Sunday, 5 June 2016


Japanese aesthetics (2)



For me the study of Japanese aesthetics has much to offer the Western composer, though at first the qualities may seem more appropriate to art, architecture and writing, particularly in the form of poetry.

Japanese philosophy understands reality as constant change, to Buddhists change is impermanence. The arts in Japan traditionally reflect this. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, awareness of impermanence brings about action and the appreciation of each moment of awareness and life. This is beautifully told in the following short tale:

The Monk, Tigers, Mice and the Strawberry

A monk was walking through the jungle when he saw that he was being chased by a tiger. The monk fled with the tiger close behind, then he realised he had come to the edge of a cliff. As he looked back, he saw that the tiger was getting closer.

Hanging over the edge was a thick vine, so the monk took the vine and began lowering himself over the cliff. He looked down and, far below a second tiger prowled.


Two mice began to gnaw at the vine. The monk saw a wild strawberry plant was growing within hand’s reach. He picked a ripe strawberry, it was delicious!

Impermanence is seen as being beautiful, hence the Japanese love of cherry blossom which usually falls from the tree within a week of appearing. Music in the form of improvisation should capture this quality, and with the characteristics of Iki, knowing the formation of elegant shapes, scales, chords and melodic formations, one should aim to produce music of delicate quality.

In addition to the values outlined in the chart there is the concept of the “cut”, (kire) or, “cut-continuity” (kire-tsuzuki). This device is highlighted in the Haiku poem where the alteration of viewpoint is a key element:

In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus -
A lovely sunset

- Matsuo Bashō

One might ponder the use of "cut" in music, particularly in improvisation where it can act as a powerful focal point and assist in the development of a composing intention in one's work.


Should you wish to spend a little additional time with these concepts this mid-length article offers a good starting point:






As the summer has arrived and it is a period for relaxation and a suitable time for contemplation I turned my mind to a simple musical game, could I identify qualities from the Japanese aesthetics in a given period of music? It didn’t take long to decide that French Impressionism would provide a wealth of possibilities, here are some suggestions:


Wabi-sabi: Debussy’s “Voiles”, natural, subtle; “Des pas sur la neige” tranquillity, and “Nuages” for transience. My wife takes a different viewpoint and suggests that Satie is a more likely candidate, particularly “Parade”, I see her point of view.


Miyabi: Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin” for refinement and awareness of transience.

Shibui: Ravel Concerto in G major for the balance of simplicity and complexity.

Iki: Debussy “La fille aux cheveux de lin” for refinement (personal attributes), and “Le sons et les parfums…. for sophistication, complexity and intricacy.

Yūgen: Debussy “La Cathédrale engloutie, “Danseuses de Delphes” and Ravel’s “Valse nobles et sentimentales”.

Geidō: With Ravel being described by Stravinsky as the “Swiss watchmaker” it is natural to include him in respect of tradition and craftsmanship, the “Sonatine” perfectly represents this quality.

Jo-ha-kyū: This aspect is less well represented, but if one takes the Ravel “Bolero” as beginning quietly, then being intensified and then “cut” it acts in several respects as a mirror to this quality.

Ensō: The universal may be represented by Debussy’s “La Mer”, but for me the final movement of  R. V. Williams “Sea Symphony” reflects this quality, particularly in the final bars as they approach eternal silence.

I am sure that others will come up with equally good ideas regarding this topic, perhaps better examples, and examples from different composers and periods. However one feels about these comparisons the process of making associations is useful in consolidating the characteristics of two different cultures. As we have seen in previous blogs on this topic Japanese influences on the French were particularly strong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so the connections are relevant to the art and furniture of the period. Little seems to be made of this in English writing on French music, perhaps those who read French articles might direct me to sources on this subject.