Who or what is Jo-ha-kyu?

All things in the universe, good or evil, large or small, animate or inanimate, have each the rhythm of jo-ha-kyû. (Zeami)

The spacio-temporal concept of jo-ha-kyû forms an important aesthetic in Japanese music. The three sections of jo-ha-kyû can be translated as introduction, scattering and rushing. This tripartite structure can be traced to the eight-century rhythmic distinctions in bugaku, the ancient court dance of Japan. With the fall of Heian courtly life in the thirteenth century, a distinctly Japanese musical aesthetic emerged. The new military class emphasised Japanese aesthetic qualities over the foreign influences that had dominated in the Heian Era (794-1185). These theories were developed in the treatises of Zeami (1363-1443) about Noh theatre. Jo-ha-kyû was later applied to other musical genres such as shômyô (Buddhist chant), kabuki, sôkyoku (koto genres) and jiuta (song with shamisen accompaniment). The aesthetic has also been used in other art forms such as ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and kendo (Japanese martial art).

The earliest application of jo-ha-kyû was in bugaku. represents the netori or the music when the dancers entered the ritual area. The rhythm of this section is marked by strong taiko drum strokes and not sub-divided by the drum strokes of the kakko and san-no-tsuzumi drums. It may be perceived as free but is conceptualised by the performers in terms of the weighted steps of the approaching dancers, the purposeful breathing of the ryuteki, hichiriki and sho players and the gestural movements of the drummers. The overall impression is one of expectation and exploration of a sound world and performing space. In the ha section the dancers begin the ritualistic movements and the musicians begin the musical piece. The dancing and melody is accompanied by the subdivision of the beat by the kakko and san-no-tsuzumi. There is a gradual increase in tempo over approximately seven to ten minutes. The feeling is of the unfolding of a musical and gestural idea. The kyû section occurs at the culmination of the accelerando but slows to the original slow pace in the final beats. It is like a flourish that dissolves as soon as it is created. Jo-ha-kyû acts as a structuring device to a performance that lacks a climax or clear section divisions. The overall effect is one of an undulating wave of sound accompanying the flowing movements of the dancers.

It was Zeami who appropriated the theoretical concept of jo-ha-kyû to transform the Noh into a symbolic theatre, in which the most important actions were not represented but suggested. The twelfth century saw the beginning of nearly five hundred turbulent years in Japanese history in which warlords battled against each other. This is in stark contrast to the Heian Era which means literally ‘peaceful tranquillity’ in which the arts flourished in aristocratic circles. This new era of destruction and death lead to a poetic instinct that emphasised impermanence and death. This is perfectly illustrated in the opening phrases of the great tragedy, the ‘Tale of the Heike’ composed at this time:

“In the sound of the bell of the Gion Temples echoes the impermanence of all things. The pale hue of the flowers of the teak-tree show the truth that they who prosper must fall. The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring night’s dream. And the mighty ones too will perish in the end, like dust before the wind.”

It is during this period that many of the key Japanese aesthetic concepts were formed, such as jûgen, wabi and sabi. Jo-ha-kyû represents a structural framework in which these aesthetics of suggestion weaved their spell of mystery and profundity. Zeami applied the tripartite division of jo-ha-kyû to all aspects of Noh theatre: from the structure of a melody, section or complete composition to the analysis of gesture, spatial use of the stage and the development of character. Its later application to other genres such as gidayu, kabuki, sôkyoku and jiuta was mainly as a structural concept. Jo-ha-kyû came to represent the main structural parts as well as the subdivision of each section.

Jo-ha-kyû is closely connected to the Japanese concept of naru. Naru is the infinitive of the verb ‘to become’ and represents a notion running through all aspects of Japanese life. It has been contrasted to the Judeo-Christian concept of creation. The founding myths of Japan ignore a single creator and a precise moment of creation. They instead evoke the existence of an eternal source of energy that evolves to create life. This is closely connected to the ancient Chinese concept of Ying and Yang. The idea of an eternal world in a constant state of evolution is also evident in the Buddhist belief of incarnation. This concept of slow imperceptible change is inscribed in jo-ha-kyû:

...controlling the speed of the development, the intensity, the density, and the linking up of successive phrases which, in the Noh, for example, move imperceptibly from inertia to a quick movement without the slightest dynamism becoming apparent. (Tamba 1983)

The structural concept of jo-ha-kyû can be applied to shakuhachi honkyoku. There are many interpretations:

Jo-ha-kyû differs from the tripartite ternary structures of western music that imply an introduction, development and a reprise. The beauty lies not in the use of contrasting materials but in the slow evolving texture and the changing timbre of the instruments. This is based on the essential Japanese musical aesthetic: that music is not distinct from nature but part of it:

The constant progress of the blossoming of the cherry blossom, starting from the appearance of the first petals to the scattering of the full blossoms by the wind…… each blossom possesses its own unique rhythm of coming into flower, that represents its own specific energy. (Tamba 1983)