By Ken Smith
NEW YORK — While many of the critics gathered in late February for the 41st season of Music From Japan were getting their first healthy dose of that country’s musical avant-garde, it was more like Old Home Week for me.
Back when I was a genuine full-time New Yorker, I never missed a season. Since 2004, I’ve divided my time fairly evenly between New York and Asia — a cultural landscape that some ten years’ worth of Music From Japan festivals surely made less displacing. And yet, thanks to festival co-founders Naoyuki Miura and Mari Ono, I’ve still heard more contemporary Japanese music in New York than anywhere else.
What I didn’t recall, until this year’s festival sent me back to my files, was that my very first piece of grown-up music criticism — not my first review, but the first review other people had to pay to read — was of Music From Japan. In the May 1993 issue of The Strad, I wrote of Akira Miyoshi — who was featured that year with three North American premieres, a world premiere, and one festival co-commission — that “once past the programme notes, it became difficult to detect any traces of inherently Eastern practice. Having studied composition for two years in Paris, Miyoshi’s works sound French as much as anything else.”
Jump ahead to 2016, and I could’ve penned pretty much those same words. This year’s featured composer was Misato Mochizuki (b.1969), a Tokyo-born IRCAM alumna whose works would never be confused with Miyoshi’s, though her Les pas d’après (Next Step) and three Intermezzi — receiving their North American premiere on Feb. 27 — were cut from similarly French cloth. Or, to choose a more culturally fitting analogy, different vintage, same terroir.
Back in the 1990s, when I struggled to grasp how the music being performed was in any way Japanese, I generally ended up describing pieces in terms of timbre and structure. The program notes were often impenetrable, frequently illuminating the concepts behind the works but rarely describing — or preparing the audience for — the works themselves. It became something of a parlor game to read notes from one piece while another was being performed just to see if they were really interchangeable. They sometimes were.
How I could’ve benefited back then from hearing Yuji Numano, the critic and musicologist from the Toho Gakuen School of Music who outlined the history of Japanese new music in this year’s opening pre-concert lecture. In Numano’s account, it was Kôsçak (or Kosaku) Yamada (1886–1965), a composition student of Max Bruch at the Berlin Hochschule shortly before World War I, who began Japan’s shift from being strictly a consumer of Western music to becoming an active producer. I first encountered Yamada’s music a decade ago in a Naxos release of his student compositions, digesting the history of Western tradition from his Haydnesque Overture in D and Schubertian Symphony in F (both from 1912) to two later symphonic poems from 1913 fully embracing post-Wagnerian orchestral idioms from Richard Strauss to Debussy and Scriabin. Numano expanded that picture much further, painting Yamada as not merely a sincere copyist but also (in his Nagauta Symphony of 1934) a seminal figure in combining Western and Japanese instruments within the same symphonic language.
Perhaps what struck me most in Numano’s presentation was how Japan’s history and relationship with Western music was so starkly different from China’s. From a distance, we often think of China as a bigger Japan that simply took longer to gain traction, but this oversimplifies the picture. Since Chinese-born composers (from the Oscar-winning Tan Dun to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Zhou Long) have long overtaken their Japanese counterparts in the international arena, the disparities bear consideration.
Although Western culture has been highly politicized in both countries, Japan’s history has proven less overtly volatile. The Meiji government’s abrupt turn toward Western customs (and downgrade of local tradition) in the 1860s prevailed in musical terms for nearly a century. China, initially impressed by Japan’s successful modernization, adapted a similar “May Fourth Movement” but adapted from Western culture only what was “useful.” Though the career path of Xian Xinghai (1905–45) somewhat mirrored Yamada’s 20 years earlier — Xian returned from his studies with D’Indy and Dukas at the Paris Conservatory to a country at war with Japan — musical life became inextricably political and his works took a strongly propagandistic bent.
Beginning in the mid 1940s, when Japan initiated its remarkable post-war ascent, China found itself involved first in a brutal civil war, then in a new Socialist Republic that proved no less tumultuous, initiating a series of national campaigns and five-year plans precluding any possibility of organic cultural development. Perhaps the only direct parallel between China and Japan — at least as described by Mochizuki in a post-concert discussion — was a shared reverence for Western instruments. Even during China’s infamous Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when Western repertoire was roundly condemned, the instruments themselves were prized as the height of industrialized development.
