2 Concerts Accent John Cage Factor In Japanese Music

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To play Tomomi Adachi’s ‘Why you scratch me, not slap,’ which was fun to watch and hear, guitarist Oren Fader mimicked gestures in a video while stroking an electric guitar fingerboard. (Concert photos by Ken Howard for Music From Japan)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK – For 44 years Music From Japan has presented contemporary Japanese classical music to western and Japanese audiences. Under the direction of its founders and directors Naoyuki Miura and Mari Ono, the organization offered two concerts at New York’s Scandinavia House on March 2 and 3 celebrating the influence of John Cage, himself a friend of MFJ, and presenting a sampling of the works of its fourth annual composer in residence, Yumi Saiki. Supplemented by a lecture by musicologist Miyuki Shiraishi, who curated the first concert, and panel discussions after each concert, the festival paid homage to Cage with an array of interesting pieces built largely on principles he introduced to Japan.

Mari Ono and Naoyuki Miura, co-founders of Music From Japan, have worked for more than 40 years to expand mutual awareness among the American and Japanese musical communities. (Ken Howard)

Before the first concert, musicologist Shiraishi discussed Cage’s influence in Japan beginning in the ’60s. Most mid-20th century Japanese composers had been trained along European models, but many were interested in developing a native language for classical music less dependent on western musical vernacular. Indeed, American composers were in a similar situation, as the ideas of influential European composers who had immigrated to the U.S. before WWII held sway in “serious” musical circles. While American artists had already had nearly three centuries to consider ways to forge a new aesthetic identity, Japan had opened to the West less than a century earlier. Like Americans, its composers inevitably tended to looked to established European education and precedents. During serialism’s peak, this proved limiting to composers disinclined to adopt this style.

John Cage’s joyous iconoclasm has influenced Japanese composers for decades.
(Ken Howard)

When John Cage first visited Japan in 1962, he brought with him both a fascination with Asia and Zen Buddhism, and an approach to creating music largely unfamiliar to Japanese musicians and audiences. News reports referred to Cage’s initial visit as the “John Cage shock” that shook aesthetic theory. Some of his new ideas included elements of randomness and indeterminacy, in which a score didn’t necessarily dictate with precision exactly what was to happen when the piece was played, leaving great freedom in performance.

Cage’s scores might be graphic representations of time-space relationships more than strict notation of what sounds to make at what time. Cage incorporated timbres from nature, including ambient events, like the inadvertent noises made by an audience (4’33” from 1952 being the most famous example). Most importantly, Cage’s joyous iconoclasm offered a conceptual alterative to Germanic austerity. Cage returned to Japan a number of times over the next 30 years and expanded his own explorations of elements of Japanese music, such as the pitch fluidity of certain Japanese instruments, which he incorporated into his music. Shiraishi expressed skepticism that Japanese composers would have embraced some of Cage’s more chaotic practices, but she was confident that as a result of Cage’s influence the younger generation has grown up with a freer understanding of the possibilities of new music.

Ryan Muncy performed Yoichi Sugiyama’s ‘Smoking Prohibited.’
To get a sense of it with another performer, see the video below.

For Saturday’s concert Shiraishi assembled an eclectic array of works by three generations of composers. Dithyramb (1996) for flute and guitar by Jō Kondō (b. 1947) paired the two instruments (played by Elizabeth Brown and Oren Fader) in lyrical counterpoint whose timing had an improvisatory feel, as the players appeared to pace the intervals between phrases by intuition rather than counting measures. Next was an intense 17-minute solo by Yoichi Sugiyama (b. 1969) for alto saxophone (played by Ryan Muncy) titled Smoking Prohibited, a Bay Street Ballade II, New York Version (2019, world premiere). A reworking of a piece for baritone sax written in response to the 2015 death of Eric Garner, it is built on the spiritual “Lay This Body Down,” and begins with long, keening phrases, inflected by pitch-altering cross-fingerings that created a feeling of high anxiety. It was possible to hear protests or cries for help in the rapid bursts of loud notes, airless rattling of keys, and feeble whimpers, interspersed with silences. At the end, the straightforward lining out of the opening phrases of “The Star Spangled Banner” played in a low register stung like a rebuke.

Tomomi Adachi’s (b. 1972) Why you scratch me, not slap (2011, U.S. premiere) landed in whimsical contrast. Instead of music notation on paper or tablet, guitarist Oren Fader, seated at a table, worked from a video on a laptop – also projected on a screen behind him – that showed two hands executing gestures on a blank white surface. The guitarist’s task was to replicate those movements on an electric guitar laid flat in front of him. As long as he recreated the hand gestures as they occurred in the video, the guitarist was free to choose pitches and fill in predetermined breaks in the video as he saw fit. The result was varied, idiomatic, with evocative echoes of slack guitar and hard rock, and fun to watch and hear. [To get a sense of it in the hands of another performer, check out the video at the bottom of this article.]

Takahiro Kuroda was the youngest composer presented.

