The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
From the Noh stage to the contemporary music scene   Talking to innovator Yukihiro Isso
Yukihiro Isso
Yukihiro Isso
Now that you have mentioned Baroque music, I would like to ask you about your other musical activities. You have taken on the challenge of playing Baroque music and rock music using the Japanese Noh flute and sinobue flute. You also compose music, too. When did you begin venturing out of the Noh tradition into new kinds of music?
The Noh flute is only played with what we call the shibyoshi, the ensemble consisting of the ookawa drum, the kotsuzumi drum and the taiko drum. When we learn to play the recorder in elementary school, it is an instrument that can be played in ensemble with a variety of instruments, such as the violin and harpsichord. So, I began to think it would be nice if the Noh flute could also be played with other instruments.
But, because the Noh flute does not have a tempered pitch and scale, you can’t make it fit exactly with the scale of the other instruments you are playing with. It is impossible if you confine yourself to the traditional technique. So, I decided that I should create my own scale. I found that by changing the way I put the lips to the flute and, taking a hint from recorder technique, I could adjust the way I used to the fingers enough to enable me to control the pitch sufficiently. Near the end of middle school I began to listen to jazz and rock, and I got the idea that I could use sashiyubi technique to adapt the sound of the Noh flute. I also got the desire to try playing the different flutes from around the world.
In high school friends and I formed a band with guitar, drums, bass, keyboard and my Noh flute, and we started playing at live-performance clubs. At the same time I was playing Baroque music like Bach and Telemann. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music and my interests broadened. In the process, I started to think about creating music of my own. I wanted to create music where the flute had the lead, so I started composing. I didn’t like the first piece I wrote, though.

In Japanese we use the expression “wearing two pairs of sandals” when a person is doing two different jobs that one person is not usually capable of. It seems to me that you have been wearing more than two pairs of sandals.
Not really. I think it is all the same pair of sandals. The famous flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia was originally playing guitar to accompany flamenco dancers, but he also brought the guitar itself out on stage as a lead instrument. He has also done collaborations with musicians from other genre. I am trying to work in the same way Paco is. Without leaving the traditional Noh music behind, I want to play classical music and contemporary music too. That’s the way I see it. And, I believe that that is also how the traditions we think of “traditional” today were actually formed. At the time Noh was born, it was an avant-garde contemporary art.
The traditional Noh repertoire doesn’t even use 10% of the potential of the Noh flute, I believe. If I use the technique I have learned from trying to get a different temperament and scale out of the Noh flute in an actual Noh play, the presence of the flute becomes accentuated and overall Noh performance becomes richer and livelier. In fact I am doing a variety of new things in the traditional Noh performances. When I do too much, they say that I am going off in the direction of technical virtuosity. But, there is still a lot that I think I can do.

Don’t you get criticized when you spend too much time working outside the tradition?
My father was worried about that, it is true. He passed away in December 2004. Near the end he would hang the posters from my [outside] concerts in the studio, but as for whether he actually wanted to be supportive of my outside activities, it remains a mystery to me.
A few years ago there was a period of about a year and a half when my lips went numb and I couldn’t play the [horizontal] flute. I could play a recorder, because it is an instrument where you put the blow hole in your mouth, but with the [horizontal] flute you have to shape the breath with your lips as you blow into the blow hole in order to control the sound, so you can’t play it if your lips are numb. It just happened that at that time I was feeling rather confined in the Noh world, so I started thinking that if the numbness didn’t go away I would change to the vertical flute. But when my lips got better and I started performing in Noh again, I found so many people who were really happy to see me back performing in Noh again. That made me very grateful, and it made me realize what an important thing the Noh world really was for me.

After your recovery, however, your range of activities has only continued to expand. You are now the leader of several bands and you are also developing instruments.
I get the feeling that a certain combination of instruments and the music possible with them is exactly right for what I want to do. In one case it may be my Noh flute with drums and electric guitar, in another case a guitar and tabla and Noh flute. When I get these revelations a band is formed and in the process I have come to the point where I am now playing with four different bands. If played by different performers and different instruments, the same piece of music will in fact become completely a piece. A lot of new discoveries are made. As for the reason I started making instruments, it was the desire I get for certain sounds when composing or performing. And it became possible to translate those desires into new instruments after I met the instrument maker Mr. Ranjo. After I wrote a piece that used only low notes, I had him make a “ryobue” flute. Ryo means the lower scale of notes in Japanese music. We also made a Noh flute without the nodo piece in order to make it easier to get the pitches I wanted. If you only do traditional Noh performances, one Noh flute or maybe two will last you your whole life. In my case, however, I will use different flutes for different Noh play, ones with a softer sound for some plays and ones with a harder sound for others. When I counted recently, I found that in all had about 500 flutes, including my recorders and tsunobue (oliphant).

In other words, could you say that you have a different flute for every kind of music you want to play?
There is no limit to the things I want to do. Of course traditions like Noh are magnificent and complete creations in themselves, and I intend to continue perfecting my Noh performance. Within the shibyoshi ensemble of the Noh theater, if the flute is a horizontal line of music, the ookawa, kotsuzumi and taiko drums are points. With regard to how those points and the horizontal line interact, a lot of variation can be brought to play by the way the sashiyubi is used. There are always new discoveries in the traditional arts as well.
I am also thinking of creating new original Noh works. If you put a story into the Noh format, anything can become an original new Noh play. It is just like thinking up new words to an old song. For the music I am thinking of using the traditional shibyoshi ensemble, but I plan to make it different from anything that has been done so far in new Noh. I am a musician, so I can’t write a play. What I am thinking of doing is writing the original music and then getting someone to develop the story from there.
Outside of Noh, I think I would like to perform with Steve Vai, who used to play in Frank Zappa’s band. He is an amazing guitarist with incredible technique that he can use at will with protean creativity. I’d also like to play with John McLaughlin, too. I like the guitar and play it myself, but unlike the flute, the guitar has a suppressed sound. An electric guitar can extend the sound and produce weightier sound. Since there tends to be a lot of lively movement in my pieces, so I think it would be very interesting to play with a guitarist who can play with a good sense of speed. Just like there are no limits to the variations possible in improvisational performance, there is really no end to the things I want to do.
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