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

We can conclude this review of the variations of musical settings that have been used for haiku with an example of sounds that have been electronically generated and manipulated and called haiku. This is Ryūichi Sakamoto’s “Haiku FM” from 1993.

Sakamoto, “Haiku FM” (6:04)31

All traces of any haiku that may have served as inspiration have been completely effaced, and again we are left with an earful of sound without any poetry. About as far from Bashō as you can get.

From the musical examples we conclude that although many purely instrumental pieces are called “haiku,” only a few have much to do with the form or aesthetics of haiku. Rather, these seem to reflect the (usually uninformed) views of the composer as to what a haiku is, the musician’s aspiration to compose in an exotic or “world-music” idiom, or an application of some highly abstruse theoretical construct, often based on the magical number sequence 5–7–5. Examples of failures—from the standpoint of one haiku poet in any event—are legion. It seems to me that John Cage and a very few others, however, succeed in writing good music that actually adds something to the haiku—or at least adheres to haiku principles and aesthetics.

But how about this? If we are correct in saying that when a haiku is set to music the music too often overwhelms the haiku, perhaps what we need to do is to turn the compositional process around. Maybe instead of writing music for a haiku, we need to write a haiku to accompany a piece of music. Now, there’s a radical concept: a musical piece set to haiku! I know of no case in which this has been done. This, it seems to me, would be analogous to creating a haiga or a haibun, in which a haiku is added to a graphic image or a piece of prose. By placing the haiku, rather than the music, in the featured position, the haiku would certainly not be smothered by musicians, and both parts—music and haiku—would have space to breathe.

I might humbly suggest that an original piece of music accompanied by a haiku be called a “haitune.”

Writing haiku to accompany visual images is an old sport. You have probably seen several places on the Web that invite poets to make haiga by penning haiku to photographs or other graphics. Perhaps you’d like to try your hand at composing a haiku—or several—while listening to a musical composition. Here are three audio clips that might provide inspiration for you!

Leo Brouwer, “Estudio Sencillo VII” (0:49)  YouTube 32

Arvo Pärt, “Spiegel im Spiegel” (7:31)  YouTube 33

Morton Subotnick, “Butterfly #1” (7:51)  YouTube 34

bio photo
Dr. Charles Trumbull grew up in Las Vegas, N.M., attended Yale and Notre Dame Universities, and is retired from editing and publishing positions at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Encyclopædia Britannica. A past president of the Haiku Society of America and recipient of its Sora Award for service to the HSA, from 2006 to 2013 he was editor of the journal Modern Haiku, the oldest haiku journal outside Japan. In 2013–14 he was Honorary Curator of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library, and he served as secretary of the New Mexico State Poetry Society in 2013. A haiku chapbook, Between the Chimes, was published in 2011 and his book of New Mexico haiku, A Five-Balloon Morning, in June 2013 (winner of the Touchstone Book Award of The Haiku Foundation). Trumbull has pursued his interest in haiku by organizing haiku study groups in Chicago and arranging international conferences at Northwestern University (Haiku North America—1999) and in Kraków, Poland (2003 and 2015)." In November 2011 he made a solo driving trip through eleven countries in the Balkans, giving readings, addressing specialists at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and meeting with haiku poets and groups. In September 2014 he made a similar trip to Japan, addressing the Modern Haiku Association in Tokyo and the Hailstone Haiku Group in Kyoto, and conferring with scholars at the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo and the Shiki Kinen Museum in Matsuyama, among other activities.


31 Ryūichi Sakamoto. “Haiku FM” from A Chance Operation: John Cage Tribute.  YouTube

32 Leo Brouwer. “Estudio Sencillo VII.” Ignacio Barcia, guitar.  YouTube

33 Arvo Pärt, “Spiegel im Spiegel.” Anne Akiko Meyers, violin.  YouTube

34 Morton Subotnick. “Butterfly #1,” from 4 Butterflies. Carlos Nishimiya, electronics.  YouTube

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