Thursday, November 26, 2015

Kumiko and I before Soju Projekt's Noh lecture this summer at the Cerulean Tower Noh Theater in Tokyo. This year was our 25th anniversary!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Soju Projekt Gamelan at a Retirement Community

In November of 2015, Soju Projekt once again teamed up with Golden Heron Gamelan for an evening performance of music from Java, Indonesia. Our performance, at the Aljoya Thornton Place Retirement Community in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of North Seattle, provided the ambiance for a beautiful exhibition of textiles from around the world. It's always a joyful experience performing with Golden Heron Gamelan!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Noh Play 'Kiyotsune' in Parabola Magazine (Winter 2015-16 issue)

My retelling of the Noh play 'Kiyotsune' has recently been published in the winter 2015-16 issue of Parabola Magazine ( ), with sumi-paintings by Kumiko Lawrence.
Most of us have experienced death in some form, the loss of a friend or loved one. If you could have just one more hour with that person, what would you do? What would you say? In this play, the spirit of a samurai warrior, drawn by his widow’s intense suffering, returns to offer her solace. They talk of loss, of anger, of fate and free will and the importance of forgetting. 
A sleeping ocean bird sinks in tears of rain that fill the salty sea. A cloud floating. Water flowing, returning to its earthly home; the heart gropes blindly but in vain.
Her sight grows dim, her heart faint. Through the night she weeps, yearning only for his return, even in dreams. Then she hears his voice: “Dear one, I have come for you.” The ghost of her husband appears by her pillow. 
Only a dream, but still she is grateful...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sympathy for the Demon (slight return) Nue-鵺

" Sanemori" Art by Kumiko Lawrence

While doing research for my DigiLetter ( the Japanese epic Heike Monogatari ('Tales of the Heike' 「平家物語」) and the Noh plays it inspired, I've come across many samurai warriors I can relate to: Sanemori 実盛 and his concerns about ageism, Tadanori and his resentment for not receiving acknowledgement for his creative endeavors, the embittered old warrior Yorimasa 頼政 and his resentment of the opaque 'glass ceiling'... I don't think I'm unique in being able to relate to these characters. Their anger and disillusionment at the end of their lives transcends cultural and temporal differences. These are injustices that still occur today and are not uniquely Japanese.

I'm no longer surprised at being able to relate to characters from a very different culture, in a very different line of work, from plays written more than six hundred years ago. It still surprises me, however, when I feel sympathy for a strange and evil demon. This has happened repeatedly over the years. I am not particularly evil, and I don't think that I flatter myself too much when I state categorically that, while I'm not perfect, I am, in fact, less demonic than most. 

And yet I am moved by the texts of several Noh plays of the 'Demon' category. The Noh play 'Nue,' 鵺 for example, tells the story of how the samurai warrior Yorimasa, in his younger days, shot down the monster nue (literally 'nightbird,' a kind of Japanese chimera, mixing body parts of a tiger, monkey, raccoon dog and snake). The nue rose in a black cloud and descended upon the Emperor, terrorizing him until being felled by Yorimasa's amazing arrow shot. He was then killed, stuffed in a log and set adrift in a river. 

The story illustrates the heroic Yorimasa's amazing marksmanship. The Buddhist shadings of the Noh, however, tell of the sufferings of the nue, and of his shame. The play doesn't condone the nue's actions, but it conveys the monsters suffering sympathetically. It's cries for prayers to relieve its agitated soul's suffering are heart-wrenching.           

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Soju Projekt's Book of Noh Retellings 実盛 清経

Soju Projekt recently published a booklet, 'Samurai Spirits: Noh and the Tale of the Heile,' that features my retelling of two Noh plays and Kumiko's sumi paintings. Both plays are based on stories from the 'Heike Monogatari' (Tales of the Heike). In 'Sanemori,' the spirit of a samurai warrior killed in battle, drawn by the sound of chanting, seeks relief for the suffering of his soul. In 'Kiyotsune,' a samurai warrior who has taken his own life returns to offer solace to his suffering widow. These masterpieces are two of the most touching pieces in the Noh repertoire.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Soju Projekt at Senses of Japan 2015 (2)

Fran's Chocolate, Georgetown, Seattle

 Maki-e artist Shokan Matsuda decorating a stratocaster.

It was great to see Jay Rubin again. Jay recently published his first novel 'The Sun Gods.'

