Lachlan Skipworth: Japan’s influence in my music

The composer discusses the honkyoku tradition

Congrats, Lachlan!



I wish to write a little about my Piano Trio, and how the traditional shakuhachi piece Daha found its way to prominence in its first movement.

A starting point could be noting the similarities between the Latin appropriare (to make one’s own) and the shakuhachi concept of honnin no kyoku, in which we strive to make a piece we learn “totally, in every way perceived and unperceived … one’s very own” (Riley Lee). This would however be an attempt at justification ex post facto. No, the interest here lies in tracing the progression of ideas that led me to even consider using using material from honkyoku (the traditional solo pieces) in my own compositions. The strength of my initial resistance to the idea cannot be downplayed; for a long time, I could think of nothing more detrimental to the tradition I loved.

After three years living and studying in Japan, the shock of isolation on returning to Australia was most likely the starting point for the long journey that led to my Piano Trio. I was able continue to practice on my own without regular lessons, and even made continued improvement as the fine embouchure movements settled further into my muscle memory. But in my composing work, I faced a significant question:

What use or relevance was my knowledge of honkyoku to me, now living so far removed from the origins of the tradition?

The initial thrill of composing works for shakuhachi in combination with Western instruments soon wore off, and I began to look for deeper answers. As a starting point, I used my belief that the timing and timbre of honkyoku are its unique strengths, and this occupied my thinking for a time.

The first milestone was my work Light Rain (2009), in which a string quartet echoes and amplifies the nuances of timbre of a solo shakuhachi. The piece was a confirmation of sorts, but I still wanted to achieve a particular level of timbral nuance away from the shakuhachi. This soon led me beyond the simple string harmonics and trills of Light Rain into more complex territory, as can be seen in my multiphonic saxophone quartet Dark Nebulae (2011), a conglomeration of thick microtonal timbres in an abstract and floating expanse of sound.

Exploring the ‘forbidden’ things led to a more complete understanding of the whole

Concurrently in my practice room, I was facing some serious ongoing hurdles in my technical progress and action was required. I decided to undertake a complete rebuild of my embouchure, even to the extent of blatantly discarding advice I had received in lessons to ensure I came to my own conclusions. Actually exploring the ‘forbidden’ things led to a more complete understanding of the whole. And perhaps this non-rational approach mirrors that of the zen koan, a seemingly obtuse question or situation requiring deep contemplation to perceive the inner meaning. Surely for a shakuhachi player, finding a beautiful tone is really our eternal koan?

Exploring ideas to which I was personally opposed then became a basis for a series of compositions. To challenge my attachment to the yearning semitones of the miyako bushi mode, I composed The Night Sky Fall (2011) on the notes of the harmonic series, thereby forcing me to create musical tension by other means. In Confluence (2014) I ask two percussionists to seek an ‘ensemble ma’, an agreement on flexible honkyoku-like gestures deliberately spread between them. I soon targeted my long-held belief that honkyoku could not (and should not) be performed on Western instruments. After much consideration, I arrived at the following rationale:

I wanted to present opportunities for classical musicians to engage with the honkyoku tradition on their own instrument and in their own notation, but in which they must face some of the unique challenges of honkyoku. Furthermore, I wanted to transmit my own interpretation of the honkyoku in a way that effectively mirrors the physicality and intensity in the new instrumental medium.

My first attempt was to create a string quartet in my image of the honkyoku piece Yamagoe, the primary challenge being to achieve the concentrated level of physicality. The piece sat surprisingly easily over a driving pulse in compound time, and exploiting the strings extended range and playing techniques ensured a lively experience for the audience and players alike.

I wanted to present opportunities for classical musicians to engage with the honkyoku tradition

Daha, a favourite honkyoku of mine for its juxtaposition of the ocean in both violent and calm moods, became the model for the first movement of my Piano Trio. The strongly pulsing komibuki from the original is taken up by a syncopated ostinato at a break-neck pace as I imagined both my diaphragm in action and the imagery of powerful waves crashing against cliff faces. The strings present the melody in minor ninths while the piano reinforces the strong accents and adds its own wave-like gestures. In the subsequent lyrical section, the melody is taken up by the strings moving in floating parallel elevenths with the gentle aura of glassy piano chords above. Later, the fragility of a particularly high and intimate  phrase is achieved by having the violin and piano play gently but precariously in their upper-most range, before thickened textures return for the more muscular climax. The second and third movements are of my own imagination, distilling the ideas of Daha in my own language.

I hope that these works can be viewed as broadening the reach of honkyoku

Having explained the how and why of using honkyoku in my compositions, I wish to pause momentarily for thought on the issue of cultural appropriation. I still remain uneasy about using Daha and Yamagoe, and in truth never sought the approval of my teachers Kaoru Kakizakai and Katsuya Yokoyama before or after referencing them in my compositions. But rather than being viewed as an insensitive grab of another culture’s music, I hope that these works can be viewed as broadening the reach of honkyoku; even as a form of transmission in some sense of the word. After all, there is an inherent element of change in every individual’s version of a piece, and I have simply chosen to enact my own interpretation in a different sphere.

Perhaps the final answer will be in the strength of the Sitkovetsky Trio’s performances of my Piano Trio in its upcoming national tour, in which Daha will reach a total audience well into the thousands.

The Sitkovetsky Trio tours nationally for Musica Viva in July, and dates and venues can be found here. Lachlan’s theses deal more deeply with the concepts discussed in this blog, and can be viewed on his website. CutCommon would like to acknowledge the Australian Shakuhachi Society.


Images supplied.

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