Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
My friend K., who has been as close as a sister to me for nearly two decades, is a professional composer and a professor of music and composition. She has dedicated her work life to music and sound, yet she has a tattoo on her back that signals a vital and momentary silence: the two slightly angled parallel lines called a caesura. “The space,” she told me recently, “is really hard to accept as a composer.” As a result, she spends a lot of time with her students talking over that aspect of craft—not so much the importance of notes, but of the spaces between. I assumed their importance came from giving listeners a chance to absorb what they’d heard, but she said it wasn’t only that, sound needs a pause, she said, in which “to literally resonate and decay.” I imagined a lingering sound bouncing around space after the notes have played, the accumulated noise muddying the clarity of the rest of a piece.
I remembered this while I read Janet Pocorobba’s new memoir, The Fourth String (Stone Bridge Press, March 2019), in which she tells of her time learning to play the shamisen in Japan with a unique and challenging teacher. Those pauses and silences between notes that Pocorobba calls a “live blank,” or ma, help the notes define themselves; they also give this book its shape.
The memoir opens in 1996, when Pocorobba inhabits a kind of ‘live blank’ of her own, done now with graduate school, she is not exactly sure what comes next. Or, more precisely, she knows that what is expected of her — marriage, children — may not be what she wants. So when the opportunity arises to move to Japan with her boyfriend, where they both have jobs teaching English, she takes it. “I had no history with the place,” Pocorobba admits of Japan, “no desire for it.” Nevertheless, by the fall she is living in a town of drab cinderblock buildings about two hours from Tokyo. Under that “always inflamed” sky, she feels out of place, off kilter, and still lacking in direction.
When a friend sends Pocorobba a magazine ad for free lessons on a traditional Japanese instrument called the shamisen, Pocorobba signs up. Soon after, she meets her teacher, the woman she calls Sensei, “one who came before,” though her teacher never uses the word to describe herself. In fact, Sensei appears to be something of a misfit, a performer of masterful skill and admirable artistic lineage who nevertheless remains excluded from the professional system. Sensei privately derides the gatekeepers as “fake,” yet she pays them lavishly to allow her students the opportunity to perform. Furthermore, she insists on teaching only foreigners, seeing the culture and people around her as, in Pocorobba’s words, “antagonistic to her dreams, oppressive and narrow-minded.” Though a master in her own right, Sensei accepts no payment for her own mentorship, though she takes on some students for years at a time.
Sensei does it, presumably, for the love of the shamisen, whose practice is a dying art that she feels goes unappreciated in Japan. The instrument’s sonic personality and texture is well-defined in this book—the odd, small soundbox, long, fretless neck, and three strings emitting a “pained bleating” and “buzzing” elevate it to a character in its own right. It also has a way of sliding out of tune during play; given the lack of fretting, the player must depend on ear and intuition to correct it when it does. It’s difficult to master but Pocorobba, who has played piano since childhood, writes, “[W]ith an instrument in my hand, I felt in control again, no longer without aim. There was hope.” The practice of the instrument lends her a purpose, the soundscapes of Tokyo opening up to her as she learns, not just to play, but to listen.
But this book is at least as much about relationship between the student and her teacher as it is about the musician and her instrument; indeed, it’s likely to appeal to those who enjoy a detailed and intimate portrayal of the relationship between two women. As someone not overly familiar with traditional Japanese music, I enjoyed learning about the shamisen; fans of memoirs about craft, performance and music are likely to enjoy this. And the ma or the “sound and its interruption” of the period covered in the memoir is anything but empty. There are public performances, but also the private jealousy of rival students and resulting dramas. Underneath it all, there is the resounding, lingering question of when the pause will end, of the mastery of instrument and self, and when it is time, at last, to go home.