Presenting the art of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Soju Projekt at Senses of Japan 2015 (1)

Soju Projekt's Kenneth E. Lawrence and Kumiko Negishi-Lawrence took part in Five Senses Japan's event 'Senses of Japan' at Fran's Chocolates in Georgetown this weekend.   

Interpreting for master lacquerware artist Shokan Matsuda.

A pre-performance lecture by Kenneth before a biwa (plucked lute) performance by Kyokumi Tashiro.

Giving historical background on the art of maki-e (literally 'sprinkled art').

A lecture-demonstration on the history and techniques used to create maki-e masterpieces.

Reviving Japanese Tradition and The Stratocaster !!

Soju Projekt's Kenneth E. Lawrence and Kumiko Lawrence took part in 'Senses of Japan' event at Fran's Chocolates this weekend. The event was a display of exquisite Japanese craftsmanship, impressive not only for the traditional techniques of the craftsmen, but also for the innovative ways they have developed to keep their art alive.  

One example was the work of Shokan Matsuda (松田祥幹) A third-generation lacquer artist, Matsuda-sensei applied the centuries-old technique of makie (literally 'sprinkled art' 蒔絵) to decorate an unusual item, a stratocaster electric guitar

Interestingly, the man who commissioned Matsuda-sensei's work, an avid collector of guitars, expressed similar concern for a disappearing tradition, the stratocaster, once the guitar of choice for many great guitarists. This means a lot to Kumiko and I because even a partial list of stratocaster players - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Adrian Belew, The Edge, George Harrison, David Gilmore, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend - includes many of the guitar greats who we listened to and saw in concert 'back in the day.' The stratocaster is now in danger of fading away.    

Matsuda-sensei used immaculate technique to hand-paint the lacquer, then sprinkle the gold, silver copper and brass powders. The selected design was of a demon mask and costume used in traditional Japanese theater. 

It was an excellent display of traditional craftsmanship, amazing to watch. It was also wonderful to see tradition and innovation in action.

Mr. Matsuda Shokan's website

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bonobo...Gamelan sound? - Decibel Festival 2015

Kumiko and I attended a performance by Bonobo last night at the Showbox Theater, part of Seattle's Decibel Festival of electronic music. 

I was initially drawn to Bonobo's music by his occasional use of tuned percussion, as in the track 'Cirrus' and other Bonobo pieces. 

I have long been drawn to 'gamelan-like' sounds and music. I'm not sure when it started, exactly, but for as long as I can remember, my music collection has included music for struck percussion. This has led me to discover many different styles of great music, including unaccompanied marimba pieces by contemporary Japanese composers, Afro-pop, the acoustic jazz of Rez Abbasi and, most recently, electronic music.

My first exposure to electronic music probably came through two CDs. I had (thanks to my love of marimbas) long been a fan of minimalist composer Steve Reich. The release of the two 'Reich Remixed' CDs showed clearly how Reich had influenced a generation or more of electronic musicians. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

What Makes ‘Adachigahara’ a Masterpiece?

The Noh play ‘Adachigahara’ is a masterpiece of the genre. It manages to be simultaneously scary, frightening and haunting. What do I mean by that?

At a first read, ‘Adachigahara’ is merely scary. Three men on a journey find themselves isolated and alone at night in the bleak moors of Adachi. They ask an old woman for lodgings, only to find she is in fact a demon. In the resulting supernatural battle, good triumphs over evil. It is the stuff of any late night horror flick. “Whatever you do, don’t look behind that door!”

But the Noh play ‘Adachigahara’ is more than just scary, it is also frightening. One reason is the nohkan, the flute used in all Noh performances. The nohkan is specially constructed to distort when overblown, giving it an eerie quality unique to Noh. The otherworldly kakegoe, the cries of the drummers, in addition to their important role as markers for the dancers, musicians and chorus members, are an essential part of the Noh esthetic. The masks too, with their bulging eyes and liminal expressions, are truly frightening, emphasized by the strong, sudden cutting movements of the actor. 
But what makes ‘Adachigahara’ a masterpiece is that, in addition to being scary, even frightening, it is a tragic, haunting play. Due in large part to the influence of Noh, there are moments of sympathy both for and by the demon, giving the play a pathos that can at times be wrenching.

The play begins, as most Noh plays do, with a journey......

