Pre-eminent Japanese musicians and performers come to the Clark Art Institute

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> In a long gallery with the reflections of water rippling on the ceiling, one National Living Treasure will join minds with another.

Takemoto Komanosuke, one of the first women to become a gidayu chanter, or storyteller, in Bunraku puppet theater, will perform in a place Tadao Ando designed.

She will come with acclaimed Japanese musicians and performers to the Clark Art Institute for an evening of music, dance, storytelling and puppetry at 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, following a free performance of music in the morning.

Yoko Shioya, artistic director of the Japan Society in New York City, has created this performance to honor the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument centuries old.

Since Ando's vision of the renovated Clark opened this summer, the museum hoped to have a performance in the newly designed buildings, she said. This traditional music needs no lighting and no set, just a quiet, beautiful space.

To bring this group of musicians together, she turned to Tanaka Yumiko, a performer of gidayu shamisen, music to accompany the puppet theater, and they talked together.

Shioya used to study shamisen, she said, and loves shamisen music. It is one of the most loved instruments in Japan today, and it finds its way into contemporary concert halls and theaters, rock festivals and clubs, pop music, improvisations and vaudeville.

The Clark performances will show the instrument in three traditional styles.

Jiuta, the oldest, dates back to the 17th century, when a group of blind traveling Buddhist monks improvised on lutes, composed and sang. The Shamisen evolved in 17th-century Japan, in the Edo period, and jiuta evolved with it. This folk music of the countryside grew into a style for salon concerts. In Western terms, Shioya said, it is chamber music. In jiuta, the performer sings along with the instrument.

Jiuta took hold in Kyoto, she said. It is less flamboyant and passionate than the shamisen music meant to respond to actors or dancers, and more subtle in its expression, range and nuance. Jiuta may play with and invoke natural sounds, like wind or cricket voices.

In the free morning performance, Fujii Hirokazu will perform jiuta music, and the evening performance will include a song, Zangestu, that goes back in records as far as 1792, and holds a key place in the long jiuta tradition. It was written for a Buddhist memorial for a gifted young student and holds that sense of loss. The musicians will sing in Japanese, Shioya said, and the audience will have translations of the verses.

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Gidayu, music with storytelling and puppetry, evolved in Osaka, she said. The music and the storytelling express and deepen the emotions the characters feel. The language, of gidayu, she added, comes from long ago, like a Shakespeare play.

Komanosuke, the storyteller, has learned her craft over many years.

"In the olden days, in order to produce a sound, it was said that one must ruin one's voice through excruciating practice," she said, through a translator, as she speaks only Japanese. "However, I came to realize that wasn't necessary, and that a sound would come naturally through practice. My teacher, Takemoto Koshijidayu IV, a great master recitator of bunraku puppet theater, always told me to produce the best sounding voice, and so,I learned to understand my weaknesses and have put forth my best effort.

"Reciting gidayu is challenging, it's not as liberating as singing a song. For each performance, I concentrate on the piece I am performing, give it my all and put my entire life into the moment."

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At the Clark, she will tell the story of a courtesan, Yaegri, searching for her husband.

The evening will move on to Nagauta, a livelier dance music that took root in Edo (Tokyo), accompanying kabuki theater and nihon buyo, traditional dance. It has a percussive sound, low and clear and quick, Shioya said. In this performance, in scenes from one of the most famous kabuki plays, the hero — a warrior monk — tries to help his noble master escape from a powerful older brother.

The shamsen player may pluck the strings with the left hand and strike them with the right hand with a plectrum — like a guitar pick, but larger.

A traditional shamisen has a body of rosewood, a neck of red sandalwood, ebony tuning pegs and strings made from silk and dyed with tumeric, according to the Japan Society. It may have overtones like an Indian sitar or a rhythmic sound like a banjo.

Komanosuke and some of her fellow musicians have won acclaim not only for their skill, but for their determination. Traditionally, for centuries, puppeteers, reciters and musicians were all men. Some of these art forms, like kabuki, began centuries ago with female performers, with courtesans, but then the government banned women from these artforms, and so they came to belong to men.

Now, women's history as performers in this music is relatively new, comparing it with men's history, Shioya said, especially in gidayu.

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A group of women now perform in gidayu, Shioya said, but they are new and singled out as women gidayu, as soccer means a man's sport in the U.S. separate from "woman's soccer."

In contemporary music, she said, both women and men perform, and the instrument and the music continues to evolve. It resonates with songs and stories, traditional and new — as the Clark, in its renovations, presents familiar and new work, and familiar and new places, unchanged hills and widened galleries around a sheet of water that may soon freeze into a skating pond.

What: Jiuta performance with Fujii Hirokazu

When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 22

Admission: Free

What: Shamisen performance

When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22

Admission: $15

Where: Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown

Information: clarkart.edu


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