Depicting The Light From Distant Stars

In the summer, I visited the Miro Foundation in Barcelona. It's a wonderful place, and it was really the first time I've fully enjoyed an art exhibition in it's entirety since leaving art school in the 90's. Previously I'd only seen Miro's art in reproductions. Seeing so much work displayed in such an interesting space helped me to appreciate it on a much deeper level.

As I live in Japan, one aspect that surprised and intrigued me was his interest in Japanese calligraphy and how it affected his work.

As far as I know, Miro had no formal training in Japanese writing, and just allowed the shapes and symbols to inspire his artwork. In the exhibition you can see footage of Miro smudging away at black ink with spatulas, fingers, toothbrushes etc. I don't mean that Miro worked without skill and technique - in many ways he was a pioneer - but his skills weren't honed within the Japanese tradition.

Living in Japan, I've been somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated by Japanese culture, calligraphy being a prime example, feeling that I'll never have the time or the language ability to fully comprehend it. Then, when I started studying the shakuhachi, I found that most of the music is transcribed using Japanese calligraphy. Here's an example - it's my teacher, performing his own transcription of "Yamagoe". For the uninitiated, it reads from top to bottom, right to left.

I know enough about handwriting to know that mine is quite poor in English and despicable in Japanese (despite my mother, both her parents, and my wife all being excellent calligraphers), so I've shied away from writing musical ideas down, feeling that if they don't look good, they won't sound good. (If this sounds odd please consider the composer Frank Denyer, who wrote a 45-minute solo shakuhachi piece titled "Unnamed". When the shakuhachi master Yoshikazu Iwamoto saw the score for the first time he refused to play it, as it contained notes which were coloured red.)

But when I walked around the Miro Foundation, I had something of an epiphany. There is nothing stopping me from taking Japanese notation as an inspiration and doing what I want with it; owning it if you like, finding my voice with it in the same way that I would find my singing voice, or my musical style. To appreciate and be inspired by it without being controlled by it.

Here is my first attempt at an artwork/composition. It's very much a draft of a sketch of an idea of a piece. The working title is "Depicting The Light From Distant Stars".


  1. Hey Joe

    Very interesting indeed - what came first for you; the performed tune or the score?


  2. Hey Tim, thank you! Well I've only just started playing around, but in my limited experience the visual score and the sound seem to be informing each other. I certainly didn't have a "tune" in mind, just a sort of feeling for how it should sound, and by playing a little and sketching / moving the symbols around on the page maybe I'm getting a bit closer to it.

    The traditional shakuhachi notation system is actually quite prescriptive, it's not like a wild and wacky graphic score, but it's very different to western musical notation. It also lends itself very well to experimentation I think.

  3. Joe,

    I know it's not music, but I find that I write my most profound poetry when I'm on the verge of sleeping. I guess it's because I drop those pesky inhibitions, aka the inner editor, and let things flow.

    The best part is when I come back to full consciousness, and read what I've written, and feel like "Was.. did I write this??"

    I tried to do it with music once - as melodies and rhythms often come to me in my waking dreams, but they disappear all too quickly - but I couldn't really make sense of it when I 'woke up', so now it's relegated to the 'could-be-great / could-be-crazy pile' :P

    I feel a certain amount of envy after seeing your musical notation. Would love to hear it!

  4. Hey Tony, it's great that you're able to write stuff down when half asleep. I've often set myself up to do that but never managed it.

    As for "my" notation, I haven't really changed the symbols or their meanings very much at all from Tozan-style shakuhachi notation - only their positions and directions on the page - and in the example I photographed I hardly even did that! There's no reason why you shouldn't adapt, say, guitar tab in the same way. Perhaps writing it in a different way would affect how you feel about the music.


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