(see my compleate story at  Soju Projekt Website:  Articles)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Adachigahara (Retelling story by Kenetth.E.Lawrence)


Three men come, a priest, his attendant and their servant. Beneath the sycamores, they don their traveling robes. Their linen stoles brush the undergrowth, their sleeves droop, heavy with dew. Senior priest Yukei is on pilgrimage through the province, part of the ascetic training of the yamabushi define.

They leave behind their sacred mountain, setting off over mountains and down the coast. Soaked with salt they weave their way along the shore, a long string of days, reaching at last the bleak moors of Adachi.
But it’s grown dark, and there is no hamlet in the area, only the light of a distant fire. They approach the small hut and ask the old woman there for lodging for the night.

“No,” she says. “Here, across this field so far from any village, the wind blows violently through the pines. The moonlight comes leaking through into my chamber. How can I let you pass the night?”
The priest smiles. “We are travelers accustomed to sleeping with only grass for a pillow,” he says.

The old woman’s heart opens to sympathy. “Yes,” she says. “If that is your wish, please pass the night.”
But inside the hut they see something unfamiliar. What is it?
“It’s a spinning wheel,” she says. A never-ending, lowly task. Let me spin pure linen thread, turning it round and round. How I long to spin the past into the present!” She twines even at night, a life of such misery.
Save yourself aspire to Buddhahood. We are but earth and water, fire and wind, nothing more. We assemble together very briefly, going ‘round the cycle of Birth and Death, forever revolving through Five Realms Six Realms of existence, and all this is but the doing of the illusory mind. Our life is a fast-vanishing dream, now here, now gone. Face your old age. Nobody can regain their lost youth.

The old woman sings and she weaves. She sings of a nobleman, his hat hung with blue and white string, and of festival coaches covered with colored strings. She sings too of the pampas grass of autumn, waving at the moon with tufts as long as thread. Life, too, is long, so cruelly long.
“Tonight is so very cold,” the old woman says. “I will climb the mountain, cut some wood for a fire to warm you.” She hesitates. “While I’m gone,” she says. “Do not look into that chamber.” The priest agrees, giving his word. Once she’s gone, however, the servant makes a confession: ever since he was young, he has had an overwhelming desire to not do whatever he’s told. The priest had given his word, but he, the servant, had not.
Soon the priest and his attendant are asleep, but the servant, restless and curious, sneaks a peak into the chamber, then falls over backward in shocked surprise. Dead bodies, bones and decaying flesh, piled up to the rafters. A mess of arms and legs, all shining with an unnatural light. Pus and blood flow in streams, bodies bloated with stinking filth, flesh and fat all inflamed and rotting. Human corpses in countless number are piled up as high as the rafters.

There is a poem: In the Black Mound upon Adachi Moor, a demon lives in hiding. 

The sound of approaching footsteps. An iron wand raised high to strike with mighty force. A fierce wind sweeps down the mountain and across the field as thunder and lightning fill heaven and earth. Priest and attendant chant mystic mantric prayers, rasping together their rosaries, invoking the five deities, powerful protectors of Buddhist Law. From east, south, west and north they come, in their center Fudo, their leader, a sword in his right hand, a rope in his left. The fiendish ogress drops her wand. Faltering, eyes dazed, she cowers. Then, her secret hiding place exposed, she staggers out onto Adachi Moor, and her fiendish shouts mingle with the sound of the stormy night as her form fades from sight.   

Sunday, September 20, 2015

ADACHIGAHARA: Sympathy for the Demon

On September 11 at Shibuya’s Cerulean Tower Noh Theater in Tokyo, Soju Project presented an English-language introduction to Noh, followed by a special full performance by the Takeda Noh Troupe of the demon-Noh play 'Adachigahara.'

At a first read, ‘Adachigahara’ is merely scary. Three men on a journey find themselves isolated and alone at night in the bleak moors of Adachi. They ask an old woman for lodgings, only to find she is in fact a demon. In the resulting supernatural battle, good triumphs over evil. It is the stuff of any late night horror flick. “Whatever you do, don’t look behind that door!”
For many in the audience, this was a line reminiscent of the Hollywood horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!”).

But the Noh play ‘Adachigahara’ is more than just scary, it is also a tragic, haunting play. Due in large part to the influence of Noh, there are moments of sympathy both for and by the demon, giving the play a pathos that can at times be wrenching.
The memory of Yoshiteru Takeda’s performance haunts me still.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

How did you get involved with Noh(能)?

