YonaNuki and Sakura

Yonanuki is the name given to a particular kind of scale used in Japanese music. It means literally ‘without the fourth and the seventh’. In other words, you take a standard major or minor scale and by omitting the fourth and seventh note you arrive at the familiar sounding pentatonic scale long associated with traditional Japanese musical expression.

The Japanese have a very unusual cultural relationship with their musical scales. The five notes are given male and female characteristics and represent the five elements earth, water, fire, wood and metal. Also the root note is placed not first in the scale but third.

There is a great difference between the major yonanuki and the minor. Minus the fourth and the seventh, the major becomes a very regular pentatonic, similar to those found in other cultures like Chinese, Irish, Scottish. Ethnomusicologists call this scale Anhemitonic (containing no semitones). In Japanese culture it is called ‘Yo’ and described as bright. however when the same system is applied to a minor scale, the result is that uniquely Japanese melancholic sounding pentatonic, with bigger jumps between the notes. This scale (Hemitonic, or containing semitones) is called by the Japanese ‘In’ and described as dark. It is very rarely found anywhere else in the world, sometimes in Indonesian slendro and in some Ethiopian pop music (Mahmoud Ahmed for example…. how did it get there ? !)

From the very beginning Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra incorporated this minor yonanuki scale into their music because of its dramatic and nostalgic intensity. Here is a video of a live performance by them of the famous Japanese tune ‘Sakura’. There are numerous pieces of music related to sakura. This one arranged for Forgotten Fish for violin, two cellos, box harp, theremin, saw and radio, was written in the Edo period. . Its slow melancholic melody was originally composed as a ‘not too difficult’ tune for children learning the koto. Such was the beauty of the piece that it became a popular classic.

Sakura is the national flower of Japan. The term actually refers to ornamental cherry trees and their blossoms. As a symbol it is deeply embedded in the culture, in ukiyo-e or woodblock prints, in poetry, films, and most of all in music. The blossoms appear just for a few days, and fall like snowflakes. The viewing of this ‘falling’ is a national event. All over the country, festivals called ‘hanami’ are arranged so that the whole nation can witness this event and the parks are full of sake-sipping aesthetes. To the Japanese, sakura blossom represents the transience of life, because the period of blooming is so short. The falling blossoms can also represent fallen warriors – sakura was painted on the side of the kamikaze planes.


About makmedthemiller

multidiscipline artist
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