17 Basho poems on music and song reveal a consciousness of profound effects on the brain. Let the music in his verses take you to another place. Daniel Levitin in This is your Brain on Music notes that his tears at weddings come not from the “sight of the hope and love of the bride and groom” but rather from the music. Basho would have dug Levitin’s insight.
His boat has left harbour. She tries to reach the boat with pebbles – i.e. her love -- but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far.
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement played only by women. If the mother owns a koto, she must have been well-off in the past, but fallen on hard times. Notice the link between the form of needlework and the strings and frets on the harp. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of the female, the action of her hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty.
The daughter plays her mother’s koto here and now -- and also plays it through the months, years, decades of practice required to master the instrument. Basho praises the young girl in the early stages of her discipline. Cultures worldwide consider age seven the beginning or wisdom and moral understanding. We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her harp.
“Music washes away the dust of everyday life”
As we view the moon which has watched every country rise, continue, and fall, can we can “see” the history it has seen? Likewise, in a mirror which watched me in youth, then middle and old age, can I see the past as well as the present of my face? The rear-view mirror in my car enables me to see what is going on behind me while I drive forward.
Music is one more way to turn vision back and connect with the past. Modern composers try to make music new and different, but traditional music, as for the koto, continuously evokes the past. Every composition contains reflections from older compositions, recalling the years that have passed since then.
The nature shared by moon, memory, mirror, and music makes each one of these fascinating.
Because she plays the koto we imagine her character: delicate, precise, methodical yet etereal. Both her beauty and her suffering go into the notes she plays on the harp, and both go into the letter she writes. From that blend of music and feeling, Basho further probes the human heart. Each year in cherry blossom season, she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
Consider the following haiku a riddle:
Can you see the point? A proverb says “beautiful music can move dust.” Basho says that the tones from the koto rise to the roof and startles a bird sitting on the exposed beams, so the bird dislodges some dust which falls—like cherry petals fluttering down – onto the harp and the woman playing it. Although never mentioned, she is central to the verse: she makes the music and she notices the dust.
In the Tale of Genji, the Shining Prince tells of Young Murasaki, the 9 year old girl he has kidnapped and is raising in seclusion to make the great love of his life when she matures.
A unique moment in world literature, this praise for the sensory-motor intelligence of a young girl not even ten: she plays with dolls but also can listen to a difficult melody one time on one musical instrument and reproduce it on a completely different instrument. Little Miss Mozart. The following stanza-pair focuses on her, or another girl like her.
The girl lavishes her affection on dolls – developing her skills and self-confidence for taking care of babies. This is not the large koto but a smaller harp such as a zither. She hugs it on her lap as she would a doll, as she would a doll or a baby – and so we return to the second stanza. From Sukan’s ideal of loveliness, Basho jumps into body sensation; the words he uses – omotaki, heavy in weight; kakaeru, “holds”; hiza, “lap” – all so physical and intimate -- resembling Young Murasaki “leaning forward to press a string with her left hand.”
The next poet took Basho’s stanza about a child who “holds” a harp, and changed to an old woman who “held” the koto when she was a court lady decades ago.
She drifts away in a snooze, yet her dreams contain no memories of what she did or said or knew during her years of service to the Empress – all that remains in her addled mind is the body-memory of the harp resting on her lap as she sat on her heels. So the poets play with and transform time.
Among the most memorable musical experiences in Japan is the song Sakura, a standard on the koto commonly heard from loud speakers at famous sites for blossom viewing.
Traditional Folk Song
In spite of the happy child-like words, the song in a minor key sounds melancholy. At the top of the score, the instructions to the musician are “solemn, stately.” Almost every note in the score is a straight quarter note with just a few half-notes and paired eighth-notes. There are no complicated notes at all. Since the meter is 4/4, the four quarter notes in each measure roll out with complete regularity. With such extreme structural simplicity, Sakura is the first piece a student is given to practice on the koto.
About half of the total notes have a distinct rhythm: two quarter notes on the same pitch followed by a half note one step higher
With this distinct pattern of notes, the song makes us remember it, and thereby makes us remember the years of our lives in which we heard and sung the folk song, and furthermore the centuries before we were born in which people heard and sung this song.
