SHAMISEN: Tradition and transgression [2004-2013]

Tradition, play and experimentation in Japanese music. Dedicated to Arisawa Kiyosumi and Tanaka Yumiko.

NAGAUTA 2004 - 2007

From 2004 to 2007 I worked as an English teacher in the small onsen town of Unazuki in Toyama prefecture, located on the east coast of Japan. As soon as I arrived in the country I decided that I wanted to learn about the Japanese music tradition. A music teacher at the nearby Junior High School heard about my interest and introduced me to a local Nagauta singer and shamisen player by the name of Arisawa Kiyosumi. And so began three years of Nagauta shamisen music, studying at her home and performing together on stage. Photographer Owen Murray documented this period on camera:

Arisawa Kiyosumi • Nagauta shamisen - photomontage by Owen Murray, 2007

Arisawa Kiyosumi • Nagauta shamisen - photomontage by Owen Murray, 2007

EXPERIMENTS 2005 - 2013

Outside of Nagauta I began to experiment with live computer processing. At the time I had become interested in the acoustic effect of multiple shamisen performers playing in unison; how the collective resonance of an ensemble strumming together produced a kind of dense drone. I began to explore these ideas through live sampling for solo shamisen in pieces like Density (2005), Sustain (2006) and Soft and Light (2006). Later I continued to develop these sustained sound ideas when I enrolled at Tokyo University of the Arts in 2009. Inspired by the music of Glenn Branca and Charlemagne Palestine I began to experiment with simple strumming textures for multiple shamisen parts. Four Parts and Eight Parts are two excerpts from 2010, using groups of four and eight shamisen parts to create shifting chordal textures.

A year later I started to explore the acoustic properties of the instrument without the aid of computer processing. Instead I used extended techniques - scrapping, alternative strumming in Twists and Scrapes (2010) - and instrument preparations - metal clips in Rattles (2010) and elastic bands in Harmonics (2010) - to probe different aspects of the instrument. In JavārīI I used a guitar capo to accentuate the overtone-rich 'sawari' sound of the shamisen. This produces a quality similar to the Biwa or Indian Sitar. Hibiki (2013) is an improvisation performed through the open strings of a piano chamber, combining different strumming techniques and melodic ideas.

Examples of alternate graphic notation for shamisen [2004-2013]. Click on image to view larger.