Writing for Japanese instruments
in two pieces related to Chinese poetry
Hyo-shin Na

There's a story about Xi Kang, the third century Chinese qin player and poet, who'd been condemned to death because of his political views. He’d always refused to promote himself and his art, even refusing a friend who'd begged to be allowed to learn one of his songs. Just before his execution, a great many scholars in the Grand Academy sent a petition to the administrator who’d handed down the sentence, requesting that Xi Kang be released in order to become their teacher. Their petition was denied (it was said that this administrator later bitterly regretted his decision) and Xi Kang declared, “From now on my music is no more!”

During earlier, less turbulent years he’d written about music as “a means for guiding and nurturing the spirit, for elevating and harmonizing the emotions”. He wrote, “If instrumental music proves to be insufficient, one hums a melody to set forth one’s intentions and if this is not sufficient, one then composes words for the tune in order to express one’s thoughts.”

Here’s one of his poems:

Wisdom and learning, I don’t need.
Wandering, silence, solitude,
That’s enough for me.

Ambition, satisfaction, the troubles of the world,
I pass them by trailing my hook
Fishing for the unknown.

Winter’s wind has taken my hat,
All the neighbors have vanished,
My silent wandering’s just begun.

After reading this poem, called Song of Disillusionment, I wrote a piece for shamisen and koto, borrowing Xi Kang’s title. Getting started wasn’t easy, even though I had a rather clear structural plan in mind because I’d become convinced that the sound of the koto was inferior to that of similar instruments from neighboring cultures - too cold in comparison with the sound of the Chinese qin, too straightforward compared to the Korean kayageum, the sound which I knew best of all. In order to distance myself from the music I’d come to expect to hear on the koto, I sat down and began to play only the open strings, listening to each tone until it died away. It was easy to get lost in the sound and in the quiet itself, and this is what you’ll hear as the beginning of my piece.

This opening section of the piece, played by 13-string koto alone, focuses on the silence and solitude mentioned in the poem, while, at the same time, having a sort of wandering quality. The middle, and main section of the piece is a duet for shamisen and 17-string koto. To write this music, I thought of the physical movements involved in writing five particular Chinese characters that could be translated into English as “No one in this world will know this music”. This is actually the last line of a poem by Li Po that I’ll say more about later. I tried to translate these writing movements rather directly into sound. Will you be able to hear the connection between the music and physical movements of writing these particular Chinese characters? Maybe; but don't worry too much if you don’t. Each listener listens in her or his own way and may hear something quite different from what I was thinking of when I wrote the music.


I liked Li Po’s poem that included that melancholy last line: “No one in this world will know this music”. The poem is called Hearing Qin Music in the Moonlight. Here’s the entire poem:

I sit alone in the moonlight
Nothing worries me
But I hear something distant, delicate
The sound of the qin.

Or maybe it’s the cold wind in the pine forest
Or the fluttering of fingers
Over a serene heart.

That great qin player died long ago
No one in this world will know this music...

My piece for solo shamisen, Music To Be Forgotten, is about this poem; at first, in a general sort of way - the sound of the instrument, a feeling of sadness - then, towards the end, in a more specific way, where the shamisen player actually recites a line of the poem (in Chinese) and you hear something like an echo of that on the instrument. This attempt to translate the tones of the Chinese language into instrumental sounds is an outgrowth of my recently attending Chinese classes. I was so taken (as many people have been) with the musical quality of the language, especially when my teacher spoke, and so entertained by our clumsy attempts to imitate her and to get the intonation right. So I tried to do this on the shamisen near the end of the piece - with subtle inflections of pitch in a very restricted range of notes.

This piece also has much silence - like sitting alone in the moonlight. It’s also a bit like the “empty” space in some Chinese paintings.


You remember the lines in Xi Kang’s poem: “Ambition, satisfaction, the troubles of the world/ I pass them by trailing my hook/ Fishing for the unknown”. Actually this is a pretty good description of a composer’s work. Mostly it’s passing by what one knows well and writes easily - the “ambition, satisfaction, troubles of the world” of the poem - and searching, waiting for something new, or something old but un-noticed - “trailing my hook/ fishing for the unknown”.

“Fishing for the unknown” requires of a composer wakefulness and a mind open to what it doesn’t know and hasn’t experienced. I often find this wakefulness and mind-opening quality in encounters with cultures other than those I was brought up and educated in (which for me are Korean and European/American cultures). I’m not saying that I try to copy or imitate the music of another culture in my own music. Rather, that things I notice in, for instance, Islamic music, will eventually affect some aspect of my own music.

There are many ways this can work. For instance, my study of the Japanese koto (yes, I actually took koto lessons) freed me from the need to bend or ornament each note I played. I’d learned this bending or ornamenting of each note as a normal part of playing the Korean kayageum, but a Japanese koto player won’t manipulate or ornament many notes at all.

Looking at old Chinese paintings and calligraphy, and listening to qin music taught me that subtle, elegant things can outlast loud, fast, ostentatious things. Even more interesting, though, these paintings, calligraphy and music made me aware that raw, undeveloped, even awkward materials are often more fascinating and engaging for both the composer and listener than well-developed, finished materials.

Another example: I was writing a piece for string quartet and found myself, with some difficulty, trying to avoid anything that reminded me of the European string quartet tradition - Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg, Ligeti (as much as I love these composers’ works). I’d been listening for some time to the music of the rababa, which is a one-stringed fiddle played by the bedouins of the South Sinai. Suddenly after a session of listening to rababa music, when I tried to think of my own string quartet, I felt really lost. I’d been unexpectedly freed from what I knew! This is “trailing my hook, fishing for the unknown”.

I’m now starting to write a long piece for combined Korean traditional orchestra and western chamber orchestra. It will be a portrait of the German artist Kaethe Kollwitz. Kollwitz, who lived through both the first and second world wars, made drawings, paintings and sculpture dealing in a very direct, yet subtle, way with poverty, death, war, the lives of women and children. Did I mention that this piece for two orchestras about such matters is to be sixty minutes long? Suddenly I feel, like Xi Kang, that “Winter’s wind has stolen my hat”!

The listener can also be transported to an unknown world by a piece of music. “Trailing my hook, fishing for the unknown” is listening calmly, attentively, even patiently. Listening to a piece a second or third time is a lot like fishing, where you might trail your hook over the same patch of water many, many times, not knowing what will happen or even what to expect.

written for a talk at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum (July 29, 2004)