The juvenile cicada sheds its skin – or “exoskelton” or “shell” -- to emerge as an adult; the utsusemi, or abandoned skin, remains, on the bark of the tree. Utsusemi, in the Tale of Genji, is a woman who resisted Genji’s romantic advances; one night he tried to force himself on her, but she escaped, leaving her outer robe behind in his grasp and giving her the name she is known by.
The Yoshino Mountains are far enough from Kyoto that she can play her koto in peace without Genji bothering her. The mountain trees are full of countless adult male cicadas making their “cries” by rapidly vibrating abdominal membranes; the sound goes on and on all day long in the heat of summer, driving some people crazy, while some, such as Basho, compare the notes of a koto. Shinsho maintains the theme of music as an expression of nature sounds, shifting from cicadas in the trees sounding like a koto to a bamboo flute sounding like the wind blows through the trees. Basho then gives this flutist a hermitage among the trees where he can master his instrument by playing along with that wind – still with access to the City.
Tomorrow is the great battle and we are outnumbered: our heads will be wrapped in cloth and sent to them Kosanda is my retainer;; in gratitude for the years he has served, in recognition of our vow to face death together, I hand him my cup to hold while I sing one song, which will be my final song in this life.
Taira Atsumori, recognized from youth for his talent on the flute, was given a family heirloom, his grandfather’s bamboo flute “Green Leaves.” The night before they were destroyed by their enemy, they had a party to enjoy themselves while they could. 18 year old Atsumori played his flute, touching the hearts of all who heard. In the morning the attackers overwhelmed them. The Taira fled to cabin boats they had waiting on the beach. In the chaos and confusion, teenage Atsumori forgot his flute. He went back to get it and returned to the shore where he was cut down by an enemy warrior. Basho 500 years later, is at Suma Temple near where the battle occurred, where the actual flute of Atsumori is kept.
In summer the multitude of green leaves blocks out the sunlight, so there is a shade, a sort of darkness, under the trees – and also ‘shade’ suggests the presence of a ghost. In this place where Atsumori played his flute five centuries ago, Basho feels the vibrations (the ghost) from that performance still lingering in the earth and stones, remaining in “traces.”
A boy has practiced the bamboo flute hour by hour, embedding the finger patterns into his brain circuitry, but signals sometimes get mixed. When he awakens in the night, still half-asleep, his fingers move spontaneously, as if on the holes of his flute. From the disassociation of the boy alone in the night playing an non-existent flute, one might expect Basho to follow with more loneliness and disassociation – but that is NOT what he does. He expands the flute theme to two brothers, one older and one younger, who have practiced together for years, sitting in seiza, proper sitting position, beside each other, so their knees line up. The harmony between two flutes played by boys sharing the same genes, same home, same upbringing, comes from the same deep mind as the unconscious finger movements. Instead of dwelling on the existential loneliness, Basho affirms the solidarity of brotherhood, the succession of skill and knowledge from older to younger; he does this in a completely physical way, through the interweaving tones of two bamboo flutes and the two pair of knees lined up in formal position.
Basho said poetry is a musical composition.
While the young women of the village transplanted rice-seedlings to the paddy mud, they sang songs to the kamisama with ancient melodies
. In these songs Basho hears the origins of “refinement” -- which means “poetry” as well as all of culture that refines us to a higher state. Here is a rice planting song from Iwate-ken in the Deep North.
Rice produces more harvest per seed than other grains: The rice tax was rent paid to the daimyo owner of this province, 40 - 60% of the rice taken each year right after harvest. During harvest, the “Master” skims off some wealth to use for his private pleasure. The woman works hour after hour in the hot, bug-infested fields so the man can enjoy being with a woman who never works in the hot, bug-infested fields.
Before rice entered the country, taro was a stable food of peasants in Japan (as well as throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands; in Hawaiin, the tuber kalo, the ingredient for poi). The song, “Washing Taro,” found in a 1578 songbook, is far older than Basho.
