String Orchestration

1. Mixing the string instruments

The sole function of the string instruments with the shô is to supply harmonic support. The two string instruments work in collaboration to create the pattern that acts as bridge between the woodwind and percussion instruments, coloring key unpitched percussive attacks with pitched motives and harmonies relating to the melody.

The string section has its own internal hierarchy, where the biwa's main function is to color the downbeat of every measure with an arpeggio. As such, it connects with the shôkô -- the percussion instrument whose function is to articulate the downbeat of every measure. On the other hand, the koto’s pattern is usually spread out over two measures, and it slowly spells out the biwa’s harmony while reinforcing the main melodic tone. Because of this, the koto connects with the two melodic instruments: the hichiriki and the ryûteki. Example 1 illustrates this process. The hichiriki and the ryûteki introduce ‘D’ as the melodic tone in the first measure, as shown with the arrows. That pitch is reinforced on the same beat by the shô and the biwa. Note that traditionally the lowest pitch of the shô and the highest pitch on the biwas are considered to be their principal melodic tones.  The biwa’s tones ‘E’ and ‘D’ are reiterated in the koto’s line with an emphasis being put on the ‘D’, which is the lowest and highest note of the harmony, as shown with the arrows. The recorded example comes from the beginning of the work, and the koto only enters in the 3rd measure. This example is an excerpt from a recording by the ensemble Reigakusha.

Etenraku: Simplified version of the 1st phrase of Section A (measure 9-12)

Example 1

Although the biwa and the koto are united in their function, their sounds never fuse. In fact, the sound of the two string instruments usually is a stratified texture where each of the two sounds is clearly distinguishable. There are two factors that work against their fusion: First, a minimum of resonance is required to get some fusion between two sounds, and the sound of the biwa does not resonate much beyond one second; Secondly, our ability to hear separate parts increases when instruments are not synchronized rhythmically, which is the case of these two string instruments. The biwa’s activity focuses mainly on the downbeat of every measure, while the koto’s main rhythmic activity is focuses on the 2nd and 3rd beats of the first measure when using the shizugaki pattern or on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd beats of the same measure when using the hayagaki pattern.

2. The beauty of kangen music

The string instruments’ pattern adds another level of transformation to the overall timbral structure of the music. The melodic first half of the cycle favors the woodwind instruments, and as the melodic instruments come to a point of rest in the second half of the cycle, it switches to the rhythmically active string instruments, as illustrated in Example 2. This shows the first phrase of Section A.


Etenraku: Simplified version of the 1st phrase of Section A (measure 49-52),

String and Woodwind instruments only.

Example 2