Interpretations of Tsuru no Sugomori

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Interpretations of Tsuru no sugomori


I have a very extensive history listening to music.  I’m a fan of multiple contemporary genres, such as Indie, Hip-Hop, Jazz (New wave down tempo and classic), classic rock etc…  I even played in a high school orchestra, in which I gained an understanding of multiple instruments. The flute at times seemed subtle then grew to be slightly annoying, as it raised in pitch. The stringed instrument tended to maintain a subtle pitch throughout the song, but it would occasionally increase in frequency. Being I can only judge from a western perspective, the song as a whole initially reminded me of what little I know about Eastern culture. This experience has enhanced my appreciation of music.  This must be taken into consideration when assessing my evaluation of the music.  My initial reaction to the piece was one that embodies what I know of ancient Japanese or samurai culture.  It specifically reminded me of the 1969 Japanese film Double Suicide in which the two main characters commit the sacred act of Shinju (double suicide) to profess their love to one another.  This song specifically reminds me of the final scene in the film where the two die.  I also know that there are many martial arts forms in Chinese and Japanese culture that adopt names and styles compatible with that of animals in nature.  This could partly explain the title of the piece.  While the song is titled Nesting Crane, personally I envision someone doing movements in the form of a bird rather than and actual crane in a nest.  This is just one particular image that comes to mind.  The combination of the flute and the stringed instrument produces enough sound to make one think their might be another instrument in the mix.  There is no apparent evidence of this, but it could also partly be credited to the fact that my western tastes expect their to be a baseline to this music.

The lack of a drum, or any form of percussion with this music is very prevalent and significant factor in my judging it.  I also credit it as the reason why I recognize this piece as being therapeutic.  The song feels more like something that one should recline and listen to, and not something that inclines one to dance in fashion.  Even if this music has any spiritual significance, this concept widely contrasts that of western culture, where even our spiritually uplifting music utilizes some for of percussion.  An example of this can be seen in Evangelist and Christian churches where the congregation is encouraged to clap to keep pace.

At this point, my gut interpretation of this work is that it is very eastern, and without knowing I would assume it is Japanese or Chinese.  I would also assume that it was written in the before the 19th century.  I like its subtly and therapeutic form, but I would prefer that their be a baseline added, or maybe another instrument to fill in the silent parts.  I am impressed by the amount of breath the person playing the flute is able to produce.  I also fail to see the significance of the stringed instrument.  It seems to me as though the song could do without it, or it could be utilized in a way that would garner more notice.


After developing a good cultural sense of the piece, I have a better understanding of the aesthetic and historical relevance of the use of the shakuhachi (flute), and the shamisen (lute).  The fact that the flute was considered to be a spiritual tool, and that there is a significant connection with the patterns of breathing and spiritual enlightenment, enhance my appreciation of the piece.  Understanding the context in which the song is played is another major part of appreciating the work.  Before knowing the specific scene from the kabuki play which the song supports, I had a very vague perception of the emotion expected to coincide with the music.  As I previously stated, the music reminded me of a very depressing scene in which two lovers commit suicide, but in reality the song is used to support a very pleasant and uplifting moment in its play.

A major aspect of the piece that I did not notice was so significantly utilized in the song was the attention to detail demonstrated by the performers.  This is played out in the music through the use of subtly escalating repetitions, which I never would have looked for prior to reading about the piece.  On top of this, the instruments have historical meaning and their use has a religious tradition.  In reality, I now know that the spiritual journey taken by the flute player is enhanced and isolated by the lute, as apposed to simply being supported like I previously thought.  This requires much control and technique on the part of one playing the flute.

The fact that every phrase in the piece increases and decreases in volume, creating a change in dynamics that is continuous throughout the song, is very demanding on the breath control of the flute player.  This becomes very significant when one assess the number of years of training and practice that are required to attain the specific technique demonstrated in Tsuru no sugomori.  This puts the song in a different light.  I now see it as the product of a lifetime of practice, as well as many sessions of meditative breathing.  The human persistence and effort that is required to perform this piece is only given even more value by the fact that each note is considered to be a gateway to enlightenment.  I can also hear the vibrato technique in use when the flute flutters in different accessions.  I can envision the musician (priest) moving his head repeatedly, when I would have never thought of this before.  I also envision the author using different methods of finger control over the flute holes, allowing the air to release slightly to create fainter sounds.  These are all factors that I would have never thought about prior to reading about the music.  Another aspect utilized in this song is that of ma.  Unbeknownst to me before, it perfectly explains why there is no baseline to the song.

Ma has to do with the timing of the piece but it is more specifically the understanding and the appreciation of spaces silence between each sound.  This is compatible with Zen ideals in the importance it places on silence and space.  It also explains why there is no baseline in the song, which would interrupt this relationship between sound and silence.  This gives the song a much more valued interpretation in my eyes in the since that I now understand that every part of it from start to end is meant to be heard by the listener, even the silent moments.

The reading also enhanced my appreciation of the lute.  It has a very pivotal place in controlling the increasing and decreasing volume of the song.  It also sheds light on the flute and forces the listener to notice the flute more in moments of the lute’s absence.  Where before, I could not see this significance and even suggested the lute be removed, now I couldn’t imagine this being done.  Without the lute, as spiritually enlightening and therapeutic the flute attempts to be, its sound might become redundant within the song.

In sum, my overall perception of Tsuru no sugomori is that it is a musical demonstration of Japanese culture performed by the best of its breed.  The song is rich in cultural significance and a clear representative of Japanese culture.  The spiritual appreciation of this music also grants me more understanding of the music I listen to in my daily life.  The power of music to uplift, or the notion that any given note can plunge one into a stat of spiritual enlightenment is wild concept to assess, when one considers why certain songs in western culture are more popular than others.  It could very well be that the songs that have the most uplifting effect on western culture have a practically nothing to do with their lyrics, and they simply can credit a certain level of ma, or added dynamic by the musician to their height in popularity.  If the level to which western musicians are idolized were really put into context, the Japanese tradition of considering musicians to be priests is no different from the godlike acclaim we give our musical artists.  In fact, understanding the power inherent in a song like Tsuru no sugomori could very well enlighten one to understanding the power inherent in music itself.  In the end, maybe it’s all a search for Zen.

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