A Packed Festival Of Music From Japan, In Japan

A taiko ensemble kicks out the jams in Fukushima City as part of the Music From Japan Festival 2018: US-Canada-Japan Encounters In Music. (Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

TOKYO – When the opportunity to take in a Music From Japan festival on its home ground came up, I jumped at it, having never been to Japan before and having always wanted to go.

So along with two rising 30-something composers – Anthony Cheung and Zosha Di Castri – and nine of my esteemed colleagues from the Music Critics Association of North America, we set out on the long, tiring flight across the International Date Line for a week’s immersion into a distant yet surprisingly approachable culture.

I never felt uncomfortable nor unwelcome for five seconds, and the language barrier was easily overcome by the universal kindness of the Japanese people and just enough signs in English to be able to navigate the city by myself. Here are my experiences in diary form:

Wednesday July 4: We arrived in the late afternoon at the Tokyo-Narita Airport twice – twice because there was an aborted landing on the first approach due to dangerous winds, and we had to circle around for a second, thankfully successful attempt. As our bus moved from lush greenery through a grubby industrial area and then plunged into Tokyo’s dense, endless tangle of skyscrapers laced with expressways on an asymmetrical grid, “Next!” from Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures was racing through my mind. The song tells of Japan’s dizzyingly quick adoption of Western influences, starting with the Meiji restoration in the last half of the 19th century; the road from the airport seemed to trace Japan’s transformation from a set of pristine isolated islands to an economic superpower.

Tower Records Shibuya tells it like it is. (Richard S. Ginell)

The festival would not start until the following evening, so when night fell, I took off on my own on the Tokyo Metro to the crowded, youthful, brightly-lit Shibuya district in Western Tokyo for a pilgrimage to a nine-story landmark for music buffs, Tower Records Shibuya. A Tokyo investment firm wisely bought out the Tower Records franchises in Japan from the American parent company in 2002, and when Russ Solomon’s renowned chain went out of business in 2006, the Japanese stores were unaffected.

The classical department on the seventh floor of Tower Shibuya is the biggest I’ve seen since the heyday of the retail behemoths that once populated London’s West End. True, the classical section was almost deserted on my visits there except for the cashiers, but the stock is comprehensive. The shelves are loaded with exotic CD formats like SHM-CD (Super High Material), Blu-spec CD2, HQCD (High Quality CD), and UHQCD (Ultimate High Quality CD) that are made for the Japanese audiophile market. Jazz musicians are promoted like superstars one floor below, with huge displays announcing new releases by John Coltrane, dead for over 50 years, and L.A.’s Kamasi Washington, who doesn’t get anything like this attention back home.

These two rows at Tower are just for classical composers S through T! (Richard S. Ginell)

Japan evidently never got the word that record stores are supposed to be obsolete, for there are scads of them here and elsewhere in pockets around Tokyo. On a street nearby Tower are one of several branches of Disk Union, a more informal multi-level shop that carries used CDs, LPs and 45s, an HMV store that sells used items in all three formats, and smaller all-vinyl shops. The upscale Ginza district has Yamano Music (est. 1892), whose classical CD stock is almost as thorough as Tower’s, if not as clearly organized, and Ginza’s Yamaha store has loads of CDs, too. Tsutaya stores sell CDs and DVDs in smaller cities around Japan like Fukushima and Kawamata. I’m told there were even more shops here before the age of streaming arrived, but the survivors looked plenty healthy to me.

Thursday July 5: We are at the Tokyo Concerts Labs in the Shinjuku district, a small, spartan performance space in which Japanese music from the ancient gagaku school would be followed by a few contemporary Japanese compositions from within the last 30 years that utilize gagaku instruments, plus one by a radical distant admirer, John Cage. First came a basic overview of gagaku from lecturer Naoko Terauchi, helpfully augmented by a pamphlet breaking down the categories and illustrating the instruments, dances, and so forth. Then five musicians bearing indigenous instruments like the shō  (mouth organ), ryūteki  (transverse wooden flute), hichiriki (reed pipe), biwa (lute), and koto (13-string zither) made a solemn entrance weighed down by tradition. But the sounds they made were anything but staid – slow, sustained, piercing, even shocking, drifting in pitch, unnervingly and amazingly contemporary in feel.

A traditional gagaku ensemble made sounds that often seemed amazingly contemporary.
(Sachie Hamaya)

Indeed, when Mayumi Mayata returned with a shō  to play Cage’s spare, extremely slow, entirely characteristic One9 – one of the Zenmeister’s final compositions (1991) – I couldn’t hear any substantial difference between what Cage was doing and the gagaku music that preceded it. Another solo piece for shō, Ichiro Nodaira’s Voix interieur, had more activity and wit, along with the frequent silences so prevalent in much avant-garde music. Fuyuhiko Sasaki’s  To Be Human, a setting of a Jotaro Wakamatsu poem with a virtuosic part for the harp-like kugo, and dedicated to the village of Iitate, turned out to be a preview of things to come on this trip.

