On Form and Substance

When Robert Savoca Sensei, the chief instructor at Brooklyn Aikikai asked me to pen my thoughts about the term “form”, the first thing that came to my mind was the famous (and surely apocryphal) anecdote that opposed the late 19th/early 20th centuries composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie.

According to the legend, in answer to Debussy’s criticism for his lack of attention to the form (“The form, Satie, the form!”), Satie’s response was a composition called “Trois morceaux en forme de poire” (Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear).

What exactly did Debussy was trying to say? Did he reproach to his fellow composer his lack of respect for the conventional musical forms, or his lack of knowledge of these forms?

A search in Wikipedia reveals that in the tenth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy Scholes defines musical form as “a series of strategies designed to find a successful mean between the opposite extremes of unrelieved repetition and unrelieved alteration.”

For others, the term musical form refers to the musical structure, the overall structure or plan of a piece of music (sonata, concerto, fugue, symphony, etc.).

Improvisation in Jazz music is based on a melodic line or an harmonic form. (The word harmony deriving from the Greek armozo, meaning to join, to concord, to adapt).

Then what is the “form” and how should it be defined: is it a frame, a base, a tool or a mean, an accomplishment? What should it be made of?

In music, “form” seems to define a structure on which compositions are built. These structures have rules that are to be strictly enforced but that can also be broken or distorted. Jazz improvisers usually proceed within harmonic or melodic rules but also break them or distort them.

Those of us who study Aikido and Iaido are familiar with this concept of form which the Japanese call “waza” (技 ) or “kata” (型 ). In Aikido, the character “ai” (会) means to join, to associate, to harmonize. Our daily training and practice is based on the repetition of forms.

When I studied under Chiba Sensei’s instruction in Japan (at the end of the seventies) we used to actively practice the so-called “kumitachi”, a series of bokken exercises or forms and their variations devised by Saito Morihiro Sensei in a tentative to “formalize” O-sensei’s weapon work. For several years, we thus tirelessly repeated the same forms again and again for eventually stop to do so as Chiba Sensei came to think that after all they did not represent what O-Sensei had been doing. The forms were thus put to rest only to be resuscitated a few years later after some adjustments and a new approach.

In a similar manner, Chiba Sensei, wishing that his Aikido student acquired some knowledge or, in his own words, a “feel” in sword handling, the Birankai group members started to study various forms of sword practice. Here again, after a few years Chiba Sensei decided to abandon the idea and stopped conducting “batto-ho” classes while encouraging everyone to continue practicing. This time, Chiba Sensei referred to the lack of substance in the students practice and thus its pointlessness.

Music and painting are forms of art which objective is to create emotions and pleasure. They are based on forms, conventional or modern, and sometimes not, but although we might like such form rather than other, the most important part is the result, the emotion and the pleasure aroused in the listener or the viewer. In other words, the substance emerging or transpiring from musical or pictorial works. Erik Satie’s answer to Claude Debussy’s remark pointed to this exact fact: the form, may be; the substance, undoubtedly. The greatest artists are probably those who after mastering the form have freed themselves from it.

Form is an essential element of Aikido and Iaido. But these disciplines are not limited to the practice of forms. Or rather, the practice of forms should lead to a higher being, a higher knowledge, and to a mastering of oneself. The unrelenting repetition and alteration of forms should be a course to improvement and bettering. Each of these repetitions and their alterations should be the search for the perfect movement and the perfect strike: one should always practice as if it were the first and the last time.

The form remains the base, the container to which we should go back untiringly, just like one practices scales and exercises, until it is fully mastered and can then be discarded.

Tireless and genuine practice of the form will free us from it. Only the substance will remain.


(This article was first published in the Brooklyn Aikikai Journal, Vol. I, Number 6, Winter 2016.)

2 thoughts on “On Form and Substance

  1. Beautifully written! I see many similar references (form / technique & substance) between Aikido and photography. As for Satie, my favorite is Gymnopedie no. 1. I regret missing a Sunday afternoon performance at the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church in Paris (2012). Thank you for this wonderful essay. – Gustavo

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