Joseph Anderson

Countdown to Japan: Biwa

I think I can pinpoint the moment at which I realized that I needed to go to Japan, and soon. Victoria and I were attending a Japanese cultural event, Senses from Japan, in Seattle last October. She wanted to go to see a demonstration of how a medieval Japanese princess would put on her kimono (it took several attendants and about forty minutes to accomplish). For me, mostly along for the ride, I was thoroughly blown away (perhaps the only way to describe it) by a performance on biwa, a Japanese instrument used for accompanying sung telling of ancient Japanese legends. The sound of the instrument and the singing together was so otherwordly and completely compelling. (Here is a YouTube clip that captures it nicely). Victoria says that I turned my attention to the sound the way a dog sniffs a bird on the wind – apparently my ears literally went up. Something touched me very deeply about that sound – it penetrated past all the stories I tell myself about music and what it means to me and went right to my core. The performer, Kyokumi Tashiro, was kind enough to let me hold and play her biwa for a few minutes. As you can see it was a bit exciting for me to do that!

As I continue to check in with my sources of guidance about this trip and its purpose, I keep coming back to that same place of inner knowing. It’s not really rational. I don’t really know what will come of it. But I know it’s something that needs to be done. In that sense it is of a piece with much of what I am exploring right now: following instincts, listening to inner guidance, paying attention to the subtle cues. I don’t often have a very firm rational grasp of the “why”, and yet there is a certainty that leads me onward.

So no, I don’t know if or how those etheric mysterious biwa-sounds are going to be part of my experience of Japan. As I’ve written elsewhere, studying the Japanese language has been part of my process of preparation – so listening to this music today seems less surreal (though not really more comprehensible!) than it did a few months ago. I know that I can get wrapped up in the glamour of the exotic (what first drew me to Gregorian chant) and I know that my spiritual path is teaching me to look beneath those surfaces. I am learning to look past the allure of antiquity, the compelling nature of a fully formed sacred world defined for me in advance, the comfort of being part of an existing community rather than always, always, needing to define and shape sacred worlds and communities for myself.

But even with all that, the biwa feeds me in a unique, unmistakable way.

I am getting ready to start posting my own recordings to this site, as part of an inner impulse (this blog is part of it) to share my work more broadly. My songs and chants don’t sound much like biwa! And yet my music feels somehow connected to this deep, ancient and refined spirit. At the very least it deeply inspires me, mingles with my soul and makes it possible for that which I need to express to come out with greater strength and clarity.

I look forward to sharing that with you!