Acres and acres of headphones at Bic Camera in Akihabara. (Richard S. Ginell)

Friday July 6: Prior to the concert, I set out on foot and the Metro to explore more of Tokyo. The Akihabara district has been famous as an electronics center since the end of World War II, with street after street of colorful buildings, one housing an elaborate labyrinth of tiny shops selling all kinds of spare parts and new and vintage equipment, with an emphasis on cameras, cellphones, and laptops. In the massive, new, multi-story Bic Camera store, I paused at the vast vineyard of headphones – several long rows with a profusion of brands, styles and price points. The Shinjuku district is confusing and overdeveloped, yet full of life and commerce. The tentacles of the main subway station seem to reach everywhere, and the length of the walk from one end of the station to another rivals that of a major airport.

Back at the Tokyo Concerts Lab that evening, we were presented with a sampling of the multitude of music that Music From Japan has commissioned over the years – all but one of the pieces dating from this decade, and all but one being performed in Japan for the first time. It was an eclectic lot, displaying more of what we regard as Japanese-sounding influences than what I heard in 2016 at a Music From Japan concert series in New York. I could admire the spatial effects that Yuta Bandoh produced from a string trio placed in spots around the room in Seesaw; the effect was an acoustic imitation of electronic digital delay. Hiroyuki Yamamoto’s atonal, scurrying New York Dance was played in New York in 2016. I clocked it at about 11 minutes in New York, but in Tokyo, it was only seven-and-a-half minutes (we were told no editing was done, but the numbers speak for themselves).

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi was impressive in `Cello ’88’ and `Wadatsumi.’
(Sachie Hamaya)

If there was one performer who stood out, it was Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, a splendid veteran cellist who owns a big opulent tone that was most impressive at close range. He made expressive work of Shigaeki Saegusa’s Cello ’88, with its modal aspects and blazing runs up and down the chromatic scale, and Tomiko Kohjiba’s ferocious reaction to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Wadatsumi for cello and piano. Although he was a star student of Janos Starker at Indiana University – he has the same impassive demeanor when playing as Starker did – and has spent 50 years in North America, Tsutsumi isn’t nearly as well-known in America as he should be, due in part to not being a showboater. “He (Starker) worked hard to make me more extrovert,” he said in ArchivMusic.com’s bio. “He would say it’s no use being like an Oriental buddha, so that nobody knows what one is thinking.” Life is unfair.

Saturday, July 7: For the third concert in the Tokyo leg of the festival, we repaired to the Tokyo Bukakaikan Recital Hall in Ueno just across from the bullet train station. It is a strange-looking place – fan-shaped concrete interior walls with chunks of the stuff sticking out, wood surfaces only in the rear. Uh-oh, I thought, but thankfully the sound was rather good, with moderate reverberation and plenty of deep bass. I was struck by how quiet Japanese audiences are before concerts, as well as during; the only voices I could hear were those of the Americans and Canadians.

The Tokyo Sinfonietta plays Naoko Hishinuma’s `In the Deep Sea II’ (Tokyo Sinfonietta)

Here, members of the Tokyo Sinfonietta led by Yasuaki Itakura  split the program between Japanese and North American composers, with the Japanese making their best showing so far. Tokuhide Niimi’s piano quintet shape of the soul immediately grabbed my attention with microtones hovering around a pitch, mass trills, and delicious outbreaks of aleatoric cacophony. Naoko Hishinuma’s In The Deep Sea sails the same environmental waters that John Luther Adams has been exploring, but Hishinuma does it better, coming at us in repetitive waves with luminous upward cascades, lots of fascinating inner detail, and a Takemitsu-like flavor at times.

The North Americans led off with The Vermeer Room by Julia Wolfe, who was originally supposed to come to Tokyo but cancelled in order to fulfill a New York Philharmonic commission. Her writing glistened with flutter-tongued brass and a deep undercurrent that eventually settled into a minimalist pattern. Di Castri, a Canadian composer now living and teaching in New York, offered Cortège, a cleverly-orchestrated piece that alternated between wild episodes and funeral music.  [Find the music here.] It came to a sudden unprepared halt like many new pieces do these days. Cheung’s  vis-á-vis amounted to a short, four-movement chamber symphony marked by light-hearted winds, rushes of strings, and looping electronics that take over at the very end of the piece as it fades. Of these compositions, Wolfe’s seemed to project the most tangible Asian flavor, almost as much as the Japanese pieces in the first half.

Cheung’s vis-á-vis had barely ended when we had to rush out of the hall toward the bullet train – or Shinkansen, as it’s known in Japan – for the 160-mile nighttime ride north to Fukushima City. To show you how far we with our so-called American “exceptionalism” are behind the rest of the developed world, the bullet train was introduced in Japan in time for the 1964 Olympics, and it runs like a dream – smooth, fast, on time. Why can’t we have this in America?