A common question: How did you get involved with Noh(能)? Well, it was thanks to my potential mother- and father-in-law. I married into a family of professional Noh performers(観世流能楽師). I have to admit, at first I immersed myself completely in Noh in an effort to convince them to let me marry their daughter. It worked. Now I'm completely addicted to Noh. Sumi-painter,Kumiko Lawrence, my wife of twenty-five years, works with me on my writings and presentations. Below are photos of the Noh stage my father-in-law had built in his home, the stage where our son Edward studies and practices Noh.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Beauties of the Noh Stage - Cerulean Tower Noh Theater

On September 11, 2015, at Shibuya’s Cerulean Tower Noh Theater in Tokyo, Soju Project led a pre-performance tour of the Noh stage at Cerulean Towers in Shibuya, Tokyo, followed by a special full performance of a full evening of Noh by the Takeda Noh Troupe. The traditional Noh stage, in addition to being beautiful, is fascinating in its construction as well as its symbolism. Many of the people who attended the tour had never been inside a Noh theatre before.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

'Throne of Blood' (Kumonosu-jō) By Kurosawa Akira

A photo from 'Throne of Blood' (Kumonosu-jō), Kurosawa Akira's samurai version of Shakespeare's 'MacBeth.' Kurosawa's version of the Weird Sisters, pictured here, was inspired by the mountain hag/demon in the Noh play 'Adachigahara.' 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Noh Workshop “Tsuchigumo” (at Waterasu in Tokyo)

On , Soju Projekt took part in a Noh workshop by Noh performer Yoshiteru Takeda. The workshop, at Waterasu in Ochanomizu, focused on the demon-Noh play ‘Tsuchigumo’ (‘The Earth Spider’).
‘Tsuchigumo’ is often performed for audiences new to Noh because of its easy-to-understand story and its dynamic nature. The basic premise of samurai warrior versus spider-monster has dramatic appeal, and its overall feel –an eerie first half, a spectacular second half – is entertaining. Because of its special effects – spider webbing cast a la Spiderman from the hands of the monster – the play resembles Kabuki as much as Noh.
It was easy to get caught up in the excitement. The audience was clearly relieved when the loathsome thing was destroyed.
A highlight of the workshop was, not surprisingly, learning the secret behind the webbing, including how it’s made and the proper way to fling it. There is a trick to it, but it also takes a lot of practice. Every participant was given several chances to fling their webbing. The technique is not easy to master, though, and some of us showed more spider-demon potential than others.   

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Gamelan- Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and Bonobo?

Lou Harrison did a lot to help spread gamelan in the U.S., but I think it must have been Peter Garbriel who turned a generation on to its music. Members of King Crimson have also sited it as an influence. I have been listening a lot lately to Bonobo, an electronica artist who uses a lot of gamelan instruments in his music. I wonder where he first heard gamelan.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Out-of-tuneness (Himalayan healing bowl, Noh flute etc.)

There is something about the out-of-tuneness of it all. Some of the most stunning moments of musical experience for me have been when I was playing or listening to an instrument or instruments that were ‘out of tune’. Playing the eerie, distorted Noh flute, or surrounded by a pulsating gamelan orchestra, feeling the shimmer of a Himalayan healing bowl, these were wondrous moments for me. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ken's reweaving of Italian epic 'Orlando Furioso',on Parabola Magazine

The Summer 2005 of Parabola Magazine featured 'An Intersession of Angels,' my retelling of a section from Ariosto's renaissance Italian epic 'Orlando Furioso' as part of their Epicycle series. Sumi paintings by Kumiko Lawrence of Archangel Michael were also featured. 

The theme of the issue was 'Angels and Demons.' The search for an interesting story to retell was, if anything, too easy. The Bible, of course, has many interesting stories about angels, and I contemplated  for a time trying my hand at translating a section from Dante's 'Inferno.'  I tend, however, to prefer stories from traditions that readers are less likely to be familiar with. 

I went almost immediately to Ferdowsi's 'Shahnameh,' the epic poem of Persia. There are many fascinating tales involving demons in the Shahnameh: Kay Kavus's war attack on Mazandaran, land of the demons; the demon Ahriman's attack on Gayumart, first king of the world; the combat between the demon Akvan Div and the mighty warrior Rustam, all great stories.

