"Noh as Intermedia"/Intermedia Analyses of Noh Theater Plays
Kyoto City University of Arts
North Carolina State University Libraries
Stanford University Libraries
Stanford University Libraries
HathiTrust Research Center
The Noh as Intermedia project (noh.stanford.edu) uses web-based technologies for interactive annotation and visualization of performing arts materials to investigate and present how Noh theater exemplifies intermedia. “Intermedia” here is defined as a way of forming expression that draws on relationships between art forms (literature, vocal and instrumental music, stage movement, dance, masks, costumes, and props, in the case of Noh) and their cumulative impact.
To untangle some of the unique “coming together” of artistic media in Noh, the project site builds a multi-scale, “thick” analysis around high-resolution video recordings of live performances of two exemplary and contrasting Noh plays, both likely from the late 14th century CE: the feminine-centered “wig” play Hashitomi, with its evocations of poetry and scenes from Genji monogatari, and the miraculous “god” play Kokaji, which illustrates its tale of the forging of an enchanted sword with intricate layerings of dance, music and costumes. The site’s examination of the two plays and the Noh genre itself moves from high-level essays describing the history and aesthetics of Noh to a middle-level set of interactive catalogs, descriptions, and image, video and audio examples presenting the varied and often highly systematized media elements that comprise a Noh performance. These include theatrical and dramatic forms at the macro and meso scales, poetic modes of declamation and singing, dance patterns and other gestures, instruments, rhythmic and melodic modes and musical forms, as well as costumes, masks, stage positioning and props.
At the most finely detailed level, the project provides a novel playback and annotation environment that is synchronized at subsecond-level granularity with the streaming video playback, combining plot synopses, visualizations of formal sections, and synchronized libretto translations with a multilayered, multimedia score that encodes every sung or spoken word, musical element, and stage action. This score thus represents, for a specific performance, even the components of a play that are not traditionally notated, such as elements of the musical accompaniment. In an analogous manner, this entire mode of presentation has the effect of exposing, in an immediately engaging and comprehensible way, the myriad subtle details of a Noh performance whose interplay across media types lends the performances their extraordinary richness, yet which would otherwise likely go unremarked by those who are not already experts in the genre. The site’s use of English as its primary language, providing transliterated romaji texts and translations whenever possible, furthers this pedagogic aim, complementing the rich lineage of Japanese-language Noh scholarship and contributing to the steadily growing body of analyses in other languages.
The site also engages with the tensions between providing interactive, multimedia visualization and annotation features that are highly tailored to a specific performance genre (Noh, in this case) versus having the flexibility to accommodate other genres and art forms within the same framework. In this project, the investigators found that favoring the specific over the general provided the greatest degree of interpretive insight, but doing so consequently requires a greater effort to integrate other genres, particularly if these other forms are to be presented at equivalent levels of coherence and clarity.
A primary analytical feature of the site and project is the explication of a ranking system for the shōdan (formal sections of a play) that assigns higher values to sections exhibiting greater intermediality. A section with poetic text, congruent music and dance receives a higher “index of intermedia” (IoI) ranking than a section with fewer such modes, and within each modality are further gradations, e.g., a section with rhythmically congruent chanting receives a higher IoI value than one that features unmetered speaking, due to the former’s increased energy and use in moments of dramatic climax. While turning rich theatrical experience into numbers and graphs risks being reductive, it can be an informative abstraction for comparing the profile and flow of intermedia development between plays. The interactive visualizations on the site present these evaluations of intermediality by way of graphical shōdan “maps” or timelines of the performances in which a section’s width corresponds to its relative duration and its height represents its intermediality ranking. Observing these visualizations in the context of the richly layered explicatory apparatus surrounding the live recordings facilitates a greater appreciation, for example, of how the macro-scale dramatic trajectory of Hashitomi utilizes a gradual accretion of interlinked media elements to build to a dramatic apotheosis, while Kokaji exhibits a greater ebb and flow between sections of high and low intermediality across its two acts. The interface explicitly seeks to hold together, and in dialectic, multiple presentations of a single originary phenomenon: the video, the timelines, the scores, etc., all as manifestations of the play, according to different modes/intentionalities. In this way, the interface itself could be seen as a form of intermedia presentation of the deeply intermedic art form of Noh.
Bethe, Monica, and Karen Brazell. Dance in the Nō Theater. Ithaca, N.Y.: China-Japan Program, Cornell University, 1982.
Chion, Michel. L’audio-Vision: Son et Image Au Cinéma. Nathan, 1990. Later translated as Chion, Michel, and Claudia Gorbman. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Columbia University Press, 1994.