NHK’s Ken Azuma makes the case for Fukushima being a safe place to visit.
(Maseru Takenaka)

Sunday July 8: We awoke in Fukushima City, which is approximately 60 kilometers – or about 37 miles – from the ruined nuclear reactor, well out of range of the deadly tsunami that devastated the coastline. A newscaster from Japan’s NHK broadcast network, Ken Azuma, was bent upon making the case that, except for 2 percent of the land by the coast, Fukushima Prefecture is perfectly safe for tourists. He offered a detailed account with statistics of the current situation in Fukushima, the stringent regulations, and how radiation totals there compare with those of ordinary CAT scans and plane rides. If their numbers are accurate – if – it would make a compelling argument in their favor, with eyes focused squarely on the 2020 Olympics during which Fukushima will host the baseball and softball games.

Young folks from Fukushima perform `Children’s Hand Dance of Kashima Shimomachi.’
(Maseru Takenaka)

Over in the next room was the Fukushima City Concert Hall, a modern, fine-sounding concert hall with a steep rake for seating, where the good citizens of Fukushima were out to entertain us with a colorful and ultimately exciting display of local folk music and dances. In the opening dance, the small taiko drum sounded wonderfully resonant in a mostly-empty hall, the music simple, repetitive, and hypnotic. Children as young as four years of age clad in turquoise outfits danced and sang; the word “cute” doesn’t begin to describe them. The taiko drums grew bigger with each group until the final act presented two monster, barrel-like instruments on either side of the stage, with players whacking away at them with their entire bodies in motion. Allied with four other drummers, flutes, and percussion, this last taiko ensemble really swung, overwhelming the hall with a syncopated beat that almost resembled a conga. James Brown once said, “I love to get down, Jack,” and so did these guys from a culture that digs rhythm as much as many of us do.

The idyllic outdoor hot spring pool at Adachiya. (Richard S. Ginell)

Up a twisting road into the lushly-forested mountains west of Fukushima City, we spent a night at Adachiya, an onsen (hot spring) resort where brave visitors can bathe naked outdoors in natural sulphurous spring waters. I did – and all aches and pains disappeared within seconds of immersion.

Monday July 9: We met with the vice-governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Masaaki Suzuki, who admitted “The blame is on us” for not getting the word out to the world about what happened in 2011 and what needs to be changed. From there, a microbus took us into the lush green hills east of town to the village of Iitate about halfway to the coastline. We stopped at a large, elaborate elementary school that was rebuilt and opened just in April – the lacquer on the floors was still fresh. Another brief display of indigenous folk music took place in one of the many performing spaces in this school; a childrens’ chorus was followed by a ceremonial dance accompanied by two wooden flutes and a small taiko played by some of the elder musicians in town.

A Rice Planting Dance, performed in a school in the village of Iitate. (Maseru Takenaka)

In the panel discussion that followed another lecture on radiation, it occurred to St. Louis music critic Sarah Bryan Miller that, with all of the facilities here for teaching music, dance and theatre, Iitate was building a sense of community among the young which they would carry on into adulthood as the village rebuilds after the disaster. There is no doubt that the surrounding countryside is beautiful, and the houses look modern and well-kept. But the bundles of contaminated soil, trees and plants wrapped in green, hopefully-insulated “flecon baggu” (the Japanese nickname for flexible container bags) that we would see from time to time by the roadsides remind us that recovery is not complete.

Tuesday July 10: Back in Tokyo, the festival was over, but I wasn’t quite through yet. This morning, I went on a one-on-one tour of Suntory Hall, whose acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota went on to design the acoustics of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the New World Center in Miami Beach, and several other successful halls in California and elsewhere. And the current president of the hall happens to be none other than the superb cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi noted above.

A pipe organ console is the sole occupant of Suntory Hall’s stage. (Richard S. Ginell)

Opened in 1986, Suntory Hall made Toyota famous, and while its design resembles the Berlin Philharmonie more than it does any of the above halls, it carries some Toyota trademarks like the vineyard surround design of the tiers. The hall seats 2,006 – a comfortable total – and Herbert von Karajan was a consultant during the hall’s construction, right down to the number of steps (eleven) it would take for the conductor to go from the dressing room to the stage. Since Suntory is a Japanese distilling and brewing company, the hall decor often follows a theme of alcohol – the seats of red-wine colored fabric, the walls of white oak (the same wood used for whisky casks), the railing posts in the lobby that resemble grains of barley, and of course, the vineyard seating. Everyone in the classical world, it seems, has performed there, as was made clear by the stickers and autographs backstage. The building also has a smaller multi-purpose room called the Blue Rose for chamber concerts, banquets, and lectures.

Although Suntory was dark during my week in Japan, as luck would have it, an organ rehearsal was going on that morning, and so I got to hear the hall. I’ve never heard a better match between a pipe organ (a Rieger) and the acoustics of a symphony hall; the reverberation level is just right. “A hall without a pipe organ is like a house without furniture,” Karajan allegedly said.

In other words, a great coda to an unforgettable visit to Japan.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.