Friday, June 24, 2011


The concept of "ma" in Japanese culture and art is integral to our production of Noh Garden. Simply put, "ma" means "silence," but it has a deeper meaning than just an absence of sound. It signifies an openness of space and time. One might almost define it as what is violated by sound. In Japanese arts, such as the Noh, the primal state of being to which all returns is this ma. It is the condition--an emptiness--to which the art aspires. When I play the shakuhachi, particularly the honkyoku pieces that are rooted in Zen, the sounds emerge from ma and return to it. Between each sequence of notes, there is ma. And when the piece is finished, there is only ma.

During our rehearsal last night, this concept became central to the singers' interpretation of Joan McMillen's complex and yet simple score for Noh Garden. Matt Smith, our music director, instructed the singers to pause at the end of the written lines (which are laid out like poetry), and to extend the pauses into discomfort. It is difficult for us in the West to do this; but once our singers found that space, that timeless interval between notes, the music came alive.

Here's a video explanation of ma that includes a brief cut from a Noh play:

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