As usual, however, I longed for the unexpected, a story with a twist. Our basic assumption, of course, is that angels are inherently good and their counterparts, demons, are bad. But a lot of great literature (and some not-necessarily-great-but-interesting literature) has been written using the same technique, taking a masterpiece or well-known story and telling the tale from the point of view of the 'bad guy' (Richard III, Cao Cao, Judas, the Wicked Witch of the West and Loki, just to name a few). Milton's 'Paradise Lost' is a classic example, a retelling of the War in Heaven from the point of view of the losing side. But retelling the story of Milton's great epic poem would clearly be an arrogant and futile undertaking.

I finally selected a section from 'Orlando Furioso.' Ariosto's epic poem is nothing if not odd, a manic, over-the-top ride, an example of channel surfing created several centuries before the invention of the television. The episode I selected is particularly odd and stuck with me long after I read it. In it, God sends his right-hand man, the Archangel Michael, to recruit several demons to assist Charlemagne in his 'good' war against his non-Christian enemies. This initially sounds like a good plan. Angels and demons make for strange bedfellows, but the demon Discord does what Discord does best, not allowing peace between the two sides. The resulting carnage and suffering of the battle eventually reaches the ears of Michael, who surely realizes that the plan was flawed.

This image of angels and demons working side by side, and of angels as fallible supervisors and bureaucrats, is typical of Ariosto's strange vision.   

Friday, May 22, 2015

“Underground “ by Haruki Murakami

The Murakami book I’m reading now, “Underground “is non-fiction, but it’s still brilliant. It brings back memories of one of the creepiest days of my life.
I was on the train the day an apocalyptic cult released lethal nerve gas on Tokyo trains. I wasn’t on a train that was attacked, but on one of the same train lines, on my way to one of the same train stations, an hour or so later.
I had no clue what was going on. The train stopped for a long time, and somebody said something about a gas leak. I worked at the National Noh Theatre then, and had to walk to work. I arrived about ninety minutes late. I was stunned when my coworkers told me they were ‘very relieved’ to see me, and told me I should call my wife immediately to tell her I was safe. The entire country was in shock.
Strange times. Bad nostalgia.
( Ken Lawrence)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Haruki Murakami

Lately I’ve been rediscovering Murakami Haruki. My wife turned me on to him back in the day, when I first moved to Japan, long before anyone outside Japan had heard of him. I’m rereading everything, most recently ‘Kafka on the Shore.’ I keep spotting noh plays – or at least ‘noh essence’ – in his work. Or is it just my imagination?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Asian flutes ( Saluang, Shakuhachi and Nohkan)

Circular breathing alters the brain, I’m sure of it. I play the saluang, a bamboo flute of the Minang people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, which requires circular breathing, breathing in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the mouth. The effect of playing a single, uninterrupted note for thirty, forty, fifty minutes is amazing, and can’t be explained away as hyperventilation. Much more is happening.
My research recently has led me to rediscover an old friend, the shakuhachi. The shakuhachi, a bamboo flute of Japan, is the most responsive instrument I’ve ever come across. It is one with the breath, the mouth shape, head position and posture of the player. A change of breath, a small head shake, even a slight pursing of the lips will change the sound. A disciplined player, with perfect control, can bring the sound from an extreme distance to a close up presence and back again, or gather white noise from nothing, focusing it into a pure tone before allowing it to blur into white. As a listener, the experience can be calming yet astounding. I wonder how the sound effects the brain of the player, or the brain of the listener.
Lately I’ve been looking into the nohkan, the bamboo flute that accompanies noh, the masked dance drama of the samurai. It’s construction is unique, assuring that blowing won’t give you the same note an octave higher (as on a western flute). During lessons in Tokyo, when my teacher and I played at the same time, the slightly different tuning caused distortions that I hadn’t heard since attending a Stevie Ray Vaughn concert, and I was surprised that such a sound could penetrate my brain without overwhelming my ears with sheer volume. This was a unique and exhilarating experience. I am curious to find out what effect this has on the human brain.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

(Kumiko's post) Archangel Michael-Sumi is on Parabola magazine!!

