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

A rather more successful setting of a haiku for voice and instrumental ensemble is one of the movements of Frank Ferko’s Stabat Mater from 2000. This piece has the virtues that it is quite short, the text is discernable above the ensemble, and the music actually reinforces the mood of the haiku. Ferko’s text here is “Haiku for an East Asian Scholar,” the second section of “The Death Cycle Machine” by Charlotte Mayerson (1995):

I didn’t teach you to ride
A two-wheeled bike
That summer
So you could die.

Ferko, "Stabat Mater" (0:37)23

In his Haiku of Bashō, a piece for soprano and chamber orchestra, American composer Richard Wernick handles the haiku as roughly as Mark Winges has done. The album notes to this composition make it clear that the poetry of the haiku is being jettisoned from the outset, and the composer is working solely at the level of musical images:

Haiku of Bashō is a setting of five haiku by and (in one instance) about Matsuo Bashō (1643–94), generally acknowledged to be the foremost writer of this form of Japanese verse.…

Wernick writes that there are no programmatic connections between the haiku and the music, nor any word painting. The relationship of the music to the words is rather one of attitude—attempting, through an economical and tightly woven means of abstract musical expression,—to create sound images similar to (or analogous to) the poetic images evoked by the haiku. The attitude is perhaps best summed up by Bashō’s own admonition to his pupils” ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.’

The melodic and harmonic aspects of the score are derived from one tone row that appears throughout the piece in several forms. There is a departure from conventional 12-tone technique in that the rows are used only as the basis for harmonic and melodic materials that are then subjected to more or less standard procedures of development and variation. The improvisational qualities of the Haiku are partially achieved by the use of metrical modulation in which the conjunction and the superimposition of even and uneven metrical units generate continuous changes in the speed of the music. Apart from a few places where the speed may vary at the discretion of the conductor or one of the instrumentalists, the relationship of rhythm to speed is directed by the composer’s notation, and is intended to provide a feeling of freedom without the composer abdicating control of the music.

Wernick, “Haiku of Bashō” (10:44)24

Editor’s Note: The content of this piece is not available to me in Australia and may be restricted for some other world regions, too. If this is the case for you, you can use your computer's refresh option to get rid of the “unavailable” screen message.

Nonsense about “sound images similar to (or analogous to) the poetic images evoked by the haiku” notwithstanding, Wernick’s treatment of the haiku of Bashō is exclusively musical (if not mathematical)—certainly not poetic. The texts, to my ear, do not survive the scholastic processing, and the results will predictably be of interest only to students of modern music.

Let’s jump to music in a more popular vein for a moment. A recording by French Canadian world-music flutist Michel Dubeau (he has now added “Rakumon”—“Gate of Music” in Japanese—to his name) integrates the text of haiku into multi-instrumental music, sometimes in surprising or amusing ways. In this cut he riffs on Chiyo-ni’s “dragonfly-catcher” haiku, using Daniel Buchanan’s translation:

dragonfly catcher,
how far have you gone today
in your wanderings?

Dubeau, “Dragonfly Catcher” (5:20)25

Listen also to this cut, in which Dubeau weaves together the Beatles song “Blackbird” with Bashō’s

On a leafless branch
A lonely crow has perched
Silent autumn dusk

Dubeau, “Blackbird” (5:17) 26

Now we come to the full treatment of a haiku text but with compositional artillery the equal of Zender or Messiaen. In Vincent Persichetti’s 1964 composition Winter Cantata (Cantata No. 2), texts from Harold Stewart’s A Net of Fireflies are assigned to a whole women’s chorus with the accompaniment of flute and marimba. Persichetti uses common choral-writing devices of repetition and some fragmentation, and the aggregate results are, unfortunately, extremely difficult to understand. The haiku, again, are all but completely lost, sacrificed to colorful choral writing and the exotic flute and percussion sound. Music, maybe—even good music—but not poetry. To be honest, it is not certain that understanding the text would convey significant benefit to the haiku-lover. Persichetti (1915–1987), one of the best-known American composers of the 20th century, wrote a second composition to Stewart’s translations called A Net of Fireflies, Op. 115 Cycle of 17 Songs for Voice and Piano (1970). Stewart’s translations are quirky and generally derided by haiku poets for their Westernized form (titled rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter) and aesthetics. One example will suffice; this is the fifth haiku in the Winter Cantata with Persichetti’s title “Gentlest Fall of Snow” (Stewart called it “Mono no Aware”):

Ah! the first, the gentlest fall of snow:
Enough to make the jonquil-leaves bend low.

