Kakitsubata (カキツバタ), Music, Art and Longing

May – between the cherry blossoms departing and summer arriving – is the month to see kakitsubata, Japanese irises bloom.

Kakitsubata at Jindaiji Botanic Gardens

Kakitsubata at Jindaiji Botanic Gardens


These striking purple flowers permeate Japanese art and literature as symbols of longing, loss, beauty and the power of art. The short mugen noh Kakitsubata revolves around the below poem from the Heian Period (c980) Ise Monogatari (伊勢物語 – Tales of Ise) in which the central character Ariwara no Narihara rests beside the famous Mikawa iris marches and is reminded of his wife, whom he left far behind.

から衣 きつゝなれにし つましあれば はるばるきぬる たびをしぞ思
Karagoromo / kitsutsu narenishi / tsuma shi areba / harubaru kinuru / tabi o shi zo omou

I left my wife in Kyoto, who is as suited to me as a karakoromo attire which is repeatedly worn and softened. Sadness and loneliness soak my heart in thinking of the long way I traveled .
(translation via

It is a beautifully constructed poem, in which the first syllable of each line makes the word ‘kakitsubata’, and the last of each an old word for ‘beautiful’ (‘麗しも). In the poem as in the noh – in which the spirit of the flowers tell Narihara that his words can bring salvation to all beings, including plants – imagery, symbology, philosophy, love and beauty are embodied in a few gestures, a few short lines.

Ogata Korin –  Irises

Ogata Korin – Irises

The poem and the imagery of the Mikawa iris fields is also the subject of Ogata Kōrin’s famous folding screens (c1705), of undulating fields of blue irises on a shimmering gold background. The later Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) also has the addition of sharp-angled bridges contrasting the flowing lines of the flowers.

The Tale of Ise poem formed the heart of the short piece Water Iris, written for Michelle O’Rourke and Michael McHale in 2017, a work that explores these ideas of love, loss and longing, along with short texts from Emily Dickinson and Percy Bysshe Shelley (below). Each text deals with memory and longing:

My thoughts arise and fade in solitude,
The verse that would invest them melts away
Like moonlight in the heaven of spreading day;
How beautiful the were, how firm they stood,
Flecking the starry sky like woven pearl

To flee from memory
Had we the wings
Many would fly
Inured to slower things.

Birds with surprise
Would scan the cowering van
Of men escaping
From the mind of man

In creating the piece I too wanted to find a way to bring imagery, sound, and idea together. I spent time with the noh, and there are some nods to noh vocal gestures in the voice, and also with Kōrin’s panels, trying to capture their shape, flow and movement – an undulating piano base with the rich vocal statements floating on top.

The poems also found their own cross-connections: My rough sketches of the flowers also revealed an echo of the shape of a bird in flight, in all three are images of water and of the shimmering heavens, of things difficult to grasp, of regret.

The relationship between nature and humanity, however rich the artistry or good the intention, in each is also neither one-way or simple, an uneasiness that solidifies emerges when reading through all three poems in sequence. This complexity was well-captured by Mark Cody Poulton in his article The Language of Flowers in the Nō Theatre (Japan Review No. 8, 1997): ‘

‘Before our eyes the lowly flower is transformed into several human characters, then finally into something altogether supernatural. Both poetry and scripture are employed here as vehicles of salvation…

…the buddhahood of plants in the Nō plays is essentially a form of domestication and acculturation of wild nature…This is not to deny, however, humanity’s obligation to align itself with natural processes. Both heart and flower must go out to meet each other for there to be any communication between them.’

Plus bonus kakitsubata – a growing field of digital irises at the TeamLAB Borderless digital art museum.

Re:Voicing the Flute – Irish music in Tokyo

Tokyo-based Irish composer Paul Hayes has organised a concert of flute music by Irish composers in June with Emma Coulthard.

Delighted to have been invited to create a short improvisation-based piece in collaboration with Emma, GlssRndr, a new iteration of the Rndr electronics performance system.

Full details below and at this link.

RE:Voicing the Flute

An Irish Perspective




Anna Murray – Electronics

World Premiere: CHATTERBOX - Paul Hayes

SUNDAY, JUNE 16, 2019 at 16:00
Doors open 15:30

TICKETS 2,000 Yen/Students 1,000 Yen



4-3-1 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150 0012

Featuring works by 

John Buckley

Benjamin Dwyer 

Paul Hayes* 

Michael Holohan 

Fergus Johnston 

Jenn Kirby*

John McLachlan 

Grainne Mulvey* 

Anna Murray

 *New Commissions

The Weight of Dreams – Kantan on the National Noh Theatre Stage

Just a few weeks into my stay in Japan (18 April), I was incredibly lucky to have a chance to see my first live noh, thanks to Richard Emmert (Noh performer and scholar based here in Tokyo, and leader of the Noh Training Project UK).

Kantan is the story of a Chinese man, Rosei, travelling in search of enlightenment. When he sleeps on the magical ‘pillow of Kantan’ he dreams a life in which he becomes Emperor and lives a life of pleasure, riches and power for 50 years. When he wakes it is with the realisation that his rule was just a dream ‘as short as the time it takes to cool millet’ – and more, that life itself is as transient and fragile as that dream.

The experience of live noh is, to say the least, different from recordings – the sounds of voice, drum and flute do not translate well in recordings or videos. The most abiding impression, though, of this first experience of live noh is the impact of and weight imparted by the physicality of the stage itself.

Warned in advance that Kantan can be boring, with long stretches with nothing much happening (the English-language subtitles on the seat screen was a great help in understanding what was happening, even with advance knowledge of the story), in reality it was a masterpiece of the building of physical tension. Unusually for a noh, the majority of the shite’s (main actor) dance and movement was contained – constrained – to within a small rectangle of the bed prop, while the stage filled with the dream Emperor’s retainers and ministers. These characters, as representations of the Emperor’s wealth and power with their brightly-patterned costumes, create a knot of physical density and visual intensity, which melts away as the dream does on Rosei’s wakening.

The whole play, musically and visually, far from being boring, was a single graceful arc from lightness to density and back again, from which Rosei and the audience emerge with a new appreciation of simplicity, fragility, and space.

The National Noh Theatre in Tokyo was built in 1983, but its cypress stage follows a design established in the 16th century – a roofed and pillared raised stage (hon-butai), with walkway (hashigakari), areas at the side and back for the chorus (jiutai-za) and musicians (ato-za), and of course, the kagami-ita with the painted pine backdrop.

Read more about Kantan, including an English-language script, on the-noh.com.

Arriving in Japan, April 2019

Settling in to new home in Tokyo, where I'll be spending six months studying Japanese at the 東京外国語大学 - Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, TUFS, then on to Geidai, Tokyo University of the Arts to study Noh under Takeshi Takeda thanks to the MEXT Scholarship programme.

But first – sakura season!