Program Notes: Chu no mai

Chu no mai [1974/76]

From 1973 to 1980, I was teaching at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. Early in 1974, Rex Hobcroft, the Con’s then Director, invited Willi Flindt, a young Danish expert in Noh, to conduct courses at the Con in this ancient form of Japanese theatre.

It was not Willi’s intention to engage his students in a dry, academic study of this highly stylized and culturally remote art-form. Rather, he wanted them to investigate its formal and structural properties as potential for their own creative work. The fruits of their explorations were presented at a memorable concert at the Con on 21st June 1974.

For the duration of his time in Sydney, Willi Flindt shared my terrace house in Paddington. He made me promise that I would create something for his presentation of Noh-inspired works. In its original form Chu no mai was first performed on that occasion. The player was Geoffrey Collins, then a student at the Con High School and subsequently a close friend and colleague in contemporary music enterprises in Sydney. Together, we set out to explore the similarities and differences of the sound-worlds of the Western concert flute and the Noh-kan, the Japanese bamboo flute. Mindful of the cross-cultural aesthetic issues raised in such exercises, it was not our intention to simulate the distinctive ‘breathy’ sound of the Japanese instrument, nor did we want to embark on a wholesale appropriation of the intricate formal structure of the original music. Rather, we tried to find ways to bridge the two sound-worlds, to open out possibilities for future exploration and development.

Willi Flindt was himself a master-player of the Noh-kan and many times over he played for me a kind of ‘set piece’ in Noh drama, a medium-tempo dance for a young maiden. My piece, Chu no mai, takes its point of departure from that music known as the shoga, the flute part to the music of Chu no mai, a title that is virtually untranslatable in English.

My Chu no mai explores and exploits various melodic and decorative features of the Japanese original. It falls into three sections, comprising various sub-sections which can be played or passed over at will. The introductory movement, Kakari, presents a fairly literal transcription of the Japanese original, as a kind of point of departure. (This near-transcription returns at several stages during the course of the work as a reference-point.) This is followed by sections called Sho-Dan and Ni-Dan, which move progressively further way from the original.

The concluding movement, Tome, is marked “calm and serene; with the austere detachment of the rock garden at the temple of Ryoanji in Kyoto”. [As events transpired, it would be another 30 years before I would actually experience the serenity of Ryoanji first-hand, when I visited Kyoto with my Japanese partner and several American friends in May 2003.] It presents the melody at half-speed and an octave lower. At the close of a live performance, the player slowly moves the flute from his or her lips, offering the instrument to the audience as a gesture of appreciation for their attentive listening.

Chu no mai is dedicated jointly to Willi Flindt and to Geoffrey Collins.

Copyright Vincent Plush, New Haven, CT, February 1982