Women washing taro in the river begin with a simple counting rhythm, similar to “one-potato, two-potato…” but also meaning “Does he have a mistress in the Capital and which one of us wll he prefer?” Taro are traditionally harvested on the day of the harvest moon, the 15th of the 8th Moon. ‘Round’ refers to the shape of taro, of the full moon, and of certain parts of a woman’s body: “Tiny taro are preferred.”
Either the women sing the song “Washing Taro” to the famous 12th century poet Saigyo, or he sings to them, of the reality of marriage in Japan: she works hard every day in the four seasons, struggling to feed herself and the children on staple foods like taro (or potatoes) while he goes wherever husbands go, eating fancy foods in restaurants and enjoying pleasures he cannot find at home. The haiku – with the plural “women,” onna domo, suggesting the lyrics of the song -- affirms the solidarity of women replacing the loneliness of the wife while her husband goes where he pleases, doing his own thing.
Kyorai’s little sister Chine on a journey wrote a haiku about the work songs of women:
On her first journey, Chine learns of human diversity— that people only one day apart do the same work, to different songs. Her verse is anthropology in its purest form. A standard anthropologist would record each place and the song there, but Chine sums up the custom with one clear conclusion.
With so few words, the three poets create a world, complete with mother, father, and baby; breastfeeding and speaking to baby; the love between the couple; the sadness of him being transferred to a distant place; the melancholy notes of the lute together with her distraught sobbing, from evening through night into day.
He abandoned his family long ago to join the fun and games in the pleasure-quarters; he no longer goes there, but rather than return tohis wife and kids, he stays in seclusion, with no responsibility for anyone but himself. Sometimes he peaks in on them and wonders what would of happened if . . . then he returns to his seclusion. Sometimes in his auditory brain he recalls a particular merrymaking song along with memories of the brothels where he heard and sung that song.
Here, from a letter to Kyorai in 1692, Basho describes a new follower who showed up at his hut in Edo.
The “Tune for Throwing Things” was first sung in the late 1650s in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto; by the 1680s it was popular throughout the pleasure quarters of Japan. Though Shiko’s friendship with Basho had a poor start, it became close in Basho's final yearof life, and Shiko accompanied Basho in his final months and recorded his final spoken words.
Takigi O-Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama illuminated by a bonfire, originally performed in March at Kofukuji Temple in Nara; it is still held on the third Friday and Saturday of May, and also at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto in June, and at Osaka Castle in September.
Noh theater is characterized by mystical beauty – beauty which is felt rather than seen, the profound beauty of the transcendental world, and the mournful beauty of sadness and loss. The music played by drums and flute is harsh and monotonous, like all traditional Japanese music, devoid of chords and lacking the chord progressions which make music “interesting.” The singing is within a limited tonal range, with lengthy repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Noh has none of the light, happy melodies that make Disney movies popular with children.
Ordinarily Noh is not the sort of performance that would interest children – but Noh illuminated by a bonfire is such a trip that in the days after the performance, the local children enthusiastically imitate the actors and their monotonic singing. The bonfire gives interest to Noh. Again we see Basho’s unique attention to the activities and consciousness of children.
The next poet realizes that what these children are doing – imitation, postural and vocal control, emotional expression -- is more than merely an silly and immature form of an Noh performance; rather it is a demonstration of the miracles of human development preparing a child for adulthood.
In the Noh play The Feather Mantle a celestial maiden in praise for the beauty on a sunny day on Earth equal to that in Heaven, caresses the world in which the splendor never ceases. Seifu has her caress the rock spring that never stops flowing in the sunshine. Basho hears a female voice chant the Lotus Sutra which for many East Asians contains the ultimate and complete teachings of Buddha. The sutra declares that women need not reincarnate as men to reach Nirvana; rather they can do so while being women.
In both stanzas, the material and spiritual blend through the female. She chants not in the monotonic drone of priests, but rather elegantly, musically, as a celestial maiden caresses a spring of clear water. Her path to Enlightenment is not inside a temple, but rather beside the window watching the world in sunshine while she sings the words of Buddha.