NAMU 〈Timpani Solo    with Voice & Percussion 〉


Make a circle, brothers, dance and sing

Burn real fire to drive out the curse

Where rises Being 

That cries "Look! I am here!"

A fire of purification and rebirth

In 2011, Ms Umezu asked me to write a solo piece for marimba, as conceived by Chikuzan Takahashi, the outstanding and much loved Tsugaru-shamisen player. Also, an admirer of his playing, I thought the marimba, however, the wrong choice for the purpose. I suggested that instead I might be able to do something with timpani. After a six month struggle (January to June, 2012), I composed a suite that was, perhaps, very different from which Ms Umezu expected. I also felt that in course of our communication and discussion, I had arrived at an unexpected place. In reality, "solo pieces" constitute not only solo for timpani but also solos for many other particular or unusual instruments. In my mind’s eye, it is easier to imagine it as a part of bigger structure (big ensemble/long piece).


Ms Umezu pointed out that the Tsugaru-shamisen indeed expresses very percussive sounds similar to the flamenco guitar. This brings to mind the old Japanese word ‘hayashi’ (‘hayasu’ meaning to ‘inspire’). A singer is aroused with the spirit, as the giver and recipient of this mutual ‘in-spiriting’ comprise a harmonious, flowing and interchangeable whole. Now, if Chikuzan,  Paco de Lucia or other excellent accompanist attract attention merely with the expectation that they are supreme soloists they will leave us, surely, suspended in midair;  for who would receive such spirit? This is not to deny the veracity of  "solo" performance. Simply, that the precision of the Tsugaru-shamisen solo is already poised for transfer to another particular form, the timpani solo. I considered that these real-world percussion instruments, perhaps, in their core, were made to ‘in-spirit’ or ignite others and must more easily signal the sense of ‘hayashi.’ As the composition progressed, however, the piece became increasingly difficult to play and, contrarily, came to express the shamisen's non-percussive elements!


In order to solve this strangely twisted situation, I tried to walk back the way Chikuzan had walked, to know and to find the things that inspired him, the things surrounding him and what he desired to express. The whole process had gradually moved away from his shamisen but the center of the concentric circle had always been Chikuzan.


The construction of the suite comprises five sections: 1. Prelude 2. Hon-choshi 3. Ni-agari 4. San-sagari 5. The call.  As a traditional Japanese instrument, the manner of playing the shamisen is akin to ‘recitation.’ Thus, I hoped to preserve its characteristic intervals and grooves. However, regarding the first piece, the Prelude constitutes the process of building up, feeling the intervals in the body: put differently, ‘the first memories of sound’ involving a maximum dynamic range from ppp (an omen) to fff (a pole) and overtone singing.


Ms Umezu’s purpose was not merely to provide an hommage to Chikuzan. She was desirous also of  a  ‘chinkon,’ a calming of the spirit, a requiem, a prayer for the repose of the souls for her home region – in the northeastern region of Japan - which suffered from the Great East Japan Earthquake unleashed in 2011. 


Chikuzan found time to sit in the mountains listening to the whispering of the woods and the never-ending songs of birds and his mind would flit back to the painful memories when he was begging door to door, with his shamisen, throughout the seasons and the changing landscape of the north. If only he knew how his stark and beautiful mountains, the rivers and ocean had been polluted, radiated, in the ensuing nuclear power accident. How would he feel now?


It is a great consolation that old Chikuzan passed away before his heart burst with grief. What can be done in response to the travail of those who raised him, rebuked him, made him cry, the things that pleased him? Can we offer a prayer, a heartfelt mass for the repose of a soul?


"Chinkon" is not only for departed souls. It is also  urgent desire to enshrine the souls of the living, those who feel powerless, helpless in their bodies. Above all, surely now is the time to offer up prayers with heart, mind and strength for the repose of the soul of nature, its living greatness, which has embraced and nurtured all creatures.


‘NAMU’ is likewise conceived of as ‘seeking refuge’  or ‘the everlasting.’ For example, the Buddhist chant, ‘NAMU AMIDABUTSU’ means to be united with AMIDABUTSU (Amida Buddha) where AMIDABUTSU and the prayer disappear into ‘the one.’ A self beyond individuality must break through individual consciousnessness to cry ‘Here I am!’ This powerful exclamation is ‘spiritual intuition,’ the self-awakening of ‘NAMU AMIDABUTSU,’ as the Buddhist philosopher Daisetsu Suzuki taught us.


The thing that the Kung People of the Kalahari Desert refer to as ‘NUM’ is somewhat similar to ‘NAMU.’ Around a blazing fire, women sing and clap, men dance. The more they dance, the more their ‘NUM’ becomes activated. At its quivering zenith, the soul departs, consciousness is transformed, expanding beyond individuality. The dancer at this stage is, the Kung maintain, empowered with healing.


Let us now proclaim this, “Brothers, form a circle, organized only by this essential, life-giving power.” 

Keiko Fujiie (Translated by John C. Maher)