The department of Asian Studies and the Japanese Program gave the nipponophiles on campus a genuine treat this Friday by inviting David Crandall to speak on his life’s work: Japanese Noh theater. This ancient and revered form of poetic drama that incorporates dance, song and music was dissected and explained by the truly exceptional individual, an American-born master of Noh. A small audience met in the intimate setting of the dance studio to hear Crandall speak, as he and a local artist and Noh performer led the audience step by step through the fundamental elements of this artistic tradition.
After giving a brief historical summary of the evolution of the medium from its inception in the 14th century to its current use and relevance today, Crandall started by simply reading the story, translated into English, of the most popular play in the Noh repertory: Hagoromo, or The Feather Mantle. Very quickly, the audience understood that these stories are extremely similar to classical fairy tales and contain simple, enchanting plots that speak to very strong, common human emotions; as Crandall underlined, there are even several Anglo-Saxon fairy tales whose stories are essentially identical.
Afterwards, he proceeded to sing a segment from Hagoromo in its original Japanese; immediately, the sonorities illustrated how foreign and unexpected the musical dimension of this art form is from what we have come to expect from our own Western classical tradition. Later, Crandall added to this song the sounds of the various instruments of Noh: several drums of varying pitch and a small flute crafted out of lacquered paper (most of which he has made himself). Together, the instruments forged a haunting musical background to the tales: grave, sensitive and twitchy notes that contrast to the low rumble of the main actor, the shite’s (shitè) singing voice. As Crandall continued to explain the respective roles of each instrument and their connections to the play, the audience began to understand the complex relationship that exists between each of them: One signals the other to start or stop, sets the rhythm, or even helps the shite locate himself in space.
Next, Crandall demonstrated the basics of the dancing component in Noh, central to the overall meaning of every play. As he very beautifully demonstrated, the dance of Noh is usually slow and ponderous, with the shite often only creeping across the stage; however, it places utmost importance on keeping the head and torso mostly immobile so even the slightest, controlled movement of the arms or legs requires tremendous concentration and physical strength. He insisted that several volunteers join him to recreate some of the basic choreographies, and it was evident that most struggled to perform the seemingly straightforward movements that Crandall executed with effortless grace and simplicity.
Once again, Crandall proved to the audience how intricate this element of Noh truly is: The dances are arranged in short patterns, each with its own specific significance, that add on to each other (“like LEGOs,” in Crandall’s words) to create a larger meaning that relates to the story being told and echo the emotional content of the actor’s voice. In addition, Crandall displayed some of the props that accompany any Noh performance: The stunning, delicate fans that the shite wields and breathtakingly expressive masks he wears that limit the eyesight to a minuscule square were all works of art in themselves.
More than anything else, the presentation made apparent Crandall’s immense talent and his dedication to this rich, historical art form. After decades of practice and training, Crandall has become a master performer of Noh, proficient in all of its many complex aspects. An accomplished singer and musician, a graceful and powerful dancer and a moving actor, he excels at an immense variety of artistic modes of expression, underlining the strength and texture that Noh displays. Finally, in his closing words Crandall addressed an important question regarding the place his art has in contemporary culture: By exposing his latest projects, crafting an English-language Noh play and touring across the country, he simultaneously added “composer” and “poet” to his long list of titles and demonstrated that this dramatic art has a future even in the Occident.