Biwa Masters and Musical Hierophanies in the Heike monogatari and Other Medieval Texts

In: Journal of Religion in Japan
David T. Bialock University of Southern California Los Angeles USA

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The Heike monogatari has long been at the center of discussions about the function of medieval Japanese performing arts, linked variously to ritual placation, purification, and to Buddhist sermonizing and entertainment. The present essay complicates this view by connecting Heike and biwa playing to several musical phenomena that have received less attention. These include the accusation of bōkoku no oto (sounds of a nation going to ruin), which criticized certain kinds of music from a Confucian ethical perspective, as well as the practice of esoteric biwa initiation (biwa kanjō) along with the related phenomena of the musical hierophany (yōgō) and the elaborate descriptions of music in Heike texts that I call ‘musical ekphrasis.’ The essay is divided into two parts. The first half highlights aspects of vocal, musical, and textual performance in the Heike, including the kinesthetic dimension of dance. The second part examines parallels between medieval guides to esoteric biwa initiation, such as the Biwa kanjō shidai, and descriptions of musical instruments and hierophanies in the Genpei seisuiki and Engyōbon Heike monogatari, two lesser known Heike variants. Moving away from a purely instrumental use of description in the Heike narratives, i.e., what might a certain passage tell us about biwa playing, I argue instead that these elaborate musical ekphrases woven into the Heike texts are themselves synaethesias, or auditory-visual-tactile manifolds, that gesture toward the epiphanic moment of enlightenment through music that is also echoed in the adornment (shōgon) of the esoteric biwa initiation ceremony.

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