Music From Japan Looks Inward For Signs Of Identity

Masayo Ishigure performed on koto in Noriko Koide’s ‘HONE.’ (Photos by Ken Howard)

NEW YORK – Music From Japan has been a leader in introducing the United States and Canada to a rich and growing musical culture for nearly five decades. Based in New York and Japan, this small but tenacious organization has spotlighted young composers, venerable scribes such as Toru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Toshi Ichiyanagi, indigenous folk music, and ancient traditions from gagaku court music. In 2018, founders Naoyuki Miura and Mari Ono presented an ambitious five-day festival in Japan to raise awareness of resettlement struggles seven years after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that devastated parts of Japan.

MFJ’s 45th-anniversary festival, held Feb. 22-23, tackled a central artistic question: What is Japanese about contemporary music from Japan? Seven composers, most of them trained at Tokyo University of the Arts, provided firsthand evidence of how deeply their backgrounds are imprinted on their music. While they didn’t always address the above question in the two concerts at Scandinavia House, they invariably gave formidable accounts of their individual temperaments.

Musicologist Seiji Choki gave a talk about identity in contemporary Japanese music.

Musicologist, critic, and historian Seiji Choki, a professor at Tokyo University, helped trace the thread of musical influences with his lecture “Identity, what does it matter? New generations in Japan.”

“What makes them Japanese?” he asked prior to the Feb. 23 concert, which he curated. “Such a question deals with identity politics. There was a period when composers used aspects of traditional Japanese instruments in their compositions, for example, koto and shakuhachi, to fuse Japanese and European music. Mayuzumi composed by means of sound arising in Japanese temples. Takemitsu used biwa and shakuhachi in November Steps. Composers in every generation have their concept.”

The latest generation was well represented by six composers at the Feb. 23 concert. Seven works at the opening concert on Feb. 22 were presented by Noriko Koide, MFJ’s featured composer. All of the works were receiving their first American hearing, and two were world premieres and MFJ commissions.

While Japanese traditions were occasionally embedded in Koide’s works, most of them maintained a global stamp represented by bold sound exploration and inventive instrumental and vocal techniques. Koide (born 1982 in Chiba), for example, was educated in Japan and the Netherlands, but her music is often informed by her studies of Javanese gamelan music.

Fans of Cats may recognize Mistoffelees (2007/2013), the title of the opener on Koide’s concert. Scored for percussion and alto saxophone, it was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s tuxedo cat with magical powers. Whimsy and mischief were vividly projected in the mind’s eye. Raspy, breathy vocals and key pops from alto saxophonist Ryan Muncy, answered by percussion effects from Samuel Budish’s drum set, wood blocks, and toms, were clearly and creatively executed.

Koide joined cellist Meaghan Burke for tik-tik bird (2019), a portrayal of a small bird causing morning sleep disruption. The duo sang delightfully about “flying to the garden, Sunday morning, I am sleeping, you are chattering.” In Tipsy Steps (2013), pianist Taka Kigawa and accordionist William Schimmel romped gingerly through the various states of inebriation in Koide’s score.

Fred Sherry conducted the world premiere of ‘Bishamon,’ Noriko Koide’s homage to the Japanese Buddhist deity.

The composer’s more serious side surfaced in HONE (2019), in which she summoned a koto, Masayo Ishigure plucking and scraping its strings while accompanying Muncy on alto saxophone. Quiet and reverent, its calm intensity pervaded despite the grating sounds from the koto and saxophone multiphonics. A Holiday of Island Hoppers (2008/2019) depicts a reconstruction project for Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park in Nagasaki, for which architect Junya Ishigami has created floating islands in a lake. Koide again employed the koto, along with piccolo, to represent two visitors frolicking from island to island. More than any other work in the festival, it has a distinctly Japanese flavor with its traditional koto plucking and scale runs and quick rhythms, while maintaining light humor in a modern tonal language.

Closing the program were two parts of Treasure Ship Suite, each drawn from the ancient legend of gods bringing good fortune. The first, Yebisu (2013), depicts the Japanese god of fishery with airy woodwinds, raw, percussive strings and waves of piano and string figures that suggest a seafaring voyage. Bishamon (2019), an MFJ commission, was given its world premiere in an intriguing performance that used metal garden spades to suggest the clanging of samurai armor as the musicians paraded near the stage area. Fred Sherry conducted the ensemble of saxophone, flute, clarinet, accordion, and percussion, the accordion sounds suggesting the sho, panpipes used in Gagaku and Noh theater. Despite the Japanese references, it nevertheless bore the composer’s individual, global stylistic mark with its focus on percussive sounds and theatrical depictions.

Yu Kuwabara’s Three Voices (2016) opened the Feb. 23 concert. Composed for violin, viola, and cello, it was a disorienting study of wide glissandos and harmonics ranging from subtle to intense. The work had a distinctly vocal quality, at times suggesting the wailing portamento singing of ancient Chinese opera. Tomoko Fukui’s solo guitar piece, color song III, used a glass slide to create a rich sonic palette, ranging from subtle pitch manipulation and ghostly arpeggios to pulsating rhythms. Guitarist Oren Fader mastered the work’s innovations with uncanny clarity.

Noriko Koide’s ‘Tipsy Steps’ was played by pianist Taka Kigawa and accordionist William Schimmel.

Into the Offing (2019) fuses two previous works by Yuka Shibuya into a remarkably coherent whole. Conducted by Sherry, the ensemble of flute, clarinet violin, cello, and piano captured the work’s contemplative nature as it played out in a kind of slow-motion timing.

Of the three string quartets on the program, the most adventurous came from Chiku Komiya. Bearing the alliterative title For Formalistic Formal (SONATA?) Form For Four (2019), this also was a world premiere and MFJ commission. The four musicians – the Momenta Quartet at this performance – play only double stops on open strings. Meant as a transcendence of Western music norms, according to Komiya’s program notes, it came across as minimalist. Most impressive was the resonance emitted from the instruments (no fingers to stop the sound), and the need for listeners to focus their attention on form. By the work’s end, however, the 11-minute quartet became tedious.

Takeo Hoshiya’s Music for Four Stringed Instruments (2014/2019) draws abstractly from his Japanese heritage, though not, as he writes, by “imitating the more obvious characteristics of Japanese traditional instruments,” but through abstract aesthetics. Perhaps the most conservative of the evening’s works in terms of instrumental color and technique, it is well attuned to purely musical emotions – relaxed to intense, cathartic to gripping.

Chiku Komiya spoke with media before the premiere of his string quartet, ‘For Formalistic Formal (SONATA?) Form For Four.’

For his Gewürzwolfie (2015/2017), Jummei Suzuki playfully borrowed from Mozart’s Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major (The Hunt) to weave a complex tapestry of stylistic landscapes that shift from past to present. The work’s greatest strengths lie in its thick string textures and inventive thematic writing, although there is no escaping the recurring anchor of the Mozart quotations.

For past festivals, MFJ focused on topics as diverse as John Cage, the Fukushima restoration post-nuclear meltdown, music from Okinawa, traditional Japanese flutes, and its collection of about 80 commissioned works. Next on the agenda is a return to Fukushima in January 2021 for a concert of some of those commissioned works, and concerts in New York in March 2021 featuring Tomoko Hojo and Kazuya Ishigami.

Michael Huebner is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala. He is a former classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and He also has written for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.