By Richard S. Ginell
NEW YORK — Even for curious followers of the avant-garde scene, let alone the general North American classical music listener, the world of Japanese classical music in the Western sense often seems to begin and end with Toru Takemitsu, if it is noticed at all. Nevertheless, New York-based Music From Japan has persevered by promoting Japanese music — and occasionally that of neighboring Asian countries — with commendable efforts since 1975 in the center of the North American musical universe, New York City, and elsewhere.
However, Music From Japan is trying something new in its 41st year by inaugurating an Artist Residence Program, which aims to create ties between American and Japanese composers, music critics, and scholars. The dialogue began Feb. 26-28 in the Big Apple with a weekend of concerts, panel discussions, and one very informative lecture. The Music Critics Association of North America, whose members would potentially help get the word out to a wider audience, signed on as a collaborator.
Given the undeniably esoteric subject matter, the proponents of this festival needed a good launching pad — and they got it from visiting scholar Dr. Yuji Numano, who, prior to the first concert Feb. 27, delivered a concise lecture that amounted to a useful crash course on the history of Japanese classical music. Moving in chronological order and supplemented with a two-page handout timeline and audio excerpts of rarely-heard pieces, Numano’s talk traced the development of classical music in Japan back to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the founding of the Music Research Institute (Ongaku torishirabe gakari) in 1879.
Since then, Numano said Japanese composers have been asking themselves the same question: Should we write Western music and abandon our traditions, or not?
At first, the urge to emulate the West controlled the music of composers such as the pioneering Kôsçak Yamada, whose tone poem The Flower of Madara (1913) carried a strong whiff of Debussy along with a meditative Asian flavor. Then there was a second stage of development during which traditional Japanese instruments and vocals were incorporated into the music and eventually allied with the most far-out Western compositional techniques. Yamada, who lived until 1965, became a convert, using Japanese sounds in his controversial (to his peers) 1934 Nagauta Symphony, and Takemitsu (1930-1996) fits into the later experimental stages of this period with his own unique sound world that mashes East and West together.
In the case of Music From Japan resident composer Misato Mochizuki, who received an entire concert to herself Feb. 27, it was difficult to pinpoint any particularly strong national signature in her works presented here. Three of her five Intermezzi — all American premieres — dominated the program, each written for a different instrument or pairing of instruments, or part of a cycle of etudes that might be considered an answer to other experimental chamber cycles, like Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas or William Kraft’s Encounters. All of them exploited extended techniques in which Mochizuki let her timbral imagination run wild.
Intermezzi I found flutist Elizabeth Brown blowing multiphonics and gently whistling while pianist Margaret Kampmeier struck or stroked the piano strings when not playing the keys and carefully shaping the sound with the damper pedal. Intermezzi II created unusual effects for 13-string koto (played by Masayo Ishigure), while Intermezzi V featured the definitely unorthodox combination of viola (Jocelin Pan) and accordion (William Schimmel), the latter of which was assigned extremely high-pitched sounds that might have discombobulated the dogs in the neighborhood. Of the three, only Intermezzi V generated any dramatic tension, with massive chords for the accordion escalating in volume in a couple of passages. Finally, Le pas d’après for violin, flute, and guitar (Oren Fader) took off in another direction, generating a fine rhythmic groove in some passages and a flamenco flavor, perhaps unintended, in others.
As for the second concert Feb. 28, none of the eight works had been performed in America, and a bewilderingly varied lot they were. The two solo piano pieces were the most appealing — first Satoshi Minami’s sometimes Romantic stream-of-consciousness permutations on J. S. Bach entitled Zigzag Bach, and then Masahiro Miwa’s Rainbow Machine Koan-001, an attractive series of relentless patterns seemingly imitating an analog synthesizer’s sample-and-hold feature. There is the beginning of a performance tradition of Rainbow Machine, with pianist Stephen Gosling applying a more legato approach than does the pianist on the YouTube recording of the piece. Numano claimed that Miwa is the “epicenter of attention” in Japan these days, and this attention-grabbing work helped to explain why.
Matters veered toward the weird with Haruyuki Suzuki’s Myoclony, where, in the middle of some “snagged and jerky” (according to the composer) passages, a trumpeter (Carmen J. Camerieri, a member of pop star Paul Simon’s band as of 2014) suddenly started playing freaky jazz licks out of nowhere. Hardly anyone cracked a smile, but I thought Camerieri and some comments by the squalling oboist and cellist were hilarious. Humor in music at last!
Yoshifumi Tanaka’s An Interview with L.B. interpreted by viola and piano was supposed to be an instrumental transcript of a conversation between Luciano Berio and an interviewer. The piece’s agitated groping about merely left me curious as to just what Berio was actually saying. Likewise, Akiko Yamane’s Ambiguous garnet colored fragments for flute, violin, and piano had a concrete premise: to illustrate “the sweetness and pain romantic love brings” through devices like terse single notes, multiphonics, and a ghostly backdrop created by use of the piano pedals. But I sensed only the pain, not the sweetness.
Dai Fujikura’s Cutting Sky for koto and viola is part of a cycle called Okeanos, whose five pieces are sequenced in the form of an arch or palindrome (think Bartók’s Fourth Quartet or Mahler’s Seventh Symphony). The central movement, “Cutting Sky,” is by far the most arresting, agitated, pitch-warping piece of the five, reminiscent of the music of Harry Partch, with the violist using a plectrum throughout and the koto working up quite a lather of complex chords (you can hear the piece and follow the score here).
Sunao Isaji’s Falling Dance for flute/piccolo, cello, and piano was the most overtly Japanese-flavored piece of the set, with the characters in a traditional folktale represented by verbal interjections from the players. The sole world premiere commissioned by the festival, Hiroyuki Yamamoto’s New York Dance for violin, piano, piccolo, bass clarinet, and flugelhorn, concluded the concert quickly and busily, with dance rhythms that moved along at a quirky gait.
The two days of concerts ultimately didn’t point to a generalized or specific regional profile of the state of Japanese classical music today. Most of what I heard could have originated from almost anywhere (I must confess that a piece like American composer Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas gives me a more vivid picture of what Japanese contemporary music could sound like than anything on these programs).
It may be that neo-Japonism is just like the avant-garde in many places these days — fragmented, open to all influences, no single style or school dominant or ascendant, with Western and Eastern traditional instruments being manipulated in ways not recommended by the instruction manuals. Which is good in an egalitarian sense, and frustrating only for those who search for trends and hierarchies.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.