Japan Songs: A musical exploration of translated Japanese Poetry


冬こもり 春さり來れば 鳴かずありし 鳥も來鳴きぬ

fuyu komori
haru sarikureba
nakazu arishi
tori mo ki nakinu

Buried by winter,
When spring comes to pass,
The silent
Birds burst into song

Princess Nukaka
Man’yōshū I:16

These lines were written by Nukata no ōkimi, Princess Nukata, at some point in the latter half of the seventh century, when the reigning emperor, Tenji (626-672; r. 661-672) asked one of his nobles, Fujiwara no Kamatari, which was the better season: spring or autumn. Nukata swiftly composed the poem of which these lines are the beginning, and the matter was settled by her concluding comment akiyama zo are wa (‘It’s the autumn mountains for me!’ At the seventh century Japanese court, She would not have handed her poem around for people to read, but would have recited it out loud, chanting it to a melody. We know this because the word for ‘poem’ in old Japanese, uta, is also the word for ‘song’, and there is a tradition of the oral performance and recitation of Japanese poetic compositions that remains to this day.

When I translated Nukata’s words into English twenty years ago, I wasn’t thinking of this, though – simply that I wanted to convey the beauty of her images and language in my translation. Translating premodern Japanese poetry into English, and studying how it has been criticised is my major research activity, and one that saw fruit in my publication of the first complete English translation and commentary of Roppyakuban uta’awase (‘The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’) (2020; Brill) last year. I also make my translations available online on my website, www.wakapoetry.net, providing what I hope is a literary and scholarly resource for poetry lovers worldwide.

Over the years, I’ve received many interesting emails and requests via my website, ranging from requests for recommendations for suitable Japanese love poems to have read at weddings to enquiries about the meaning of particular poems, but I was both surprised and pleased in December 2019 to receive a request from Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a New York-based contemporary music organisation that seeks to bring Japanese musical instruments to western Classical Music.

They had chosen six well-known contemporary US composers: Victoria Bond, Douglas J. Cuomo, James Matheson, Paul Moravec, Jay Reise and Aleksandra Vrebalov, and were in the process of commissioning a song cycle for soprano, shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese wind-instrument) and piano, to be called ‘Japan Songs’. They wanted to know if they could use a few of my poem translations for the lyrics for these. Of course, I agreed immediately. The opportunity to see the images and ideas created by old Japanese poets, passed through the lens of my translation, and then passed through the lenses of a composer and musicians, and living again in musical form, was too good to pass up.

Once I had given my permission, though, there was little for me to do, but to wait to see the end result. Nevertheless, over the year, I had intermittent contact with Kyo-Shin-An Arts. Once the composers had selected the poems they were setting to music, I was called upon on one occasion to tweak the translation of one of poems to make it more musically palatable, and also advise on the proper ways the poems and poets should be referred to.

The COVID pandemic meant that plans for a concert premiere of the song cycle had to be shelved, and instead the first performance was video recorded and then broadcast over the internet on Sunday, 20 December 2020 – almost a year to the day that I received the mail asking for permission to use my translations. One of the good things about that, of course, is that the broadcast is still available online, along with the programme notes and texts. In due course, the scores for the cycle will be published so other performers may be able to perform the work anew.

It was a strange feeling, but a rewarding one, listening to the performance for the first time, and hearing the words I had written being sung. I couldn’t help wondering what the original poets would have made of it, too. We’ll never know, of course, but it just goes to show that once a work of art has been created, it can take on new, original forms and give pleasure in ways that its original creator may never have imagined, and why not!

Written by Dr Thomas McAuley