Performance Arts among the Là, VI



If the salungàhara is the dominant aristocratic artform in terms of vitality, the somyangahàra is the artform with perhaps the highest prestige. This is a poetic and musical art, in which poems are sung with musical accompaniment.


Somyangahàra are primarily an aristocratic interest, and they are almost always performed indoors, within a baryōng. The lower classes have a passing interest in the artform, and somyangahàra are sometimes performed for a lower-class audience, though they are rarely the main attraction.


Somyangahàra are performed by aristocrats for their families and friends, but also sometimes by their servants and junior relatives (usually for their superiors alone, though close family friends may also be present, particularly if the performer is unusually talented). They are not typically performed by professionals for a noble audience, although there are a small number of professionals who perform for lower-class gatherings, most as a diversion during or around a dujdahonday performance. Professionals who specialise only in somyangahàra are among the most despised members of society – in addition to the indignity of attempting to make money out of the art, it is assumed that these people are either peasants who are seeking to imitate noble ways or else aristocrats who have been ostracised and forced into poverty for some unknown crime. Some somyangahàra, particularly the most famous, may also be learnt by peasants and recited for themselves or their family or friends.

Typically, a somyangahàra requires two performers, sometimes more; often, sets of somyangahàra will rotate the performance duties, so that the accompanist becomes the soloist and vice versa.


The composition of somyangahàra is primarily a display of intelligence: the poem should impress the audience with the wit of the poet. The better examples seek a general and universal significance; but they are best when they avoid outright didacticism, and in particular the poet should be recognisable through their style, not through their individual attitudes or beliefs (although of course some element of this is inevitable). Poems may thus be sharp, but should not be strident.

The performance of somyangahàra likewise should display the quality of the performer, not their individual natures. Performance, both vocal and instrumental, should be simple, clear, crisp, and unaffected: the performer exists to present the poem, not to call attention to themselves. Ideally, the audience should first applaud the poem, and only then recollect how well it was sung, which itself is primarily a matter of not getting in the way of the poem.

As an aristocratic and amateur artform, there is a degree to which somyangahàra ‘ought’ to be primarily for the benefit of the performer, and to this end there is some theory about the possession of the performer by the poem, and hence the performer’s connection to the time and place of its composition and to the genius of the poet. However, in practice performances are primarily for the sake of the audience. Composition is somewhat more egocentric, as an expression of an inner creative urge, and indeed it is not unusual for some poets to only share their better works; again, though, nobles primarily compose somyangahàra to please their audience.


The somyangahàra has several subforms, but all are characterised by their brevity. Almost all forms are structured in couplets, and poems may be as short as a single couplet or as long as sixteen couplets (poems of thirty-two, sixty-four or even one-hundred-and-twenty-eight have been composed, but are very rare, and only a handful are widely performed). The original form of the couplet was a sung call followed by an instrumental response, and this remains the dominant form; sometimes this pattern is inverted, or couplets of both types combined; double-instrumental ‘puzzle’ couplets are also found, as are, more rarely, lines that combine instrumental and vocal elements. A minority of poems are based on quatrains, which may feature one singer and two instruments (ABAC, ABCA or BACA, in decreasing order of likelihood), two singers and one instrument, two singers and two instruments, or sometimes one singer and three instruments. Forms involving two singers may in some cases feature only one singer, adopting different pitches or registers to distinguish two voices. A small number of poems are based on triplets or quintains; triplet poems are usually composed of three, and rarely nine, triplets; quintain poems are usually of one, two, three, or five quintains. Poems based on larger units than quintains do exist, but are highly unusual.

Within each couplet (quatrain, triplet or quintain), each line has a fixed number of morae, although in some forms a degree of leniency may be found. The melodic contour of each line is (almost) entirely determined by the natural pitch-accent of the words, and each line has a fixed number of melodic peaks, which include not only accented syllables but also some stressed syllables and long vowels. Typically, mora and peak numbers are maintained between couplets also, although this is not always the case. Some forms insist on identical melodic contours at the beginning and/or end of lines. Many forms also insist on patterns of alliteration and assonance between lines.

The distinctive feature of somyangahàra is the way in which instruments, usually aerophones, are used in place of human voices. By tying melodic line so closely to natural vocal pitch contours, the poet attempts to use the melodic contour of the instrumental line to imply a certain vocal pitch contour; combined with the context provided by the sung lines, and where applicable the rules of assonance and consonance, this should suggest to the listener one or several possible unsung, ‘hidden’ poetic lines: that is, the instrument is fancifully imagined to be singing a given poetic line, and the hearer attempts to deduce what it must be from the melody and formal constraints, even in the absence of phonemes. Of course, in some cases more than one possible line may fit the requirements, which is an ambiguity often used for humorous effect. ‘Puzzle’ couplets, or entire puzzle poems, minimise the spoken content to leave the ‘underlying’ poetry extremely difficult to deduce.

