In Japan, there is a centuries-old form of theatre known as Noh. It is an austere, minimalist, intensely disciplined art form, in which a central actor (known as the shite), usually concealed behind a painted wooden mask, conveys the story’s plot, tone, or emotion through stylized, highly-regulated, and often glacial movement. Noh plays are all backed by a chorus (jiutai) and an instrumental ensemble (hayashi) who perform their sparse music in a similarly rigid, economical manner. At the core of this extraordinary art form is a profound appreciation for the value of what can be called negative space. There is a mesmeric stillness in much Noh, the audience as engaged in the pauses as they are in the drama. The moments in which the actors appear to be doing nothing are not merely accentuating the action but are for some the heart of the performance. Just as the fixed expressions of the shite’s mask allow the audience room for imagination, these quiet intervals become similarly fecund, imaginative spaces, rich in meaning.
It is within Noh that audiences can find a prime articulation of the Japanese concept known as ma. (It has at times been called the art of ma). Though the word’s meaning appears quite broad it has been variously translated as interval, gap, space, room, pause, rest, opening, or blank. But ma is not merely any of those things, indeed, Western languages don’t contain a true equivalent. Ma exists only in relation to the totality. It is, in the words of Alan Fletcher, “the interval which gives shape to the whole.” It is a “pregnant nothing,” an acknowledgement of the hidden substance within the interstices. Crucially, ma is not just the space itself but is better understood as a way of seeing; a particular mode of perceiving and understanding that space. Western art has often hinted at a deeper appreciation for negative space (think Miles Davis exalting “the notes you don’t play” or Debussy venerating “the space between the notes”) but no Western concept mirrors ma in meaning nor cultural prevalence.
Japanese-American saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi’s latest record is in some sense a tribute to this way of seeing. As alluded to in the title, Shiroishi has grown out of the need to fill space. Thus I Was Too Young To Hear Silence is a deeply patient record, an interplay of sound, reverberation, and silence unfolding over 40 minutes of unedited, unaccompanied improvisation. Recorded in a carpark beneath a hot pot restaurant in Monterey Park, Shiroishi moves through the alto saxophone’s many sounds and textures, letting his horn ring out into the distance. Considering ma’s spatial and temporal meanings, it’s fitting to record with such enormous natural reverb. It’s space, time, and the interrelation of the two made tangible.
Though some might use the LP’s cavernous setting to craft an ethereal, melodic, peaceful ambience, Shiroishi is not interested in a simple beauty, or at least he takes some time to get there. His alto shrieks, quivers, blares, whispers, huffs, and squeaks its way through the air. For large parts, the album is completely atonal, dissonant notes clashing in the reverb. Arpeggiated passages rarely adhere to any scale or mode—when they do it’s all the more beautiful. Much like the music of Nō, this is art that requires audiences to drop their preconceptions and approach the performance through an altogether different rubric. Though it might take time for Shiroishi’s style to break through, when it does the result can be beguiling.
In reading about Noh, I came across a wonderful passage from The Flowering Spirit: Classic Teachings on the Art of Nō. In William Scott Wilson’s introduction to the translated writings of Zeami (Noh’s greatest theorist and playwright), he describes the art form’s music: “With this emphasis on rhythm rather than melody, the pauses or empty spaces in the music of Nō have the same emotional import as the sounds they fall between. In the Yūgaku shūdōfūken, Zeami quotes the famous phrase of the Buddhist Prajnaparamita, or Heart Sutra: “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form”… This formula perfectly defines music that emerges from and retreats to emptiness. In No, eternal truths are expressed by hints from the deceptive and transitory surfaces of reality, and reality is likewise expressed through eternal truths.“
The recording does approach something more concretely beautiful in its final minutes. On “if only heaven would give me another ten years,” Shiroishi reaches for something transcendent. He begins coyly, tentatively feeling out the space, notes like larks sporadically ascending into view, dancing through air. Slowly he grows more confident, occasionally reaching into its upper registers, ascending on ever higher thermals. Now melodic and emotional, the alto flits between short arpeggiations and longer, swooning notes. The music builds into something genuinely breathtaking, a melancholic exaltation, an achievement that feels both too sensitively, intelligently constructed to be improvised and so honest and immediate that it could only be the result of unplanned, instinctual release. Such is the power of these final moments, it forces a reappraisal of the previous 35 minutes, demands that you venture deeper into the record’s vast spaces, its strange abstractions, and thorny passages.
It is one thing to create a wonderful album but to create a work that so effectively and emotively prompts a reconsideration of how we perceive art is something altogether different. After the climax of the final track, Shiroishi returns to silence. But now the silence is far from empty. Here oceans of meaning lay dormant. Waiting to be unlocked.
“Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.”
Label: American Dreams
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Noah Sparkes is a UK-based culture writer specialising in film, TV, and music. With a particular interest in the intersection of culture, politics, and history, Noah has written in a variety of outlets.