Japanese Art Song and Western Notation

Today, I want to share a very important musical moment. This took place in September, right after I had auditioned for the Huntington Women’s Choir.

For my audition, I had initially prepared three pieces of choral music. One of these pieces was an art song for two voices from the 1970’s written by Japanese composer, Kenji Yamamoto.

The title of the piece is “Kitakaze no Uta” which means “The Song of the North Wind.” Out of all my repertoire, this was perhaps the simplest vocally but the most challenging to understand.  I do not refer to the language in which the piece is written, but rather the interpretation of the western music notation.

A western singer that reads this sheet music will not only first observe the irregular meter in the first measure, but they will also notice- what will first appear as- the random placing of sixteenth rests between some of the notes.

Above the first word, “ushinatta,” the first sixteenth note in the piece is placed over the first letter “t” of that word. For those who speak Japanese, they will notice the miniature hiragana symbol for “tsu”- a character that when placed before a syllable in a Japanese word, indicates that the consonant in that syllable receives an extra beat. This extra beat in the spoken language will sound like a silent pause in the flow of the word.

This pause of course, lasts only a split second. This holds true for Japanese words and names like Sapporo (the capital city of Hokkaido), wakatta (I understood), futteimas (falling).

Yamamoto places the sixteenth rest in the music to help recreate the effect of the small “tsu.”

Another component of this song that puzzled me was the choice of key signature: F major.

I tried writing a simple piano accompaniment for this piece with simple diatonic chords in F major, but when I did, I found they didn’t flow well with the vocal melodies at all. As a matter of fact, I thought the use of a piano for this piece would be superfluous. But what was my reason for explaining this thought? I finally had my answer when I read the music from a different angle.

My answer came from looking at the song’s melody and notes as opposed to the notation of the key signature. Playing all of the notes in the first measure together as a cluster of five notes, I discovered the use of a pentatonic scale starting on F.

A pentatonic scale is composed solely of whole notes, intervals of whole steps as opposed to the combination of whole and half steps like the diatonic scale. A scale that is composed only of whole notes will only have five notes as opposed to the diatonic scale which has eight notes (if you count the “do” an octave higher), or the chromatic scale which has twelve notes.

While Yamamoto’s art song is only one page in length, the counter point in “Kitakaze no uta” is full of so many foreign elements that is difficult to translate with western musical notation. The key to understanding Yamamoto’s composition is to immediately jump into the song and understand the words and the notes on the staffs. Fully comprehending the key signature, meter and sixteenth rests, I feel, is an arbitrary decision.


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