No one who’s heard the chamber works of Tan Dun or Chen Yi, with Western instruments imitating the techniques and sonorities of their Chinese counterparts and vice versa, would’ve been surprised by Mochizuki’s pieces on Feb. 27. Intermezzi I (1998) for flute and piano was filled with flutist Elizabeth Brown’s humming into her instrument to approximate the overtones of a bamboo flute. Pianist Margaret Kampmeier’s plucking inside the piano lid had a touch of the koto, while koto player Masayo Ishigure’s performance in Intermezzi II (2002) drew on a highly pianistic sense of repetition and rhythmic propulsion. Intermezzi V (2012) for viola and accordion unfolded with accordionist William Schimmel contrasting violist Jocelin Pan’s lyrical strengths by masterfully mimicking the flutter-tonguing of the Japanese sho, a traditional mouth organ.
Rather, the difference between Mochizuki and her Chinese counterparts was in their subtlety. Mochizuki’s works seemed less concerned with announcing their presence in the world, more comfortable being part of a continuum. On some levels, her works strongly resembled the Japanese compositions I remembered from the 1990s, generally indiscernible from mid-20th-century European modernism and allowing for little cultural reference outside itself. Indeed, I overheard one audience member at Mochizuki’s concert mutter afterward, “Did we all just step back into the 1960s?”
And yet, particularly regarding structure, these works were several decades removed. Mochizuki’s quasi-rhapsodic approach — inspired, she later admitted on stage, by Roland Barthes’ “fragmented discourse,” in which unrelated ideas are grouped and connected later — brought to mind Mark Twain’s quip about New England weather (“If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes…”), with almost kaleidoscopic timbral juxtapositions leaving little chance for the ear to grow complacent.
The next afternoon’s program, curated by Numano, proved that Mochizuki was in no way an anomaly. The eight works, from the past 15 years and grouped together under the critical label “neo-Japonism,” though diverse in their resources and artistic intent, had all the makings of a shared movement. Once again, few of the techniques were revolutionary in and of themselves. Satoshi Minami’s Zigzag Bach (2000) deconstructed the Baroque master in familiar postmodern ways. Masahiro Miwa’s Rainbow Machine Koan–1 (2015) used old-fashioned acoustic instruments to imitate the repetition of computer music.
Yoshifumi Tanaka’s An Interview with L.B. interpreted by viola and piano (2006) was ostensibly transcribed from the pitches and rhythms of an exchange with Luciano Berio, but came off rather like the 1990s text-inspired pieces of Steve Reich and Scott Johnson without the actual text. Hiroyuki Yamamoto’s New York Dance (2016), a Music From Japan commission receiving its premiere, offered the bustling drive its title suggested, adhering to the two dictums once facetiously attributed to modern jazz: don’t play a melody that anyone would remotely recognize, and if people actually start dancing, change the tempo.
By the end of the afternoon, a sense of shared vocabulary veered back and forth, and I felt like I was experiencing less of a public concert than a private conversation among the composers themselves. I was trying to put my finger on precisely what was different from the music of a decade ago when the composer Carl Stone noted, during a post-concert panel, a general absence of ma.
Usually translated as “gap” or “space,” ma is the Japanese feeling of emptiness that helps define substance. It’s the white space around the calligraphy that sets the characters apart, the inside of a cup that makes the cup useful. In musical terms, it’s the silence that offers room for reflection, which so often struck a familiar chord (so to speak) with Western listeners attuned to minimalism’s more contemplative side.
It was also, as Stone pointed out, the Japanese element least utilized in this year’s festival. If Numano’s argument is to be taken at face value, much of the national consciousness involved in “neo-Japonism” is that working composers in Japan now have as little spare time for reflection as the rest of us.
Ken Smith divides his time between New York and Hong Kong, where he is the Asian Performing Arts Critic of the Financial Times.