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Haikai-entry by Nancy Tam

Blog entry by Nancy Tam

December 14th, 2011


In my musical analysis of John Cage’s Haikai, I very quickly found that I could not apply a traditional western approach, i.e. looking for a leading motif and charting its development throughout the piece. I soon found that each movement of the piece has seventeen sound events, which coincides with the seventeen syllables found in the traditional Japanese poetic form: haikai.

I then assumed that Cage did not arbitrarily choose to name this piece Haikai, since the organization of sound events indicates meticulous attention to formal structure, and haiku also has the same syllabic form. Thus, my further research concentrated on the title haikai in an effort to discover Cage’s intention in using this particular name, haikai. The Haiku Society of America defines haikai as:

"Haikai" is short for haikai no renga, the popular style of Japanese linked verse originating in the sixteenth century, as opposed to the earlier aristocratic renga. In both Japanese and English, the word haikai can also refer to all haiku-related literature (haiku, renku, senryu, haibun, the diaries and travel writings of haiku poets).

Although this brief definition suffices as a guide for contemporary haikai poets to participate in the multilingual compositional discourse, I was interested in a more in-depth study of the poetic form and its philosophical implications in relation to Cage’s work.

In Japanese literary scholar William Richie Wilson’s book The Truth of Haikai, he discusses the philosophical implications of composing a haikai. Wilson suggests that, “the important thing is what the poet perceives with his own, no[t] other’s, eyes and ears—what moves him becomes a poem—and it is a poem immediately. This is the truth of haikai.” (Wilson, 50) Perhaps Cage realized this candid fact of documenting phenomenological experiences and wished to capture the “truth” of haikai through the language that he best converses through, i.e., music. (Ibid) Also pertinent in the construction of haikai is the genuineness of objectivity, that in order to express true insights with regard to an object, the “poet [must] first identify with his material”. (Ibid, 51) I feel that this holistic, objective approach to expression is the other that Cage sought to capture in his Haikai. Furthermore, Wilson suggests that haikai implies “pliancy”, which connotes flexibility and sadness. (Ibid) As the haikai poet Basho wrote, “Don’t try for what men of old left behind; try for what they were trying to achieve.” (Ibid, 50) I relate this quote to Cage’s treatment of musical convention; that instead of following the conventional treatment of gamelan sounds, Cage sought new sonic possibilities with traditional instruments.

In 1987, Jon Siddall (the then artistic director of the Evergreen Gamelan Orchestra) describes Cage’s fascination with finding new sounds with the “kettled shaped pots” in Robert Everett-Green’s interview article for the Globe and Mail. (Everett-Green, 1) Cage created these by turning the gongs upside down, and by bowing them with a violin bow. I personally interviewed Siddall in November 2011 and he was clear to point out that Cage’s continual search for new sonic possibilities was not to consciously appropriate Eastern cultures, but to simply think about sounds and silences, to create movement and stillness. Through exploring these sonic possibilities, particular interactions between instruments and very special relationships between participating musicians could occur.

Siddall also mentioned that Haikai is heavily based on reactions. When I looked more closely at the score of Haikai I discovered this to be true. The score punctiliously maps out what sound events should happen though there is minimal use of notated rhythms. I find this freedom from strictly notated rhythm requires performers to hone their listening and musical sensibility as individuals and also as an ensemble, and in doing so, to pay more attention to structure within their interactions.

It is difficult to know with any degree of certainty whether Cage deliberately used these insights from 16th century haikai composition as inspiration for Haikai, even though there are striking similarities between Cage’s philosophy of listening and the ‘philosophy’ of perception in 16th century haikai poetry. Perhaps in the 21st century listeners can utilize these insights not only in speculating on Cage’s intentions, but also as a means to perceive Haikai as a way to understand our contemporary world.

Works Cited

Everett-Green, Robert. "Gamelan a Different Kettle of Music." The Globe and Mail: E.11. Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies. Apr 04 1987. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Handerson, Harold G., William J. Higginson, and Anita Virgil. "Definition of Haikai." Haiku Society of America. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .

Wilson, William Ritchie. "The Truth of Haikai." Monumenta Nipponica 2nd ser. 26.1 (1971): 49-53. Jstor. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. .