One of my Sumi paintings is being used on Parabola magazine's web site cover slide show ( . This painting of Archangel Michael will be featured in their Summer issue with the Italian epic "Orlando Furioso". Thank you angels and everybody for supporting my art!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cutting Edge and Tradition - Anime reaches Samurai @ Sakuracon2015

In 2015, Soju Projekt once again took part in Sakuracon. Because of the enthusiasm of the audience at our 2014 lecture-demonstrating 'What is Noh?' we chose to present a more specific lecture focusing on the theme 'Traditional Asian Music and Theater in Anime' using specific examples, followed by a live performance of a newly composed piece that illustrates many of the topics discussed in the lecture. The Noh-inspired performance featured gamelan music from Indonesia, music from Japan and the Himalayas, and interactive computer projections of neo-traditional sumi-paintings. 

It's always a thrill to present at Sakuracon. It is truly odd to lecture to and perform for an audience of steampunk robots, dwarves and Sailor Moons, but they are always attentive, and their questions well-thought out. I am always pleased by their sincere interest in the traditional arts of Asia. 

The popular samurai anime "Samurai Champloo" defied convention by effectively using the hip-hop music of Nujabes, Tsutchie, Fat Jon and Force of Nature to enhance the anachronistic feel of its alternative Edo setting.

But examples of traditional music in anime are not difficult to find. The shakuhachi and Noh flute often enhance the eeriness of a scene, and one of the  'villains' in 'Blade of the Immortal' even performs Noh chant before each duel. More surprising is the increasing presence in anime of theme songs and background music performed on or inspired by gamelan, the traditional knobbed-gong ensembles of Java and Bali.    

Interestingly, anime may have had a lot to do with the spread of gamelan not just in Japan but in the United States as well. Gamelan inspired composers such as Impressionist Claude Debussy and American Lou Harrison, but its popularization was more likely due to popular performers such as the influential rock performer Peter Gabriel. Progressive rock mainstays King Crimson have also sited gamelan as an influence for their rhythmically complex, interlocking pieces. Still, the gamelan-influenced theme song of the anime classic 'Akira' by Shoji Yamashiro may have been the first exposure of many in Japan and the United States to the music of gamelan. 

More recently, composer Kiyoshi Yoshida composed the theme song for the disturbing anime 'Shigurui' scored for the unusual combination of gamelan, Japanese taiko, didgeridoo and strings. 

The influence of gamelan is also clear  in the theme from 'Ghost in the Shell: Arise,' composed by Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada).

In addition to inspiring the music for anime theme songs and background music, the influences of traditional Japanese theater can be seen in its esthetics. The well-known liminal expressions on traditional Japanese Noh masks are often used to great effect during fight scenes. See, for example, the emotionless expressions of the little girl automaton dolls during their assassination attempts and mass suicide attacks in 'Ghost in the Shell: Arise.' 

Other Noh esthetics in play in many anime include the concept of 'mu' or nothingness. Silence is used to great effect in many anime, including 'Mushishi,' 'Ergo Proxy' and Makoto Shinkai's beautiful "Five Centimeters per Second."

There is in the Noh repertoire a type of Noh called 'Mugen Noh' or Dream Noh. In Noh of this type, there is a blurring of time, of space and of identity. The distant becomes close; dream and reality, past and present become indistinguishable; who someone is, who they say they are and who we think they are becomes unclear. The underlying dreamlike esthetic of Mugen Noh, whether invoked consciously or unconsciously, is apparent in several of the anime already mentioned, including 'Mushishi,' 'Five Centimeters per Second,' 'Ergo Proxy,' 'Ghost in the Shell, and 'Shigurui.'

The traditional esthetics mentioned in Kenneth E. Lawrence's lecture on traditional Asian theater in anime were illustrated in the performance that followed the lecture, Sakura Projekt's performance of the piece 'Mist.' While the form of the piece were inspired by Noh theatre, the libretto, written by Kenneth E. Lawrence, was inspired in equal parts by two geniuses, Zeami Motokiyo and American author Gene Wolfe. 'Mist' is the story of a samurai warrior who, due to a brain injury, is unable to recall his past and must piece together his life from what he sees around him. The piece was a collaboration with Golden Heron Gamelan director Jeff Milano, sumi painter Kumiko Lawrence, visual cretor Kaz, taiko drummer Stan Shikuma and electronic musician Kaley Eaton.

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Mist" - Performance at Sakuracon 2015.

