Saibara: 12th Century “Folk” (Court) Music

Today’s big project was transcribing all of the music for the saibara lyrics I’ve translated.

This particular endeavor began this spring. We had decided to have a Gempei War-era theme for my vigil and elevation ceremony in April, and we needed some Japanese music. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to find notated copies of medieval Japanese music, at least here in the United States. (There are some recordings, but no sheet music that I could find.)

At last, thanks to the suggestion of a friend, I located a copy of Saibara: Japanese Court Songs of the Heian Period, a two-volume 1983 book by Elizabeth Markham, an important work in the study of Japanese music. Markham discusses the history and performance of saibara quite a bit, but the most useful and important part of the book is the complete transcription she includes for all fifty-five of the saibara songs in the Sango-yōroku and Jinchi-yōroku. These two 12th-century manuscripts are saibara song books with tablature, one each for koto and biwa. They were edited by Fujiwara no Moronaga after he stepped down as Chancellor.

(good job insei government at least you did one thing right)


What Is Saibara?

Saibara is a form of gagaku (Japanese court music) that evolved sometime before the 10th century. Supposedly, it is derived from folk songs, or at least folk poetry – the texts are simple and describe scenes of everyday life. The name saibara (催馬楽) means “music for when there are horses”, so there is some speculation that they were originally sung by horse-drivers. However, the melodies are related to tōgaku (“Tang Dynasty”) and komagaku (Korean and Manchurian) tunes, so it’s probable that even if the texts were originally folk poems, they were appropriated by Heian courtiers and set to foreign music (or original music composed in a foreign style). In any case, by the middle of the Heian Period (794-1185), they were being sung by courtiers for their own entertainment.

When saibara was sung, it was accompanied by the basic tōgaku orchestra (that is, the standard “Tang Dynasty” strings and woodwinds), but instead of the regular percussion, saibara used only shakubyōshi (wooden clappers). So a saibara ensemble usually includes:

  • Voice
  • Woodwinds
    • ryūteki (transverse flute)
    • hichiriki (double-reed pipe)
    • shō (mouth organ) – Though today this instrument is regarded primarily as a chord-producing accompaniment instrument, in 12th-century saibara, it played the melody, one pitch at a time.
  • Strings
    • biwa (lute)
    • koto/gakusō (zither) – Plucked with plectra worn on the fingers of the right hand. In contrast to modern practice, the Heian Period koto player was expected to use the left hand to create ornaments by pressing on the strings.
  • Percussion
    • shakubyōshi (wooden clappers) – Traditionally played by the lead singer

All of the pitched instruments play the same melody, but with frequent octave changes and other embellishments. The koto, which can play multiple pitches at once, typically plays the melody in two or more octaves at once. The clappers play an ostinato (the same rhythm over and over again); there are two patterns, one in four counts and one in eight.

During the wars of the 15th century, the saibara repertoire was almost entirely lost. In 1611, the court tried to reconstruct some of the songs for the coronation ceremony of Emperor Go-Mizunoo (1597-1680), but they had a difficult time finding any material. They were able reconstruct six pieces. For a long time, scholars doubted that these pieces had any relationship to the original works, but Markham was able to prove that they are indeed genuine medieval saibara pieces (although they have evolved quite a bit from the originals – for one thing, modern saibara is performed at a much slower tempo than it was in the 12th century).


Performing Saibara

Saibara, like gagaku (Japanese court music) in general, is heterophonic. Heterophony is a musical texture in which multiple voices simultaneously produce variations on the same melodic line. There is no “harmony” as we tend to think of it. Although heterophony is not very common in Western art music (at least until the 20th century), it is quite common in the art music of other cultures, including Indonesian gamelan, Arabic classical music, and kulintang in the Philippines, as well as Japanese gagaku.

In my transcriptions of saibara pieces, I’ve included only the basic vocal melody, with the assumption that woodwinds and strings who wish to play along can improvise their own embellishments. If you’d like to see an example of what some written-out ornaments look like, you can view my transcription of “Asuka-i” for full orchestra and “Ise no umi” for full orchestra, as well as my instructions for how to read the notational symbols. For other pieces, you’ll have to get a copy of Markham’s book. (*^▽^*)

To play saibara on Western instruments, I suggest the following substitutions:

  • ryūteki → any flute or recorder
  • hichiriki/shō → oboe or shawm
  • biwa → lute, guitar, or any other plucked string instrument
  • koto → autoharp or any other zither – or, if you’re willing to sacrifice the ability to play in multiple octaves, any other plucked string instrument
  • shakubyōshi → wooden clappers

Range shouldn’t be an issue, since in saibara, you can change octaves whenever you want (even for just one note, if you feel like it).

One more thing: Remind your percussionist that the accented notes in the ostinato should be significantly louder than the unaccented ones!


Translating from Medieval Japanese

Writing singable translations for Japanese lyrics has been both harder and easier than working with the usual languages (French, Italian, Galician-Portuguese). Like all languages, Japanese has unique characteristics, and while Japanese poetry thankfully lacks some of the more challenging aspects of French poetry (like feminine rhyme, ugh), it has some really hard parts, too. Generally my problems fell into two categories: 1) Challenges of fitting new English text in place of original Japanese text; 2) Challenges in actual translation.