Persichetti, "Winter Cantata, II, V, and VI" (1:06) 27 "Haiku V" begins at timing 1:24.

I find the music in the Persichetti very pleasing and easy to listen to. Not so, however, the version of sixteen haiku written by Nobel Prize–winning poet George Seferis by Sigmatropic, a Greek techno-pop group with soloists invited from the alternative rock music scene doing the readings. Sung by Mark Eitzel, the text of this sample cut from Seferis’s haiku—in case you can’t make it out—goes like this:

How can you gather
the thousand little pieces
of each person?

Sigmatropic, “Haiku 11” (2:11)28

Michael Dylan Welch, reviewing this CD, wrote, “An all-star cast of guest indie musicians from Stereolab, Sonic Youth, and other groups sing the haiku in layers and repetitions, making even haiku poets hard-pressed to realize that the vocals are haiku.” 29

A similar treatment of haiku (plus nonsense verse and other text) has been staged by Bang on a Can, a New-York based performance group. Their piece “Haiku Lingo” features words composed and spoken (in a comic Big Apple accent) by Shelley Hirsch to electronic and percussion music by David Weinstein. With some difficulty I found the text of one haiku, by Kyoroku in Blyth’s translation:

Even to the saucepan
Where potatoes are boiling,—
A moonlit night.

and this text, which I can’t identify:

in the distance
the voices of the exiles can be heard
mingling with the cicadas
among the clamor.

Bang on a Can, Haiku Lingo (8:18)30

Editor’s Note: The content of this piece is not available to me in Australia and may be restricted for some other world regions, too. If this is the case for you, you can use your computer's refresh option to get rid of the “unavailable” screen message.


23 “Haiku for an East Asian Scholar,” from “The Death Cycle Machine” by Charlotte Mayerson (1995), on Frank Ferko. Stabat Mater. Nancy Gustafson, soprano, and His Majestie’s Clerkes (Chicago: Cedille Records CDR 900000 051, n.d. [2000]). Used with the permission of the publisher. Samples and downloads of the entire piece are available at Classical Archives.

24Richard Wernick, “Haiku of Bashō.” Neva Pilgrim, soprano, with the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago, on the CD Neva Pilgrim (New York: Composers Recordings Inc., ©1976. CRI CD 817). Available on YouTube. Haiku translations by D. T. Suzuki from Zen and Japanese Culture (1959).

25 Michel Dubeau, “Dragonfly Catcher” on Haïku! (Montréal, Que.: Disques Lost Chart Records, WC 2010 (2004?). Michel Dubeau, shakuhachi and voice. Haiku text by Chiyo-ni, from Daniel C. Buchanan, One Hundred Famous Haiku (1973), 67. Used with permission of the composer. Several cuts of Dubeau’s solo flute music are accessible online at the Slacker Website. Dubeau has recorded a second album of spoken haiku with jazz accompaniment, Haïku! The Kerouac Project (Banyan, 2005); see this website.

26 Dubeau, “Blackbird.” on Haïku! Michel Dubeau, shakuhachi, and voice of Kazuyo Tsujimoto. Haiku text by Bashō, stated in the cover notes to have been taken from Buchanan, One Hundred Famous Haiku, but this exact translation has not been found there (or anywhere else as far as I can tell).

27 Vincent Persichetti. “Gentlest Fall of Snow,” from Winter Cantata (Cantata No. 2), Op. 97. Vincent Persichetti: Three Choral Works. Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Tamara Brooks, conductor (New World 80316-2, New York: New World Records, 1983). Haiku by Bashō; translated by Harold Stewart from his Net of Fireflies (1960), 120. YouTube has videos of this and two other haiku from Winter Cantata by the Concord Singers: YouTube; and three other haiku from the Winter Cantata performed by the Ohio State Glee club: YouTube.

28 Sigmatropic, “Haiku 11,” on Sigmatropic—Sixteen Haiku & Other Stories. Simon Joyner, voice (Thirsty Ear THI 57142.2, 2004). Haiku by George Seferis, translator unknown. YouTube. All sixteen haiku are translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard in George Seferis: Collected Poems (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995). Samples of all the tracks are posted on the AllMusic website.

29 Michael Dylan Welch, in Modern Haiku [35:3 (Autumn 2004), reprinted on his Graceguts website.

30 Shelley Hirsch and David Weinstein, “Haiku Lingo” (excerpt), from Bang on a Can Live, Vol. 2 .

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