The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Yukihiro Isso
ISSO, Yukihiro
Born in 1964, Yukihiro Isso is a Noh hayashi-kata fue-kata flutist of the Isso school. He received his initial instruction in flute playing from his father Yukimasa Isso and performed on the Noh stage for the first time at the age of nine. From his middle school years he began to listen to a variety of different kinds of music and studying new instruments including the recorder, flute and piano. In addition to performing on the traditional Noh stage, he began performing with a number of bands from his high school years and expanded his genre to include rock and jazz and performed with a variety of musicians from Japan and abroad. Since 1991 he has led a band of performers in the “Ohiyari” concert series play in primarily pieces composed by himself. In February 2006 he will perform the premiere of his own composition “Suite Flute Fantasy” with a full orchestra.
Yukihiro Isso
Yukihiro Isso
an overview
Artist Interview Artist Interview
From the Noh stage to the contemporary music scene   Talking to innovator Yukihiro Isso  
Noh is a form of music theater that flourished under the master playwright Zeami in Japan’s Muromachi Period (1338-1573) and has recently been designated a World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO’s World Heritage program. The characters of the play dance to the hayashi musical accompaniment performed by three percussion instruments and a flute called the Noh-kan while the jiutai narrator recites the story. Yukihiro Isso was born into a family of Noh flutists (hayashi-kata fue-kata) that has continued its family tradition since the 16th century. For hundreds of years the art of the Noh flutist has been passed down from father to son. There are times when such a family of musicians produces an offspring of exceptional talent who brings innovative new aspects to his art. A child of our times when it is possible to hear all kinds of music from around the world, Yukihiro Isso has built his own unique world of music on the foundations of the classical tradition he carries on.
(Interviewer: Kazumi Narabe)

In Japan’s traditional arts there is accustom of having a child begin training in his art on the sixth day of the sixth month of his sixth year [because of the auspicious implications of the number six] in hopes that he will make good progress in his training. At what age did you begin training on the flute?
It was at eight or nine, anyway, I know I was past the age of seven. The flute is played by covering the finger holes with the fingers and the child has to have hands big enough to reach the holes before he can begin studying. At the age of seven the hand is still too small to reach and cover the finger holes.

You were born into a family of Noh flutists (hayashi-kata fue-kata). Does the eldest son always carry on the family tradition in such a family?
Yes. Most are expected to and do. In my case, I was never told by my father that my lessons would begin when I reached a certain age, but somehow I found myself naturally starting to play the flute. The reason is that my father was practicing every day and his students were coming for their lessons, so our house was always full of the sound of the flute. And there was always a flute within reach, so I naturally played with them from the time I was a little child and thought they were interesting and fun. I wondered how you could get a sound out of them, and I think I was the one who asked for my first lessons, saying, “Show me how you do it.”
Don’t you think this flute is an interesting instrument? It is just a piece of bamboo with a few holes in it, but if you have the right skills you can make it do almost anything. It produces a variety of different sounds and plays all kinds of melodies. So, that interest naturally developed and before I knew it I was learning how to play.
Though I seem to recall being taught how to hold the flute, I was never taught any actual technique. In Japanese traditional music there is no teaching method like they have in Western music. In my case you could say that I just learn by watching the movements of my father’s fingers. And, since there were flutes being played around me every day, I learned from an early age what good pitch and tone was.
The Noh flute is an instrument that takes a lot of breath to play. By adjusting the way you blow into the blow hole, the shape you cup your lips into and the angle you blow at, if you get just the right point you can get a large, good sound with less breath. I was the kind of precocious brat who would say, “That guy is wasting breath. Blowing like that is no good at all!” (Laughs).

There are a lot of plays in the Noh repertoire and a lot of music that has to be learned. Did you learn the repertoire just by ear?
There are about 250 pieces in the Noh repertoire and there are a number of variations in the hayashi (accompaniment) that may involve just one line being played differently, and there are also adjustments that have to be made when you are performing with people from a different school of Noh. So, you could say that the number of pieces in the Noh repertoire is uncountable. You listen to the different performances from backstage or while the musicians are practicing, and I am the type who can learn most of the pieces if I hear them once.
A Noh flutist is considered a professional if he masters performance of the four plays Dojoji, Shakkyo, Midare and Okina. I learned Midare from my father, but the others I learned by being told to come to the performances and watching from backstage. But, I was never taught the finger movements for making the decorative sounds known as sashiyubi.
Not only my father but all Noh flutists have their own sashiyubi technique and it is not something that is written in the music scores. It is something that you work out by yourself. When the sashiyubi comes in it makes the sound richer and it is really impressive. When I first began learning the flute I would try the sashiyubi and my father would say, “Stop that. When you are young you should play it straight without sashiyubi.” But I didn’t listen to him. They say that in terms of neural function, the human fingers peak at the age of 25. So, in order to master the delicate nuances of sound produced by finger movements, you have to be learning them from a young age. Otherwise the fingers just won’t move the way they need to.

I have had the opportunity to see a Noh flute being made, and it involves splitting the bamboo into a number of pieces and putting it back together with the hard outer surface on the inside and binding it with cherry bark or rattan. Seeing this, I thought that it must be this construction that makes it possible for the flute to produce the kind of hard-pitched sound that is used at critical moments in the play when the flute seems to be calling forth a spirit.
I also have wondered why they go to such effort to construct the flute in that way. And the Noh flute is not made from just one piece of bamboo. Between the blow hole and the seven finger holes there is a thin bamboo piece called the nodo (throat) that reduces the diameter of the flute tube. With the yokobue (horizontally held Japanese bamboo flute), you can raise the pitch of the sound one octave by blowing harder while keeping the same fingering, but because of the nodo piece in the Noh flute, you can’t raise the pitch an octave. What’s more, every Noh flute has a different pitch and can have a different sound depending on how it is played. The pitch is a relative thing; it is not strictly set like a Western flute.
It is often noted that Japanese traditional instruments don’t fit the Western “sol-fa” scale. The reason they don’t is because they don’t adopt a “tempered scale” like Western music. But there are plenty of ethnic instruments around the world that don’t adopt a tempered scale, and even most Baroque music is not played with a tempered scale.
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