The Music: Poetry, and Influence of Japan

SBO Staff • April 2007ChoralRepertoire Forum • April 10, 2007

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From time to time, this forum has been dedicated to the music of cultures outside our traditional scope.  The calm power of Russian liturgical anthems, rhythmic energy of African cultures, and the musics of various European countries are a good start, but all fit neatly within our comfort zones.  In this case, I set out to explore the music, poetry and influences of a culture not especially known for ensemble singing.  For this reason, choral music of Japan is a rarity.  But it is often the rarest gems that have the greatest capacity for beauty�in the right light.  So, I hope this column will shed some light on this little explored facet of our art.

It should be made clear to the reader that the author has no expertise in this topic, but has focused on music that may be of particular interest to educators and conductors in the United States.

– Drew Collins, forum editor

Forum editor Drew Collins is a choral musician and educator living in Ohio. He currently conducts choirs and teaches Music Education courses at Wright State University. He is in demand as a clinician, festival conductor and consultant. He has several compositions and articles in print. Contact him directly at


Shojojee (arr. B. Wayne Bisbee) SATB, Perc -Santa Barbara
This arrangement is fun to sing, and audiences will like it, too.  Score calls for an unpitched drum plus bells (hand bells/chimes or glockenspiel would work best), which season the piece nicely.  The altos divide only briefly, and the Japanese is very manageable.  The arrangement is very well crafted, and worth strong consideration.

Hotaru Koi (arr. Ro Ogura) SSA – Theodore Presser
This classic has been a favorite of children�s choirs and girls choirs for years, and for good reason: it is charming piece to hear, fun to sing, and full of teaching tools.  The conductor would be well advised to practice conducting the tempo changes before introducing the piece to the choir to ensure smooth transitions.  Add an improvised part for marimba and/or triangle to give your performance a special flair.  I heard an interesting idea from a teacher in Tennessee: perform the piece in the dark and have the singers operate flashlights to depict the fireflies mentioned in the text.  An alternate English text is provided.

Sakura (arr. Toru Takemitsu) SATBdiv – Schott
Sakura is certainly the Japanese folk song most famous in the U.S., and this is a wonderful arrangement of it. It is a challenge for singer and conductor, however, and it is out of print.  For these reasons, it may not be a practical choice for most conductors.  There are several fine choices for treble voices, however: Dwight Okamura�s unique approach (Alliance; SSAA) has proven popular; Douglas Wagner has one that incorporates flute and finger cymbals (Lorenz; 2-part); Linda Spevacek�s arrangement includes parts for Orff instruments and recorders, and is suitable for choirs just starting to sing harmony (Hal Leonard; 2-part); and Julie Wheeler�s fine arrangement features a flexible voicing (BriLee; Unison or 2-part).

A Doyo Medley (Yamada Kosaku, arr. Donald P. Berger) SATB, Piano – Hinshaw
Though composed, these songs are popular enough in Japan to have acquired folk-like status (not unlike Stephen Foster�s songs in the U.S.).  Berger has arranged the melody sensitively.   The tenor and bass parts are joined at the hip, making this a good choice for smaller choirs.  An alternate English text is offered.

Joban Tanko Bushi (arr. Wendy Stuart) 3-Part, Pno – World Music Press
A Japanese work song for younger singers.  The arranger has lived in Japan and brings this knowledge of the culture and its music to this arrangement.  Children will love the traditional vocal embellishments included in the score.  For more advanced treble choirs, see Wendy Bross Stuart�s arrangement of Toshima Mochi Tsuki Bushi (Hal Leonard; SSAA, perc).

Sohran Bushi (arr. Osamu Shimizu) SATB – Ongaku No Tomo Sha/Walton
Chanticleer recorded this arrangement on their CD, Wondrous Love.  It is charming, but difficult to locate in the U.S.  It is included in the first volume of Cantemus, published in the U.S. by Walton.  There are also arrangements of this tune by Francis Baxter (Santa Barbara P.O.P.) for SATB, and Wendy Stuart (Colla Voce) for SSA.  Regardless of the arrangement, your choir will enjoy singing this tune.

Hiraita, Hiraita (arr. Ken Hakoda) SATB – Santa Barbara
Like Hotaru Koi, this is a traditional Japanese children�s song.  And, like most Japanese folk songs, its melody is constructed using the pentatonic scale. The text portrays the opening and closing of a lotus blossom, a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life.  The final effect is atmospheric, aided by the graceful melody, patient tempo, and thick sonorities at the climax.


Japanese Garden (Matthew Culloton) SSA, Piano, Clarinet – Curtis
This is a beautiful early effort from now-established composer Matthew Culloton.  The clarinet (which may also be played by any �C� instrument�parts for both are included in the score) adds a lovely color.  The text is by Minnesota poet David Bengtson, and describes the images of a Japanese Garden covered in snow.