Projekt’s multimedia piece “Mist” was presented at Sakuracon 2015.

n 2015 Soju Projekt once again took part in Sakuracon. In 2014 I lectured on Noh, and I’m always pleased at the interest in traditional Asian theatre, the well thought-out questions and the enthusiasm shown for our performances. We presented at SakuraCon 2015 on the theme ‘Traditional Asian Music and Theatre in Anime.’ The performance, entitled ‘Mist,’ featured a live performance of gamelan music from Indonesia, music from Japan and the Himalayas, projections of the neo-traditional sumi paintings of Kumiko Lawrence, masks, costumes and video clips. 
Sakuracon is always such an odd experience. There’s just something about lecturing to and performing for an audience of robots, dwarves and Sailor Moon. But this year again they were attentive and asked excellent questions. I particularly enjoyed composing ‘Mist’ for a mixed ensemble of gamelan, taiko drum, electronics and narration. Kumiko’s sumi-paintings were a nice addition, and Kaz’s interactive computer projections were amazing!
Kenneth E. Lawrence’s libretto was inspired by noh theatre and the works of author Gene Wolfe. “Mist” was a collaboration with Golden Heron Gamelan, sumi painter Kumiko Lawrence, visual creator Kaz, taiko drummer Stan Shikuma and electronic musician Kaley Eaton.

Looking forward to 2016!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Noh - Hawai’i Public Radio Interview : Kenneth E Lawrence


While on Maui, Soju Projekt's Kenneth E. Lawrence was a featured guest on Hawai'i Public Radio's 'The Conversation.' The ten minute interview was a preview of our presentation that evening at the Maui Culture Center.

After asking about my background and how i originally got involved in Noh theater, we discussed the tradition of Noh, its history and keeping the tradition alive. We also discussed 'Kiyotsune,' the featured play of the evening, and its author, Zeami Motokiyo, the genius of Noh. Then we talked about Soju Projekt's work in the schools, and about our visiting Noh performers, Munenori and Fumiyuki Takeda, how pleased they were to see the interest and excitement the kids expressed about Noh theater. Many other topics were discussed, including Noh's influence, modernization, and the costumes, stories, masks and techniques used in Noh. 

I was impressed by host Chris Vandercook's interviewing style. He is very disarming, and his questions are very well thought out. I am grateful to him and to HPR for their kind assistance in helping us share traditional Japanese performing arts in Hawai'i.
Link to the show:  Hawai’i Public Radio Interview : Kenneth E Lawrence

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Noh at the University of Hawai'i: Mementos and the Solace of Forgetting

In February, Soju Projekt presented at the University of Hawai'i's Orvis Auditorium with two Noh performers, Munenori and Fumiyuki Takeda. It is always heartening to see a sellout crowd for Noh events, good to know that people share our interest in and enthusiasm about traditional Japanese performing arts. It was also good to look into the crowd and see immediately faces of friends I hadn't seen for many years. It was an incredibly warm audience - so much aloha! - and a very attentive and responsive one. People came ready to laugh, and when the subject became serious, they listened with undivided attention.

The focus of the the lecture-performance was the Noh play 'Kiyotsune.' This is one of my favorite plays to discuss because, among other things, though it was written approximately 600 years ago for a very different audience, it is very easy for us to relate to. 

‘Kiyotsune’ is unusual in many ways. Many of the Heike Monogatari-based plays, including ‘Yorimasa’ and ‘Sanemori,’ take the form of dream plays or ‘mugen noh,’ but some, including ‘Kiyotsune,’ consist of just one act. It is one of only two shura-noh where the supporting character is not a Buddhist monk. And, unlike most shura noh, the action doesn’t take place on a battlefield but in a place dear to him, his home.  

The play also involves a ghost of very different character. In the Heike Monogatari, Kiyotsune, Shigemori’s third son, is a minor character. In him, however, Zeami found a sensitive, refined character, a talented player of the flute.

Most of us have experienced death in some form, the loss of a friend or loved one. If you could have just one more hour with that person, what would you do? What would you say? In the play ‘Kiyotsune,’ the spirit of a samurai warrior, drawn by his widow’s intense suffering, returns to offer her solace. In a shockingly human reaction, given the gift of one final moment together, the spirit and his wife argue.

