East Ensemble, a three-member chamber music group from New York, opened its performance this past Saturday in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall with silence and a simple red cloth lying in the center of the stage. While waiting for the musicians to emerge, it felt as though the performance had already begun in the silence. Silence was a recurring theme throughout the evening: The stillness deposited between scores and the pauses during which the performers switched instruments or retuned the koto by repositioning each bridge individually all became a part of the performance itself. Perhaps performer and host James Nyoraku Schlefer best captured the significance of these pauses when he explained moments of silence with the phrase, “this nothingness is the point” in his piece Brooklyn Sanya. The music of East Ensemble was not a continuous stream of sound but instead a current of bursts and suspension, of sound and silence. It is this dialogue between motion and stillness that gave the music its richness of texture.
As thrilling and beautiful as the music played were the instruments themselves: the koto, the shamisen and the shakuhachi. According to the program notes, the koto was introduced to Japan from China in the seventh to eighth century. With 13 strings stretched over ji, or movable bridges, the Japanese koto is positioned horizontally and plucked. (Musician Masayo Ishigure played an even larger koto – a bass koto with 17 strings – for Sankyoku No. 1.)
Another string instrument, the shamisen, was described during Schlefer’s short introduction as “something like a banjo.” The strings are made of silk and are strummed not by the fingers but with a bachi, a device shaped something like an ice scraper. Interestingly, the bachi is not only used to pluck the strings but occasionally at the skin of the instrument as well, “creating a highly percussive sound.”
The third instrument, the shakuhachi, or end-blown bamboo flute, was the choice instrument of many samurai-turned-monks in the Edo period. Upon losing their employment as soldiers, the former samurai turned their skill inwards and traded their swords for flutes. The music they played was thought to heighten awareness of one’s surroundings through sound, and the monks became known as komuso, or “priests of nothingness.”
The first piece, Sue No Chigiri or “Vow of Eternal Love” (composed by Matsuura Kengyô, Yaezaki Kengyô and Urazaki Kengyô), featured the koto and shamisen simultaneously playing a single melody. Because the sharp twang of the Ishigure’s shamisen was distracting beside the more resonant sound of Charles Wei-Ting Tang’s koto, it was initially jarring to hear the same melody being played in two such disparate tones. However, the two instruments gradually entered into conversation with each other, one offering the flourishes while one established a rhythm. In sequences where one instrument played a melody and the other echoed, the contrast further enhanced the communication. Ishigure’s rendering of the vocal sections – the opening song (maeuta) and the closing song (atouta) – which sandwich the instrumental interlude, or the tegoto, offered a narrative of unfulfilled love and a long distance relationship for the already charged score.
Schlefer introduced the next piece, his Brooklyn Sanya, by stating that the sounds the bamboo flute produced were “not really music.” Though I was initially somewhat skeptical – what had I come to listen to, if not music – by the close of the score I could see his point. In the piece, there was little harmony and melody; rather, the focus rested on creating a sense of meditative suspension in both the sound and silence of the lone shakuhachi. Throughout the piece, not only silence, but even the intake of breath and harsh rasp of air through the flute, created a certain rhythm that was both soothing and reflective. That breathing and emptiness could be incorporated into this piece demonstrated the strength of its ties to the traditional form, yet the name indicates that it did not solely belong to that world but extends beyond ancient Japan into the composer’s own hometown.
Such merging of the traditional and modern and bridging of worlds emerged in the later pieces as well. For example, the “Rondo-Tegoto” section of Sankyoku No. 1 (also composed by Schlefer) pays a nod both to Japanese tradition and to a Western rondo structure. Additionally, elements of rock music make their way into the final piece, Okoto, by Hikaru Sawai. During the performance of Okoto, the two koto musicians not only plucked their instruments but also beat rhythmically on the wooden body of the koto, transforming the traditional string instrument into a percussive instrument as well.
One aspect that made the concert so engaging was the oscillation between contrasting elements of sound and silence, abruptness and fluidity and even power and delicacy in both the music and the performance. For all the delicacy of their plucking, the protective pads the shamisen and koto musicians placed underneath their instruments hinted at the force they used to play their instruments. Tension between moments of sudden activity, like the pounding of the koto, and moments of quiet before breaths during the first shakuhachi piece created an atmosphere of multivalence and suspense, so much so that even after the final note had sounded, silence lingered on in Brooks-Rogers.