Ohisashi Buri (Stephen Hatfield) SA+SATB, Pno 4-hands – Boosey Hawkes
This fun score by Stephen Hatfield provides an opportunity to combine a children�s chorus or treble chorus with an SATB ensemble.  There is very little Japanese to learn.  Hatfield uses pentatonic melody and ostinato to construct the work, both of which aid in its accessibility.  The text is from a work song, or song of encouragement.  Ends with a bang!

Winter Cantata (Vincent Persichetti) SSA, Marimba, Flute – Theodore Presser
The approach to melody and harmony used by Persichetti in composing this piece is unusual to most ears, though certainly not ugly. The whole cantata is about 15 minutes long, and is comprised of 12 vignettes.  The outstanding movement is �So Deep,� which excerpts well.  It is included with two others in a separate publication, �Three Choruses from Winter Cantata.�

Spring: O Sparrow (James Mobberley) SSAATTBB – Roger Dean
Written for Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale, this piece is a challenge.  Your singers will be stretched by the demands placed on them regarding pitch, rhythms and texture.  This is probably the most challenging piece included in this column.

The Eyes Have It (Gary Kent Walth) SATBdiv – Roger Dean
This piece is in two distinct parts, one for each of the two Japanese proverbs which comprise the text (�The eyes speak louder than the mouth� and �The eyes are the mirror of the soul�).  In the first part, the lower voices imitate a Japanese stringed instrument called a koto, while the sopranos have the melody.  In the second part, the tempo increases, and the meter changes to 6/8.  In the second part, the sopranos and altos share the alto line in 3-part harmony, making it look harder than it is.  This piece is a companion piece to the composer�s Two Japanese Proverbs (Roger Dean).

Voices of Autumn (Aki no ko-e) (Jackson Hill) SATB – Hinshaw
Jackson Hill has spent time in Japan studying Buddhist chant and Japanese traditional music, and that study is reflected in this evocative work.  Hill uses glissandi to illustrate the poem and create a haunting atmosphere that audiences find engaging.  Technically, the piece is easy.  The challenges are maintaining intonation despite the glissandi and reflecting the transparency of the texture in the tone of the choir, so that a sense of timelessness results.  Recorded by Chanticleer on the CD, Our American Journey.


Haiku (James McCray) SATBdiv – Belwin-Mills
This publication is a set of three unaccompanied works setting haiku of Soni Veliz.  This piece was published way back in 1970, and is no longer in print.  If you are fortunate enough to have it in your library (or a colleague does), this piece could add a unique and interesting moment to your next concert.  There are two challenging rhythms in the third movement, but otherwise the piece is straightforward in terms of pitch, rhythms, dynamics, etc.  These are vignettes (the three movements total only 18 bars!). The challenge here is effectively capturing the mood, and delicately crafting each nuance.

Crickets and Commas (John David Earnest) SATB, Pno – ECS Publishing
This is a set of five haiku by Robert Bode: 1. Comma; 2. Tumbleweed; 3. Lightening; 4. Crickets; 5. Preposition. The mood runs from serious to charming to comical. The composer does a great job of capturing the essence of each text while maintaining a sense of continuity between the movements.  Each of the five is short (the longest is just over a minute, the shortest about 20 seconds), and like the McCray, should be considered a single work in totum.  The third movement is for men only, the fourth for trebles alone.     

Composition Unit

Here is a simple and effective way to get students of any age composing. The project involves having your students write haiku, then having them write a musical setting for their poem. Here is the procedure (note that each of these steps may be done on different days, and may require some introduction and examples from the instructor):

  1. Write haiku. This may be done in the general classroom or English class. Alternately, this is an ideal project for the choral classroom on block scheduling. At your discretion, students may write in languages other than English. You may even specify a topic such as �spring time� or �animals.� Students will need to know that a haiku is a 3-line, non-rhyming poem. It often uses the following pattern of syllables-per-line: 5-7-5. But this is not a rigid prescription.
  2. Divide into syllables. Using a dictionary, the students divide any multi-syllabic words using hyphens.
  3. Strong/weak. Students circle only the most important words, and underline the most important syllables of multi-syllabic words. At the instructor�s discretion, this step may skipped for younger singers.
  4. Melodic contour. Students create an indefinite melodic shape for their poem that reflects the spoken inflection. At the instructor�s discretion, this step may skipped for younger singers.
  5. Compose. Students write a melody for their haiku. This may perhaps be best done using a pentatonic scale.
  6. Harmonize. Students may write a simple bass-line (or write pop chord symbols above their melody). This step may be skipped at the instructor�s discretion.
  7. Perform. Divide the class into groups of 3-4. Each group will perform the haiku compositions of their group’s members. Using a pentatonic scale, they may improvise a simple accompaniment on recorders, Orff instruments, or even the black keys of the piano.

 If this procedure is used, your classroom will meet National Standards in composing, performing, and improvisation. If you include your English teacher in the writing of the haiku and syllabification, it is a great interdisciplinary project.

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