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

Simplicity and understatement are haiku virtues that too many composers forget or ignore. In general, the larger the musical ensemble, the less haiku-like the piece sounds. Take, for example, the following excerpt from Five Haiku for Flute and Strings (Lo-Shu IV) by Hans Zender. Zender is one of many composers who has been entranced by Orientalism and the numerology of the haiku form and uses it as a frame on which to hang his musical impressions of haiku. The album notes to this recording inform us:

Five Haiku for Flute and Strings (Lo-Shu IV), composed by Zender at the beginning of 1982, was premiered at the Music in the Twentieth Century Festival on May 20 of the same year. During the 1970s and 1980s Zender wrote a series of pieces bearing the title Lo-Shu, the ancient Chinese designation for a square divided into nine parts. The ideas behind the Five Haiku, so [writes] the composer himself, was his “quest for the further abbreviation of his language. The seventeen syllables of the haiku correspond to the seventeen large measures of a musical moment. Each of these measures is an autonomous musical unit in the sense of tempo and harmony, comparable to the phrases of our classical music (it lasts between six and about twelve seconds). The division 5–7–5 of the haiku is made clear by two long rests. The measures themselves are not joined together in the sense of a developmental form but bear their center in themselves, so that their ordering follows on the basis of associative criteria.”11

I’m afraid this explanation sounds like complete mumbo-jumbo to me—intellectualization of a baleful sort. But let’s listen to some samples of the music:

Zender, "Fünf Haiku (Lo Shu IV)" (30-second excerpts from each of the 5 “haiku”) 12

Zender had no specific haiku text in mind. His composition counterpoises a solo voice (the flute) with the strings, which act as percussion as well.

Olivier Messiaen’s Sept haïkaï, takes full advantage of a large, colorful ensemble comprising all manner of horns and percussion (especially bells and gongs), 8 violins, xylophone, marimba, and piano. He does not propose any musicological hocus-pocus to tie his composition to haiku. Rather Messiaen’s work stakes out its kinship to haikai owing to its sonority and mood. The album notes say, “This work was written in 1962 following a trip to Japan. It does not consist of poems: the title “Haïkaï” indicates only that the seven pieces are short, like the Japanese poems of the same name.…”

Messiaen, Sept haïkaï (19:58)13

Much more haiku music has been written that includes the human voice rather than instruments alone. This can be a human voice by itself, or a haiku that is spoken or sung, to which varying amounts of music have been added. Let’s listen to a series of compositions that use both voice and musical sound in various qualities and degrees.

This could be a straight reading—with no music other than that of the haiku itself.

It could be a “punctuated” reading. For example, at his haiku readings, Chicago-area poet Charlie Rossiter sometimes rings a chime between haiku, an effective device to clear the listeners’ minds from one haiku to the next as well as providing a suitably exotic, “Japanesy” atmosphere. Here are three of Charlie’s haiku with his kind of aural punctuation:

Three haiku by Charlie Rossiter (0:45)14

valentine’s card
from an old lover—
icicles drip from the eaves                  [chime]

silent moon-filled night,
a thousand sand grains move
to make this footprint                         [chime]

cheap motel—
keeping the beat
to the tune next door                          [chime]

Sometimes we’ll have a case where the haiku is read normally, then it is followed by a musical composition of some sort. To a truly “haiku-centric” person like myself this might be considered an example of “exaggerated punctuation.” A more accommodating haiku poet might say the haiku and the music are “juxtaposed.” The musician will tell you it is a “musical setting.”

Here is a case of a composition by an American composer in which the haiku is first read in Japanese then followed by a composition for string quartet. Perhaps you have heard this piece before: it was performed by the composer before haiku groups on at least two occasions in Boston. The work is T. Allen LeVines’s Travel Journal, Books I–III (Settings of Haiku Poetry by Matsuo Bashō) . The album notes explain the composer’s highly complex scheme for the work. They read in part as follows:

The plan of the composition, unusual for a string quartet, resembles that of the Preludes by Chopin or Debussy rather than that of traditional chamber music works. Travel Journal reflects the composer’s interest in the writings of Matsuo Bashō.

Of LeVines’ compositions which are indebted to Bashō, Travel Journal is perhaps his most ambitious work to date. Its aesthetic is complex, having many literary, musical and historical associations. Each of the miniatures in the work is a response to a particular piece of western classical music. Finally the dates and places chosen as titles are attached the events in the lives of composers whose music attracted LeVines’ attention while writing this work.

For example, the first piece invokes the following of Bashō’s haiku:

Last night of the month: no moon
Thousand year old cedars
Besieged by a storm

On another level, the above piece alludes to a sonata by Beethoven. Lastly, the sub-heading given to this movement is “March 26, Vienna” the date and place of Beethoven’s death.

Instead of this haiku, however, let’s listen to the setting of Bashō’s most famous haiku. LeVines uses Makoto Ueda’s translation:

The mossy pond
A frog leaps in—

The subhead for Section 4 is “April 6, New York.”

LeVines, Travel Journal (1:47)15

A musical cryptogram of this kind is not especially kind or forgiving to the haiku; it may seem overly intellectual and subjective. The text is read in Japanese, a language most listeners will not understand, so rather than using it as an active, integral element of the composition, the text becomes almost vocalised—the classical equivalent of scat singing. It seems to me that the music relates only in a very indirect way to the haiku and is, presumably, more about an unnamed Western composer who at some time caught LeVines’s fancy.

The composer explained his ideas in a recent message:

For me, the set of pieces in Travel Journal are miniature tone poems, rather than cryptograms. While the poem is read in Bashō's original Japanese on the recording, the text is given in the liner notes, so the sense or meaning is not hidden from the listener. In concert, readings are seldom included, and the set of miniatures is usually performed straight through. The text, however, is always printed in concert programs, in both Japanese and English (or German or ...), giving audiences access to Bashō's poetry. My own preference is the Japanese, knowing that it is not only Bashō's original words but his choices of sounds. As a composer, I am at least as interested in sound in poetry as sense. The titles for Travel Journal's movements do relate to “an unnamed Western composer who at some time caught” my fancy. “April 6, New York” was the day and place of Igor Stravinsky’s death, and my writing pays homage to the opening of his Rite of Spring. However, for me, the resulting music relates more to Bashō's imagery and atmosphere than to Stravinsky. The opening murmurings invoke the stillness of the pond, its ancient shore and trees, and the as yet unnamed frog. The tutti pizzicato signals the frog’s sudden leap from the bank into the water. The undulating final chords reflect the rings on the water's surface rippling outward following the frog’s entry.


11 Album notes to Zender, 5 Haiku, by Thomas Sick, translated by Susan Marie Praeder.

12 Hans Zender, 5 Haiku, “Lo Shu IV.” Excerpts available on the Tidal website.

13 Olivier Messiaen. Sept haïkaï for piano and small orchestra. Performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. YouTube .

14 Audio clip provided by Charlie Rossiter, September 2015. The three haiku, respectively, were originally published in Frogpond 21:3 (1998), 47; Charles Rossiter, William Schmidtkunz, and Jeffrey Winke. Thirds (1985); and Modern Haiku 29:2 (Summer 1998).

15 T. Allen LeVines. Travel Journal, Books I–III. “Book I, Number 4. April 6, New York.” The Portland String Quartet, with Toshiyuki Shimada, narrator (New York: Arabesque Recordings Z6632/DDD). Used with the permission of the composer; permission pending from the publisher. Very short excerpts of each section can be downloaded at the emusic website. First text excerpt is from the album notes; second quote is from LeVines e-mail, 28 October 2015.

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