The Momenta String Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violin; Stephanie Griffin, viola; Michael Haas, cello) played MFJ’s 2018 commission by the festival’s youngest composer, Takahiro Kuroda (b. 1989), Let’s also be careful about small things. For 17 minutes the quartet played barely audible, high-pitched block chords in virtually unchanging rhythm, with tiny shifts in pitch and articulation. With an obvious kinship to Cage’s 4’33”, the piece explored the process of paying attention to minutia as a way of experiencing larger phenomena. While the piece felt long, it was fascinating to notice the room settle down around minute six, and to experience how the sound of a plucked string (was it on purpose?) or a longer bow stroke constituted a major musical event. It will be interesting to see how Kuroda’s music will evolve as he continues to explore the time-space continuum.

Toshi Ichiyanagi’s (b.1933) Time Sequence (1976) for piano offered nine breathless minutes of energetic virtuosity, splendidly played by Vicky Chow. A disjunct left hand ostinato provided the foundation for a series of shifting figures in the right hand that suggested the minimalism of Philip Glass, who as it happens studied at Juilliard just after Ichiyanagi’s student days there in the late ’50s (small world: Ichiyanagi was earlier married to Yoko Ono, who also had an artistic association with Cage). [To get a sense of this work in the hands of another performer, check out the video at the bottom of this article.]

And finally, Akiko Yamane (b. 1982) offered a pair of works from 2009, Dots Collection No. 3, for violin and piano, and a vibrating sphere in a room No. 1, for violin. Played simultaneously, the notes or bursts of sounds released at intervals into space, like soap bubbles, allowed listeners to choose where to focus their active listening. I left the concert satisfied, having heard a varied but coherent cross section of newer music.

Yumi Saiki was the festival’s 2019 composer in residence. (Kazuo Hiroji)

Sunday’s program presented a sampling of the work of Yumi Saiki (b.1964), the Festival’s 2019 composer in residence. As a young student Saiki fell under the spell of the music of Henri Dutilleux and Messiaen, and moved to Paris for five years of graduate study. In a private symposium, Saiki observed that studying away from Japan had given her an outsider’s perspective on the new music scene, partly because she had missed the networking opportunities of studying in Japan. As a result, she writes more for a general public, typical of the broad audiences for new music she encountered in Paris, than for the composer community.

She is interested in concrete themes, such as scriptural texts (not unlike Messiaen) and nature. Her series of orchestral works based on the sound of insects (recalling Messiaen’s use of bird song), which are revered in Japanese culture, has been performed at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Like most of the weekend’s composers, her work uses extended instrumental techniques to expand the sound palette of western instruments, and large stretches of silence as integral components of the music.

For Turn My Mourning into Dancing (2013), Saiki drew inspiration from scriptures describing the revelation of the birth of Christ to the shepherds. Flute, clarinet, and cello (Elizabeth Brown, Marianne Gythfeldt, and Fred Sherry) trade off an organizing rhythmic pulsation as trills, flutters, and glissandos color the work’s movement from somber to celebratory, with a playful waltz entering before the end.

Joy (2014), named for a screen painting by the eminent artist Toko Shinoda, was written for an exhibit celebrating her 100th birthday. The exhilarating 10-minute piano solo (played by Aaron Wunsch) follows the outlines of a descriptive prose poem written by the composer. It begins with sharply pulsating high-pitched chords, to which are added short, exuberant outbursts. A contrasting middle section paints softer, watery-sounding parallel chords before returning briefly to the opening energy.

Entomophonie II (2003), one of Saiki’s earlier works based on insect sounds, uses only recognizable insect sounds as played by flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. In the delicate sonorities I heard suggestions of the spectral textures of one of her teachers, Gérard Grisey. Her arrangement of these fragile sounds made me think of the artful sand arrangements in Japanese gardens, a taming of nature.

Yumi Saiki’s ‘Deux Sillages II’ isolates the violin from the remainder of the string quartet.

Deux Sillages II (2017) for violin and string trio isolates a solo violin from the remainder of the string quartet, a bit like the simultaneous Yamane works performed the previous evening. The seated trio launched into a series of delicate, fluttery events, with the solo violin standing on the other side of the stage, awaiting her moment to play a strong, repeated pitch. The two forces, each in its own track (sillages means track or path) begin to trade material of varying intensity, with the solo violin returning to the insistently repeated note, occasionally punctuating a phrase by kicking a cluster of sleigh bells hanging near her stand.

The evening ended with Saiki’s MFJ commission, Pneuma III (2019, world premiere) for flute, cello, and piano. The work, inspired by a New Testament passage from Acts, Chapter 2, is meant to evoke an apocalyptic wind, or the breath of the Holy Spirit. After an air-filled introduction by the flute, percussive effects on the different instruments (including mallet heads and sticks on the piano strings) and glissandos suggest the frightening power of the visitation to come as the sound grows.

Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Japan with a group of music critics from MCANA (publisher of Classical Voice North America) hosted by Music from Japan. In the course of seminars and concerts in Tokyo and Fukushima, and a night spent at a traditional country inn, I experienced a fresh aural baseline: Urban quiet punctuated with codified aural signals, nature sounds curated by human intervention, traditional music integrated into everyday life, and silence experienced as a palpable event were just some of the elements that provided new sonic points of reference. That expanded listening vocabulary colored the way I heard this weekend’s music, though I wouldn’t claim that the music itself was distinctly Japanese next to other classical new music.

Music From Japan will present concerts and workshops of music from Okinawa in Fukushima, Japan, on Nov. 24-25. The next New York Festival will take place Feb. 22-23, 2020. For more information go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

Here’s a sampling of some festival offerings, as performed by other musicians: