound of the shamisen that is different from the harmonies created by other instruments. I will be happy if people are able to hear the quality of that sound. The facility we will be performing in will be different, so I will adjust the sound to fit that environment. To do that, we have included rehearsal time that will make my stay in London more than a month.

The complex overtone known as sawari (touch [on the strings]) that is produced when performing on the shamisen is one of the instrument’s unique qualities, but to people used to hearing Western classical music it can sound like nothing but extraneous noise. I would appear that this is the reason that the shamisen has not come to be appreciated overseas as readily as other traditional Japanese instruments like the koto, shakuhachi and wadaiko drums.
    Sounds like the sawari of the shamisen are found in all types of ethnic instruments in all countries. They are instruments that people have made purely of natural materials, so each instrument has its own “life.” The instruments of [Western] classical music are instruments designed to create pure, distinct sounds when played in ensemble with other instruments. Therefore, their expressive qualities and purpose are different from ethnic instruments. I hope people will see that the shamisen is an instrument that can produce the kind of finely nuanced sound that touch innate human sensitivities.
    Also, I will be singing in Shun-kin, so I want the audience to get some appreciation of the appeal of [traditional] Japanese use of the voice. I believe that the human voice is the most wonderful instrument of all and even in very short songs like hauta, just a couple of lines of a song can bring the listener to tears. Short songs, including folk songs, are moving because they sing directly about true emotions. Since the human voice is the only instrument that can deliver both emotionally moving words and meaningful music, I hope very much that the audience will appreciate the Japanese voice in these performances.
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |