A Hundred Gourds 5:1 December 2015

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Haiku and Music: A Morganatic Marriage?

by Charles Trumbull

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 |page 4 | page 5 | page 6

With that introduction, let’s look at some haiku and music. In preparing this essay, I stumbled around trying to find a scheme by which to organize an analysis of haiku and music and prove my point, which is essentially that setting haiku to music should not be undertaken. One way, I found, would be to look at placement of the haiku and the music, for example: a single haiku, sung haiku, haiku followed by music; haiku interrupting the music, and so forth.

Another approach would be to judge how well a musical composition that refers to haiku embraces haiku characteristics, aesthetics, and poetics such as brevity (can a five-minute-long composition really be considered a “haiku”?) or juxtaposition or internal comparison. Yet another approach would be to look at various genres of music and the way they treat haiku.

Composers of all styles of music—classical, jazz, pop—seem attracted to haiku, as we’ll hear in a minute. The most serious, however, seem to be the composers of classical music. Thousands of haiku music pieces have been written, and it sometimes seems that every young composer feels the need to add a composition like “Haiku for Flute” to his résumé! Jazz, pop, and world music writers often seem to be attracted to the word “haiku” simply as a short and exotic name for a new piece rather than showing any serious attempt at understanding or interpreting the haiku genre.

I finally decided the most productive approach would be to structure my comments as to instrumentation. What voices or instruments does the composer use to write his musical haiku? This may be most fruitfully analyzed in terms of number and quality of voices in each piece. By “voice” here, we mean not necessarily a human voice, but a musical voice. Let’s start by looking at haiku written for one musical instrument, but not the human voice.

Nonvocal or nonverbal “haiku” has been one of the more successful ways of combining music with haiku. We’re talking about a piece of music that has no sung or spoken text, just musical instruments, but is called “haiku.” Obviously, if there is no text to worry about, the words will not get in the way of the notes and vice versa. Never did I find an “implied text”—that is, no composer I know about has written a piece called “Old Pond” that is completely instrumental. The composers of instrumental haiku music did not have any specific haiku text in mind but rather were “writing their own haiku” using musical notes rather than syllables. This is fine, but it begs the issue, in what way is a given composition a “haiku” rather than, say an “impromptu” or a “bagatelle?” By what right indeed should it be called a haiku at all?

Let’s listen to two compositions for single instruments or two like instruments. First is John Cage’s 1952 Seven Haiku for Piano. The program notes from the CD observe, “The Seven Haiku are hard to hear as anything but a fragmentary single piece, since there are silences within sections as well as between them.”

Cage, "Seven Haiku" (2:06)6

To my mind, this is the best “musical haiku” that we’ll hear today. Cage is an especially important figure in the history of musical treatments of haiku. He studied Zen Buddhism and incorporated much of the Zen aesthetic in his works in the use of space and time.

Another composer, Australian Peter Sculthorpe, approaches his compositions like Cage did: his Night Pieces for solo piano (1971; five short sections titled “Snow,” “Moon,” “Flowers,” “Night” and “Stars”) is supposedly based on haiku concepts from Shiki although no texts are spoken or sung.

Sculthorpe, “Snow, Moon, and Flowers” 7(3:59)

Since about the middle of the 20th century there has been a current in Western music to understand and incorporate Oriental and other non-Western genres. A concert was held in Burgundy, France, in November 2002 that was dedicated to Japanese-Western interaction in music. A Cage piece was played there, and a reviewer noted that in it “nothing sounds Japanese but the philosophical idea behind the piece is Japanese.”8 In fact, this interaction of Oriental poetry and music seems of more interest to Westerners than to Japanese. It is a little reminiscent of the Beat poets and their fascination with Zen and Oriental culture. Toru Takemitsu, the Japanese composer who has enjoyed the greatest success in the West, for example, did not write on overtly Japanese themes, much less on haiku.

More recently, however, one Japanese American composer has written music on or about haiku. In 2002 Paul Chihara wrote Butterflies, a set of seven haiku, which was premiered at that French concert. Five years earlier Chihara had composed “Haiku for Two Flutes,” about which he wrote:

Haiku for Two Flutes are musical love poems, both expressive and gentle, originally composed in 1997 for two UCLA students for their senior recitals. The first Haiku is Japanese (like a woodcut, or perhaps a tiny lyric poem), the flutes suggesting the ancient Shaku-hachi. The second is distinctly American: song-like, lively, almost ragtime.

This is the first of Chihara’s two “Haiku for Two Flutes,” marked Più lento, Andante:

Paul Chihara. “Haiku for Two Flutes” (2:27)9

Again, no text is present or implied. Although the question occurs to me, “in what way is this music a haiku?”—as it did not while listening to Cage’s piece—I feel Chihara’s setting is also quite successful. The composer clarified his intentions in an e-mail message: “I use the title Haiku to suggest a tiny lyric (poetic) musical utterance, not unlike the title Poeme in the French Impressionistic era (as in the Poeme for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson).”10 It is likely that this conception of the title “haiku” is shared by other composers.


6 John Cage, Seven Haiku. Performed by Nils Vigeland. YouTube. :

7 Peter Sculthorpe, “Snow, Moon, and Flowers,” from Night Pieces. Julia Kielstra, piano. Recorded 2011. YouTube.

8 Tim Whitelaw, “A Meeting of Minds,” The Juilliard Journal Online XVIII (November 2002) accessed 12 June 2005 but not available in October 2015.

9 Paul Chihara, No. 1 (Più Lento, Andante) from “Haiku,” on Paul Chihara Chamber Works. Albany Records TROY584 (2003). Carol Wincenc and Alexandra Sopp, flutists. The composer’s quote is from the album notes. Used with permission of the composer.

10 E-mail, Paul Chihara to Charles Trumbull, 24 October 2015.

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