Music From Japan: Uncompromising Avant-Garde Vibe

Kayoko Nakagawa played a traditional six-string wagon in the world premiere of Mayu Masuda’s ‘Narrating
Function IV: Rain Rain’ at Music From Japan’s Festival 2018. (Concert photos by Ken Howard)
By John Fleming

NEW YORK – Music From Japan is admirably diligent in presenting new music, which it has been doing in the United States and elsewhere since 1975. Of the ten works played during the two concerts of its Festival 2018 on Feb. 17-18, nine had never been performed before in America, and three were Music From Japan-commissioned world premieres.

Tokuhide Niimi was the featured composer. (Atsushi Kondo)

Tokuhide Niimi was the featured composer, with three of his works, including a world premiere, taking up the first program on a snowy Saturday night; the second program had world premieres by two women, Makiko Nishikaze and Mayu Masuda. All three composers were at the festival, along with a fourth, Yoshihiko Shimizu. They participated in panel discussions after each concert and a symposium at the Japan Foundation on “Contemporary Composers & Critics in the Current World.”

I am probably a more-or-less typical Western listener in that the one Japanese composer whose works I have heard in concert from time to time is Toru Takemitsu. Most of my scant acquaintance with the country’s musical culture comes not from a Japanese figure but from John Cage who, along with pianist David Tudor, made an influential tour of Japan in 1962, accompanied on much of it by Yoko Ono and her then-husband, composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. I pondered Cage’s landmark book Silence as an undergraduate and ever since have sought out his music, which tends to leave me with a mix of feelings that ranges from transcendence to annoyance.

My attendance at the festival was a prelude to an even more immersive experience in July, when the Music Critics Association of North America and Music From Japan will collaborate on an educational institute in Japan. It will involve ten MCANA members traveling for concerts in Tokyo and Fukushima City. This promises to be a revelation, based on music I heard during the weekend and the uncompromising – though often playful – avant-garde vibe of the festival, all happening under the watchful stewardship of its co-founders, artistic director Naoyuki Miura, a former bass player with New York City Opera, and executive director and associate artistic director Mari Ono.

The concerts were given in Victor Borge Hall, a 168-seat auditorium in Scandinavia House on Park Avenue, and every last note and analytical remark was painstakingly documented in video, photos, and sound. Before the opening concert, there was a useful lecture on music trends in Japan by Toshie Kakinuma, a musicologist from Kyoto who recalled the time she “quickly became fascinated in the world of contemporary music” when she went to the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka as a high school student and heard for the first time experimental works by the likes of Stockhausen, Berio, and Cage.

The Momenta Quartet gave a relentless, edge-of-the-seat performance.

Tokuhide Niimi’s String Quartet No. 2 (Asura) (2011) opened the first concert, and it received a relentless, edge-of-the-seat performance by the Momenta Quartet. A 22-minute work played without pause, it had a swirling quality that may reflect the 70-year-old composer’s belief that “the essence of the Universe consists in wave motions and spirals,” as he put it in a program note. Momenta – violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki; Stephanie Griffin, viola; and Michael Haas, cello – brought an emotional commitment to the frantic passagework that was almost unbearably intense, in a delicious way, as the music hurtled toward big, organ-like chords at the end.

There was clearly a kinship between Niimi’s string quartet and his world premiere on the program, a piano quintet called shape of the soul. Both were written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in which more than 15,000 lives were lost in Japan, and he also mentioned 9/11 as a spur to his thoughts about the fate of the souls of those who have died in disasters, wars, and acts of terrorism. Though the piano quintet, structured as a set of variations, was superbly crafted, it made a rather diffuse impression.

Timothy Brown conducted C4  in Tokuhide Niimi’s Concerto for Chorus, ‘Bios.’

A highlight was Niimi’s Concerto for Chorus (Bios) (2007), which was given a scintillating account by 18 singers in the ensemble C4, with Timothy Brown conducting. Set to a text of Japanese (poetry by Kenji Miyazawa), Latin (the words “memento mori”), and English (Ralph Waldo Emerson), this nine-minute a cappella work for mixed chorus featured much divisi writing and complex polyrhythms that Brown and the singers transformed into exhilarating vocal pyrotechnics.

Another highlight of the festival was the presence of a traditional six-string board zither called the wagon in the second concert, which was titled “Diversification of Japanese Contemporary Music” and curated by Toshie Kakinuma. The wagon, which is almost seven feet long, rested on a piece of red fabric on the stage floor where soloist Kayoko Nakagawa sat cross-legged to strum arpeggio-like patterns that left a melancholy hum lingering in the air.

Mayu Masuda studies ancient music – her doctoral thesis was on koto songs of the 800s – and she transcribed Shizuuta, from the oldest book of Japanese song, for Nakagawa to sing and play on the wagon. It was a formal, ethereal evocation of an indigenous sound that must have resonated deeply with the Japanese members of the audience. Masuda’s world premiere composition, Narrating Function IV: Rain Rain, also employed the wagon but in a contemporary idiom that set poetry of Kamenosuke Ogata in a passionate ceremony to “call down the rain.”

Marianne Gythfeldt played Makiko Nishikaze’s ‘melodia II.’

Experimentation with spatial relationships in musical performance has been something of a constant for Music From Japan – its first season included such a work for percussion by Michio Kitazume – and Makiko Nishikaze’s world premiere work, shima-zima (islands), was a foray into the idea. In a six-minute piece that was as much theater as music, five musicians (bass flute and piccolo, clarinet, violin, viola, cello) arrayed throughout Borge Hall gradually navigated down the aisles to the stage where Aaron Wunsch played piano and blew into a keyboard harmonica. Musically, what most impressed was the murmuring, dreamlike quality of the performance.

Nishikaze’s melodia II was a sparsely-scored meditation for bass clarinet (played by Marianne Gythfeldt) in which rests and the sound of the musician breathing and fingering her instrument’s keys loomed large, suggesting the Japanese concept of ma – the silence around the notes.

Yoshihiko Shimizu’s Dharani was a guitar piece of beautiful, misty harmonics performed by Oren Fader, who also supplied guttural vocal outbursts. Wunsch played River and Grasshoppers, a matched pair of lyrical piano solos by Ryuichi Sakamoto. And in a delightful conclusion to the concert, Yasuaki Itakura conducted Noriko Koide’s Hika Runners High+ for flute, clarinet, percussion, guitar, piano, and cello, plus a prominent role for five little music boxes that gave the jazzy work an air of pure whimsy.

John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.

Misty harmonics: Oren Fader performed Yoshihiko Shimizu’s ‘Dharani’ for guitar and voice.