Learning to Play the 小鼓 (kotsuzumi) with a Noh Musician

5 minute read

In the anthropology gallery at MAA are three artefacts connected to the ancient Japanese form of Noh: two masks (of an old man and a young woman) and a flute. The masks were bequeathed to the museum by Professor Sir William Ridgeway, who wrote on Noh in his book, The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races (1915). 

A Noh mask of a young woman. Her lips are painted red, teeth black, and eyebrows painted high.

Figure 1. A mask representing a young woman, used in Noh theatre. Japan. MAA 1927.823.

The flute was acquired by archaeologist Charles Thomas and purchased from him by ethnomusicologist Dr Lawrence Ernest Rowland Picken. In addition to these objects on display, MAA cares for several more masks and model musical instruments, all relating to Noh. But what is Noh?

A flute and a pipe. The flute was made using a pipe case. It is brown in colour with dark brown rides. The pipe has a pattern on its body.

Figure 2. A small 能管 (nohkan, a transverse bamboo flute) formed out of a pipe case. Kobe, Japan. Acquired by Charles Thomas. Purchased from Thomas by Dr Lawrence Ernest Rowland Picken. MAA 1977.348. 

Noh is a type of dance drama that began in the 14th century, and which lays claim to being one of the oldest theatrical forms still being performed today. It is derived from Shinto and Buddhist rituals and from the rather earthier 散楽 (sangaku), a circus-like performance art brought to Japan from China in the eighth century. Its creation is credited to Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and its finessing to his son Zeami (1363-1443). It caught on spectacularly when a performance was held for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1374, after which it became the preserve of the aristocracy for centuries. Only with the collapse of the shogunate system in the late 1800s – and the subsequent need for a new source of funding did Noh open up to the wider population. 

A Noh stage on an island. It is surrounded by a row of buildings. In the foreground hangs a lamp.

Figure 3. The Noh stage at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, Hiroshima prefecture. Like the rest of the Shinto shrine, the stage (built in 1680) resides on the beach which gives the impression it’s floating on water at high tide. Photo by author.

Hailing from rural Dorset on the south coast of England, I watched my first live Noh performance in 2017 and found it something wonderful yet also something completely alien. Such is the desire for authenticity within the genre that performances today have hardly changed since Zeami’s time, and they demand a lot from the audience. As powerful as the chanted sections were, I struggled with the sparse musical structure. The elaborate (and gorgeous) costumes seemed context-less. And the performers’ masks had fixed expressions which – alongside the archaic form of spoken language meant that emotions and narrative were mainly relayed through slow, painstakingly subtle body movements and minimal props. When a screaming demon with a great mane of red shaggy hair appeared midway through the first act, I don’t think I’d ever felt so English. It was a fascinating experience, and it left a lasting impression. 

Mask of an old man with lips painted red.

Figure 4. A mask representing an old man, used in Noh theatre. Japan. MAA 1927.822.

I’m lucky in that my wife is Japanese which means regular trips to see her family in the extraordinary city of Kyoto. This year, her aunt invited us to join her in a drumming workshop. I imagined a circle of people in a draughty school gym banging away on 太鼓 (taiko, drums), each with their own opinion as to where the beat lay. Not so. I was told it would be an hour-long session on the 小鼓 (kotsuzumi, a type of shoulder drum that’s one of the key instruments of Noh) and that there would only be the three of us, plus our teacher. I’d also need to dress quite smartly. 

An hourglass-shaped drum, held together with red thread.

Figure 5. Model of a 小鼓 (kotsuzumi), donated by Miss Ada Mocatta. MAA 1941.114.6

The next day we headed to the Gion district to an immaculately kept wooden house overlooking the Kamo river. The main room was a sublime wood-paneled space, complete with an ikebana flower arrangement, where Geisha would entertain clients in the evening with their mastery of the classical arts. This room was dominated by a long, low table behind which a man wearing a traditional kimono was sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat. He was our host and not only was he one of Kyoto’s top Noh musicians, but he was also utterly charming, extremely patient, and an excellent teacher. 

Just getting the 小鼓 (kotsuzumi) ready is an art in itself. The drum’s central pillar is an hour-glass shaped piece of wood about a foot long. At either end you place a taut circular drum skin made of horse leather and everything is held together by a complex arrangement of thin ropes. A little like tuning a guitar, the tightness of the ropes determines whether it’s ready to play and affects the tone. Fortunately, our host did this for us, otherwise I’d still be there now. He also explained that because Noh plays are so long (three hours or so), the drum’s sound is greatly affected by changes in a room’s micro-climate which means the musician must regularly dab water on the drum skins during a performance to keep them in tune. 

He had brought a practice drum for me to use and, to blow my own trumpet (to use a misplaced musical metaphor), I did alright. However, one of the main purposes of our visit was that my wife’s aunt had brought along a 小鼓 (kotsuzumi) that she’d inherited from her grandfather, and which she wanted to know more about. It was a beautiful object with a stunning central pillar of black and gold lacquer, and our host immediately dated it to the Meiji period, making it around 120 years old. Then, miracle of miracles, he allowed me to hold his 小鼓 (kotsuzumi), an even more exquisite instrument with a golden dragon winding its way down the central pillar. These drums are passed down from one generation of musicians to the next, and he was the sixth person to have owned it. I asked him how old it was. Edo period, he said, about 300 years old. I nearly dropped it in fright. 

Most interesting of all, however, was that he was particularly excited about a tiny chip in the lacquer, entirely because it meant he could see the original wood beneath. It was this chip that gave him a direct link through the centuries to the drum’s creation. For me, it was a valuable lesson in conservation. His 小鼓 (kotsuzumi) had clearly been deeply cared for over the centuries and was still, as I said, in remarkable condition. But perfection was not the be all and end all for him, indeed, it was the imperfection that gave the drum a life beyond its ability to produce sound. It also meant that there was no reason to fear playing it; it didn’t need to be locked away where no one would see it. To be heard was the very reason for its existence; its physical beauty – whilst important – was a secondary consideration. This drum was, in effect, a living artefact and therein lies a dilemma for every museum that holds musical instruments under lock and key (MAA included), very much like the flute with which I began my reflection: how to evoke a true understanding of an instrument if it’s never to be played again?  

As Mark Elliott noted in a previous blog post on this platform, there is music in museum collections. But for it to be heard, what we really need to do is bring the instruments out and play them!  


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