Fitting New English Text

Here is what’s great about writing singable translations for Japanese songs:

  • Nothing has to rhyme! This gives me a lot more freedom in choosing words and generally enables me to be more faithful to the meaning of the original. And I saved hours by not having to think of feminine rhymes (which occur much less often in English than in some other European languages…)

Here are some things that suck about it:

  • Japanese doesn’t have lexical stress. (Yes, yes, it has mora timing and pitch accents, but those are not the same as stress in English, so don’t even start.) This lack of stress gives Japanese more flexibility than English: On one line, a Japanese word might start on a musically stressed beat, and in another line, the same word might start on a musically unstressed beat. English words, on the other hand, have very strong stress, and if you place a lexically unstressed syllable on a musically stressed note, it sounds jarring. Unless the original composer does that (which happens a lot in medieval European music, actually! but definitely does not happen in Japanese music), I try very hard to avoid it. I usually try to get around it by finding an English word that has fewer syllables than the Japanese one (so I have some room to move it around a bit, with a filler word or two before or after it) or by just giving up any attempt to keep the translation word-for-word accurate.
  • Probably because saibara is meant to be performed so slowly, it has breath marks all over the place. Sometimes this happens in the middle of the word. So when you’re reading my translations and thinking, “Why the hell did she put this breath mark in the middle of a word?”, just know that 12th century Japan did it first.

Translating Per Se

Here’s what’s easy about translating 12th-century Japanese:

  • Kanji! Basically, even though the pronunciation of words may have changed, the orthography has remained exactly the same. That means that I don’t have to know how to pronounce “安” in order to know what it means. And because the orthography is the same in various different languages, if I can’t find it in the Japanese dictionary, I can look it up in a Chinese or Korean dictionary, instead.

Here’s what sucks:

  • This poetry feels no obligation to obey the rules of grammar or try to form sentences or anything. A lot of the time, it’s just a series of images, like, “In the mountains/naturally/tall oaks/the festival time/meeting you”, and then I have to figure out what that means. Are we meeting in at the oaks? Do the oaks remind me of the festival? Is it the mountains or the oaks that are natural? Σ(‘◉⌓◉’)
  • Not everything is written in kanji. There are a lot of long strings of hiragana, and since Japanese doesn’t put spaces between its words, I can’t tell where one word ends and the next begins. There could be a sentence there, or it could be just a bunch of nonsense sing-song words, the equivalent of “fa la la la na na na hey hey yeah” or something.
  • Looking up kanji is rough. You have to search for it by the number of strokes, which means you have to be able to count the number of strokes in it. This is generally fairly easy to tell, once you are familiar with the basic strokes, but it’s easy to be off by one or two. Once you’ve figured out the number of strokes, you have to go look through all of the kanji (read: hundreds of symbols) that have that number until you find the one you’re looking for. Plus, it’s really, really hard to read the printing in Markham’s book. The words are tiny, and once you get like 15 strokes, the lines mush together.
  • I can’t find some of these kanji in any dictionary. Maybe they are obsolete…?

So if you’re wondering why I didn’t translate all 55 pieces in the collection, it’s because I ruled out all of the songs that I couldn’t read. :/


My Saibara Translations

  • 安名尊 [Ana tōto] – “Peaceful, Famed, and Precious”
  • 浅水 [Asamuzu] – “Shallow Water”
  • 飛鳥井 [Asuka-i] – “The Well of Asuka (Flying Bird Well)”
  • 新しき年 [Atarashiki toshi] – “The New Year”
  • 東屋 [Azumaya] – “The Eastern House”
  • 力なき蝦 [Chikaranai kaeru] – “The Powerless Shrimp”
  • 藤生野 [Fujifono] – “Field of Living Wisteria”
  • 妹と我 [Imo to are] – “My Little Sister and I”
  • 伊勢の海 [Ise no umi] – “The Sea of Ise”
  • 葛城 [Katsuragi] – “Katsuragi (Kudzu Castle)”
  • 河口 [Kawaguchi] – “Kawaguchi (River Mouth)”
  • 更衣 [Koromogae] – “Exchanging Clothing”
  • 眉刀自女 [Mayutojime] – “Eyebrow Mistress Woman”
  • 美作 [Mimasaka] – “Mimasaka (Beautiful Harvest)”
  • 美濃山 [Minoyama] – “Mount Mino (Mountain of Deep Beauty)”
  • 本滋き [Moto shigeki] – “Nourishing Home”
  • 梅が枝 [Mumegae] – “Plum Branches”
  • 席田 [Mushiroda] – “Mushiroda (Place of Fields)”
  • 夏引 [Natsubiki] – “Summer Pull”
  • 老鼠 [Oi nezumi] / 西寺 [Nishidera] – “Old Rats” or “West Temple”
  • 大路 [Ōji] – “The Highway”
  • 奥山 [Okuyama] – “Deep in the Mountains”
  • 高砂 [Takasago] – “High Sands”
  • 鷹山 [Takayama] – “Hawk Mountain”
  • 田中の井戸 [Tanaka no ido] – “The Well of Tanaka (Well in the Rice Field)”
  • 我家 [Wa ie] – “Our House”
  • 我が門に [Waga kado ni] – “At Our Gate”

Key Facts

  • Date: c. 12th century; collected c. 1171-1192
  • Editor: Fujiwara no Moronaga (1138-1192)
  • Manuscripts:
    • Sango-yōroku
    • Jinchi-yōroku
  • Original Language: Japanese
  • Genre: saibara
  • Form: various, often through-composed

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