By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK — Music From Japan was launched in 1975 in an effort to gain exposure for the rich variety of Japanese music via concerts and educational events in the United States and an annual tour. In its four decades of thoughtfully curated programming, the organization has become a vehicle for presenting Japanese culture as filtered through different aspects of its classical music scene.
During the festival’s first decade, American composers were included in the programming, and the tenth season included symposia and concerts in New York City and Washington, D.C., with participation by non-Japanese composers, such as Gunther Schuller and George Crumb, whose work was influenced by Japanese contemporary music. In other years, the festival focused on geography, tradition, or aesthetics. The 37th season in 2012 was dedicated to fundraising for one of the villages most severely impacted by the previous year’s trio of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. Expanding its reach to other regions of East Asia, the 40th anniversary season examined aesthetics and traditions of the musical cultures that sprang up along the Silk Road. An online database provides access to more information about the festival’s history.
Almost every season has included newly commissioned works, and some years have celebrated individual composers. Toru Takemitsu was honored in 1997, and this year’s featured composer was Kenji Sakai (born in 1977), who studied in Kyoto, Paris, and Geneva. A program of his works was given on Feb. 18.
I heard the Feb. 19 concert, “New Directions in Japanese Contemporary Music,” which assembled work from seven other Japanese composers, with two American premieres and a world premiere. A listener unfamiliar with Japanese music would be hard pressed to distinguish uniquely Japanese elements in most of the works.
Jo Kondo (b. 1947), trained in Tokyo, is something of a gray eminence for this festival; his work was first performed at Music From Japan in 1977 while he was living in New York on a fellowship. His Pergola for flute and piano (1994) launched this concert, with the two soloists (Elizabeth Brown, flute, and Molly Morkoski, piano) trading off sprightly arpeggiated material and a more legato and lyrical motif, now independently, now in parallel. The agreeable effect was of two children engaged in harmonious play.
In Edge for string quartet (2011), Shoichi Yabuta (b. 1983) explored the idea of ma – a visual arts concept of negative space which translates to the silence between sounds – and “strong residual sounds” that encroach on the ma. After a potent tutti entrance, the second violin held an ethereal, barely audible pitch, as the other three players attacked their instruments with violent bow strokes before retreating to silence. The first violin loudly took up her colleague’s note an octave higher, with an aggressive vibrato. The rest of the quartet burst into jagged motion at high volume, breaking off into silence was sometimes bridged with a whispery held note. Register norms were violated, with cello playing high or whimpering like a puppy while violin boomed low. The fine Momenta Quartet navigated the extended passages of random-sounding outbursts with a firm sense of direction.
Tetsuya Yamamoto’s (b. 1989) Crossroads/Y Intersection for piccolo (Elizabeth Brown) and violin (Eriko Sato) (2012) introduced physical movement and whimsy, as the two instrumentalists moved from music stands facing each other mid-stage to desks at the edge of the stage. Similarly, they traded musical material, percolating merrily in legato against pizzicato (violin) or staccato (piccolo), converging musically when they were most physically distant. Just when the piece appeared ready to end, the flutist abruptly swept a handful of egg shakers off a music stand, and the lights dimmed as the rattles bounced and rolled across the stage. After a moment the lights came up and the players returned to the center of the stage to play a short, perky coda.
Shohei Amimori’s (b. 1990) Love/271/10F (2011) was more fragmented and enigmatic. Scored for viola, contrabass, and two players alternating on flute, piccolo, and bass flute, the four musicians (Stephanie Griffin, Brian Ellingsen, Wendy Stern, and Elizabeth Brown) used mostly extended techniques to create a ghostly array of sounds: the flutists blew, hummed, rattled keys, or hissed into their instruments, while the string players knocked on their wood, tapped bows on strings, or bowed squeakily. A sense of order, more visible than audible, was imposed by the elegant conductor Yasuaki Itakura, imperturbably beating strict time.
During intermission the hall was set up for Yuta Bandoh’s (b. 1991) Seesaw for violin, piano, and spatially placed string trio (2016, commission and world premiere). The violin commenced with a short legato motif outlining a third (the seesaw), against disjointed arpeggiation in the piano, sections of which were prepared to distort the timbre. The string trio’s unexpected intervention from points around the hall at first turned heads, but they largely added sonic reinforcement to the piano-violin duo onstage. The piano bolstered the overtones of the violin’s implied triad, at times sounding reminiscent of Debussy while the violin moved into chirps and pitch bending. The overall effect was multidimensional and sensuous.
New York-based Miya Masaoka (American born, 1958) boasts an unclassifiable but impressive resume in new music and installation art based on Japanese idioms. She led an untitled improvisation for 21-string koto, shakuhachi, and electronics, launching the 10-minute excursion with demure hand-plucked figures high on the instrument.
Shakuhachi master Akikazu Nakamura entered deferentially, with a low, breathy sound, gradually warming up to high wailing episodes that sang like a jazz improvisation, with some passages amplified into a hooty echo. Masaoka, on koto, deployed various plectra as she let the lower strings boom out at the work’s climax. Brad Garton’s incursions on a laptop provided a subtle sonic halo, with an anchoring drone or electronic manipulation of analog sounds.
The world premiere of Yoshiaki Onishi’s (b. 1981) commission, Envoi II for string trio (2016), proved on a single hearing to be something of a letdown. As an envoi (in French poetry: parting words, or send-off), the work provided an interesting but noisy exercise in extended techniques; most of the 13 minutes was devoted to non-traditional production of sound. Soft shushing was heard as bow hairs rubbed up and down the instruments’ necks; soft pizzicatos and tremolos grew into loud and chaotic bowing. An uncoordinated spiccato passage evolved into sharp unison and rhythmic tapping before gradually returning into softer, more inchoate effects. Perhaps it was listener’s fatigue, but it seemed like a waste of fine instrumental talent. Yet the mood at concert’s end was buoyant.
More information on Music From Japan is available here.