But their argument is an interesting one. His wife argues that he chose not to return, but he says no, it was not his fate to return. Surrounded by enemy forces, Kiyotsune made offerings and prayers, only to be told by the God of War that his prayers were useless: there was no hope of him surviving the coming battle. Forsaken by fate, by gods and Buddhas alike, Kiyotsune returns to his ship and watches the moon sailing her course west. Then he asks the Hamlet question: Is life worth it? Is it worth it to continue the struggle if you know that in the end you will lose? For Kiyotsune, the answer is no. Drawing his flute from his waistband, he plays clear melodies to the crescent moon and, calling to Buddha, and throws himself into the sea.  

The play opens with Awazu no Saburo, retainer to Lord Kiyotsune, stealing back into the capital. It is autumn, mournful and winter-tinged. Rain soaks his traveling robe. In haste he has crossed the surging sea waves, an unexpected return with a tragic message. He stops at his lord’s home and announces his arrival.

Lord Kiyotsune’s wife comes, breathless. She had heard he came through the recent battles unscathed. Has he renounced this world and become a monk?

The retainer attempts to explain. “When Lord Kiyotsune’s retreat to the capital was cut off,” he says, “he refused to fall into the hands of common soldiers. Late one moonlit night, off the coast of Yanagi, he threw himself from his ship into the sea.”

She is stunned. Not taken by illness, not killed in battle, but into the sea? Suicide by samurai warriors was not unheard of, but her lord’s suicide was not an expression of sincerity or saving of face after a defeat. He had simply given up.  

The retainer offers a raven lock of her lord’s hair that he had left behind for her as a keepsake. “Pray find solace in it,” he says.
“No,” she says. “No, take it back. Take it to the temple.”

She cries herself to sleep. Her longing for Kiyotsune is so intense that his spirit responds to her summons, appearing by his wife’s pillow. Perhaps it is only a dream, but still she is grateful, grateful but bitter. By killing himself, he has betrayed all his vows to her. She accuses him of giving up hope too easily. In order to aid his wife's understanding of his dilemma, he tells his story.

In most Warrior Noh plays, the spirit of the warrior first appears in disguise – a fisherman or a grasscutter, for example- later revealing their true identity. The ghost of Kiyotsune, however, appears from the first as himself, undisguised. He also unique in that he appears not to a monk to ask for prayers to release him from the torments of warrior hell, but to his wife in order to bring her relief from her suffering.

The spirit of Kiyotsune appears by his wife’s pillow. “Dear one, I have come for you,” he says. Perhaps it is only a dream, but still she is grateful, grateful but bitter. By killing himself, he has betrayed all his vows to her. Kiyotsune, in his turn, chides his wife for rejecting the lock of his hair he left for her. “The memento I left for you,” he asks, “why did you reject it? Did you grow weary of its sight?”

She shakes her head. The memento helped her to remember, she tells him, but it wouldn’t allow her to forget, even for a moment. Her grief was overwhelming. Side by side they lie, close but distant. Tears fall, then rest jewel-like on their arms. She accuses him of giving up hope too easily. In order to aid his wife's understanding of his dilemma, he tells his story, offering her that rare thing, insight into an otherwise inexplicable death.

“Defeated, our clan left Kyoto, then Kyushu, sailing through the night to a place called Yanagi. An imperial visit was announced, a visit to the shrine of Hachiman, God of War. Silver and gold and seven steeds we offered as tribute, keeping vigil before the altar for days on end, uttering in awe strong vows and countless prayers to the oracle. But then a voice came, a voice divine, telling us our prayers were in vain. We again took to our ships, hearts heavy, destination unknown.”

Forsaken by fate, by gods and Buddhas alike, Kiyotsune watches wild geese in the night sky and the moon sailing her course west. Then he asks the Hamlet question: Is life worth it? Is it worth it to continue the struggle? For Kiyotsune, the answer is no. He resolves to follow in the moon's path and sink to the bottom of the sea.

In the final lines of the play it is clear that Kiyotsune, in his final moments, had been saved from the tortures of warrior hell by offering the Ten Prayers and invoking Buddha’s name.

Many noh plays feature the spirits of dead samurai who seek release from earthly attachments. In the play 'Kiyotsune,' the dead samurai's spirit is already at rest and returns to his wife to offer her solace. In their final evening together, however, they argue. Kiyotsune had been told by the War God that there was no hope of him surviving the coming battle. His wife argues that he had a choice, but he says no, it was not his fate to return. It's a beautiful piece about the costs of war that, unfortunately, are still very relevant today, some six hundred years later.