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Biwa is a generic term for long-necked, plucked lutes in Japan (written with the same characters as the Chinese pipa, also a plucked lute). Almost all biwa traditions involve oral narrative or poetic recitation with biwa accompaniment. Frank Davey, PARADISEC’s Audio Preservation Officer, who has been carefully digitising and listening to Hugh de Ferranti’s vast collection of field recordings of various biwa traditions (HDF1) over the past few months, describes the music as having a raw, powerful quality that speaks directly to the listener’s emotions. I asked Hugh about his long-standing involvement with the biwa tradition.

VKL: Tell me about yourself and the recordings which you have deposited with PARADISEC.

HDF: Since coming across Japanese music in the mid-1980s, I have specialised in the area of Japanese poetic narrative texts and their musical vehicles, the singing and declaiming voice, and instrumental sound. Currently I’m Associate Professor in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at the University of New England, Armidale. My recordings which are currently being archived in PARADISEC’s repository are of performances, lessons and discussions with biwa players who had trained during the 1920s–30s in Kyushu, Osaka and Tokyo. Talks with Fumon Yoshinori and performances of Satsumabiwa were recorded between late 1984 and early 1989, a period in which I was learning to perform the biwa and preparing an MA thesis in Japanese at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, as well as during visits to Tokyo in the late 1990s. Recordings of regional variants of mousoubiwa (mosobiwa) performed by blind males in Kyushu, southern Japan, were made during 1989–1993, with the bulk recorded during doctoral fieldwork from August 1991 to June 1992. Of particular note in my collection are the recordings of Fumon Yoshinori (1911–2003) and Yamashika Yoshiyuki (1901–1996), as these men are said to have been the last fully competent musicians in Seiha school Satsumabiwa and Higo region zatoubiwa respectively.

VKL: Where did you first come across the biwa and its music?

HDF: I first heard biwa in ethnomusicology classes taught by Allan Marett in the Department of Music at Sydney University in 1979. The medieval Heike narrative tradition (Heikebiwa) was introduced, but then I sought out LPs in the Music Library collection that included other biwa traditions.

VKL: What attracted you to the music?

HDF: The instrument’s timbre, especially the distortion of the Satsumabiwa and Chikuzenbiwa traditions known as sawari; also the intensity of the vocal timbre and production technique. As for content, the heroism and pathos of the poetic tales attracted me (although I couldn’t follow the archaic Japanese narrative texts until years later, so was relying on translations at first).

VKL: How would you describe the sound of biwa music and singing?

HDF: It’s essentially poetic narrative song in which the accompanying string instrument matches the fine melodic nuances of the vocal line. It is quite unlike vocal accompaniment by the koto or shamisen because the silk strings of the biwa pulled against tall wooden frets are much more receptive to minute changes in finger pressure. This yields a capacity for microtonal inflection reminiscent of the shakuhachi or the voice.

VKL: The biwa appears famously in the 1964 horror film “Kwaidan” by Masaki Kobayashi in the third story “Mimi Nashi Hoichi” (“Hoichi the Earless”), in which a highly gifted biwa player’s performance attracts the attention of a ghost samurai. Can you tell me more about the particular biwa tradition represented in the film?

HDF: I have written at length about the composer Toru Takemitsu’s music for biwa, including the score for the “Mimi Nashi Hoichi” segment of “Kwaidan”. The film shows us a player of the Heikebiwa tradition (and a Heike biwa instrument), but the music heard is nishikibiwa-style recitation and instrumental performance by Tsuruta Kinshi, for whom Takemitsu later composed the biwa part in his orchestral work “November Steps”. [See further Hugh’s article “Takemitsu’s biwa” in A way a lone: on the music of Takemitsu, ed. Hugh de Ferranti and Yoko Narazaki, Tokyo: Academia Music.]

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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