In addition to the melodic use of instruments, somyangahàra are often accompanied harmonically.


There are five main genres of somyangahàra: solicitation, argument, inquisition, enthusiasm, and rumination. Solicitation poems are the oldest genre, and the most popular: these feature two or more characters, in which one character makes sexual suggestions to the other. Typically, the solicitation is done by the instrumental voice, which allows the risqué content to be suggested to the audience without being spoken out loud or explicitly confirmed, for humorous effect; usually, the sung lines will begin respectably, but become increasingly risqué themselves, with even more bawdy content suggested by the instrumental replies. An inverted form gives the solicitation, usually more polite, to the sung voice, allowing the instrument to give replies that may be ambiguously interpreted as either rejections or bawdy acceptance. Argument songs were next to develop and the next most popular: here, the two (or more) voices have a disagreement on some issue – typically, a domestic decision that has to be made – and the humour comes from the increasing anger of the two parties, and imparticular by the intemperate language suggested by the instrumental lines. Inquisition poems give the sung voice a series of questions on a practical issue, with the instrumental lines suggesting evasive or ambiguous answers, to the irritation of the sung voice – often the instrumental line represents a child, or sometimes a spouse or sullen servant. Enthusiasm poems pit one character who is interested in or enthusiastic about something with a second character, played by the instrument, whose implied responses undercut the enthusiastic partner sarcastically. Finally, rumination poems ask questions or make provocative observations on some deep question of psychology, philosophy, physics or politics, and the instrumental responses give ambiguous answers – these are the only somyangahàra where humour is not expected (though some specific examples of the other genres may subvert the expectation of humour).

Generally, the content of the somyangahàra is personal – sometimes genuinely personal to the poet, and otherwise an imitation of personal content, rooted in domestic concerns (although some poets have used this foundation as a basis for political or satirical commentary). A minority of works derive their content from the Immortal Classics, but even there the evidence is on personal experience, not on the broader plots – worthy of note, however, is the technique whereby the taboo on representation of real individuals can be circumvented by representing their dialogue instrumentally.

Musically, there are two dimensions: the instrumental lines and the accompaniment. Instrumental lines are generally played on aerophones, which imitate the human voice. Since most somyangahàra melodic lines are performed by single performers, and most represent a dialogue between male and female characters, an aerophone is chosen that opposes the pitch of the performer – most commonly, a woman sings, and plays a low-pitched aerophone. These aerophones are typically flutes, considered to have the most human and most clear voices; reed instruments are sometimes used for particularly comic effect, and labrophones are also found. These ‘trumpets’ lack valves or slides, and instead rely on fingerholes, which produce a weaker and breathier sound – but then, loud volume is not required for the somyangahàra, an intimate form of art.

Accompaniment, meanwhile, is provided most often by string instruments. Originally, this was likely to take the form of the kabolòka, an eight-stringed board-zither, but now the native raò, a tube zither with five or ten strings, is more popular. This is usually played by an accompanist, though it may instead by played the by the singer with the instrumental lines given to the second performer instead. Accompaniment is based on the theory of tone clusters: each cluster consists of four near-adjacent pitches, in primitive form played simultaneously. The cluster provides a grounding for the melody, which must pick only from the notes of the cluster (or the same notes octave aparts), as well as a harmonic progression, as one cluster resolves into the next. The accompanist may express these clusters though repeated simultaneous playing of all the notes, or by sequential playing, with the caveat that sequential expression of the cluster must be either overlapped enough or rapid enough that the cluster is perceptible as a whole, and the individual notes only as its parts. Typically this rapid arpeggiation of the cluster is the preferred style, although simultanous strumming may be used to give the impression either of simplicity or of power.

Creation and Distribution

Most somyangahàra have already been created. The core of the repertoire are the works of the Seven Sublime Poets, who lived under the Latter Banōm; other popular works are by either the Eighteen Lesser Former Poets (their less succesful contemporaries) or the Fourteen Latter Poets (eight of whom date from the Interaccord, six (and counting) from the Fourth Accord era). Devotees may also be aware of some works by minor poets. The creation of somyangahàra has not stopped – a great many nobles will try their hand at the old forms now and then, and a few will even become famous for it, but by and large it is generally believed that the older works are always better, and that later works are derivative and lack spontaneity.

All nobles will know several dozen somyangahàra by heart, and those of an artistic inclination may know a hundred or more. Somyangahàra have become key educational tools, used in teaching reading, writing, music, deduction, and critical analysis, and quotations from somyangahàra are ubiquitous. There is thus a large degree to which the more famous somyangahàra are transmitted orally, either by adults to children in an educational setting, or through the medium of performances by family and friends. However, most somyangahàra (both the classics and modern efforts) are learnt from books. Typically a new poet of somyangahàra who wishes to achieve fame will first achieve local recognition through performances, and then seek to have her poems transmitted in book form.


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