Sampling The Century, Music From Japan Goes On Generational Venture

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Koto player Masayo Ishigure used a variety of extended techniques during a Music From Japan concert. (Photos by Ken Howard)

NEW YORK — In its third live festival in New York City since lockdown, Music From Japan celebrated its 49th season with a pair of concerts on March 9 and 10 in the intimate Volvo Hall at Scandinavia House. The weekend launched with a survey of “Japanese Contemporary Music: Past and Present.” Curated by producer/writer Koichi Nishi, the sampling of five composers spanned more than a century of modern Japanese music. I attended the second program to hear “Current Sounds Japan IV,” with work from three composers from three generations, including three MFJ-commissioned world premieres.

Small but mighty, Music From Japan, founded in 1975 by Juilliard-trained Naoyuki Miura, has been recognized by the Japanese government for its work promoting contemporary Japanese music. In its almost half century of activity, MFJ has presented new music by more than 200 Japanese composers, with 100 commissions by both Japanese and American composers. Most concerts have taken place in New York and in Japan, but the organization has toured throughout North and South America, as well as Central Asia.

The gray eminence of 2024’s three commissioned artists was the award-winning and widely performed Chiharu Wakabayashi (b. 1961), who studied in Tokyo and now teaches at Japan’s oldest arts university in Kyoto. According to an enigmatic program note, Wakayabashi’s work “pursues a sense of ‘everything about nothing’.” His work is often loosely inspired by pop culture but is conceptually about contradictions. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but in his music I heard a more subtle sensibility than with the other two composers.

William Schimmel was the masterful accordion soloist in Chiharu Wakabayashi’s ‘Dashing Out Kid V.’

Opening the program was his Dashing Out Kid V (revised 2022), which references an illustration meant to promote traffic safety, ubiquitous but largely unnoticed. The piece for accordion began almost inaudibly, with the soloist’s right hand lightly tapping piano keys while allowing a soft squeak to escape, activated by gentle bellows movement. Gradually increasing in volume, a meandering flurry of keyboard melody was reinforced by left-hand chords. At moments, audible mouth breathing coordinated with and emphasized the push and pull of the bellows. Episodic, colorful, and punctuated with pauses, the piece encourages paying attention to small things. William Schimmel was the masterful soloist.

Ending the program, Wakabayashi’s tree • wood • forest…..TRI-ODE II (2024) for viola, cello, and contrabass was so intricate that the composer conducted. The program notes indicate sonorities suggestive of traditional instruments, but I was less aware of the sound qualities than of its intense rhythmic complexity.

Representing the middle generation was Mayuko Kawasaki, trained as a composer and musicologist. She has a particular interest in Maurice Ravel, whose contrapuntal practices she studied in France. She collaborates with contemporary poets and has published musicological studies as well as concert music. Some of her works suggest the sounds of nature, reminiscent of Messiaen’s birdsong music.

Her first piece was Cicada’s Wings, Weaving Song (2022) for flute and koto, alluding to both the typical summer sound of cicadas and to a delicate form of weaving known as “cicada’s wings.” The koto is a six-foot-long traditional instrument in the zither family, normally plucked, with pitches controlled by a movable bridge for each string. Here, koto player Masayo Ishigure used a variety of extended techniques: bowing with a stick or a string, plucking or hammering the strings, rubbing the strings with her bare hands, or “combing” through the strings to strike the neck with a toothed device resembling a weaving tool, creating a percussive snap while suggesting a loom. Laura Cocks’ accompanying flute sounded like a shakuhachi, with breathy tones, percussive attacks, flutter tonguing, pitch bending, and, very occasionally, a fully resonant flute tone, which in its rarity sounded exotic. In a whimsical final touch, both players spun a “minmin cicada,” a wooden folk toy that produces a sound like a cicada.

Among the works performed was Koji Fukumaru’s ‘Figless III.’

Kawasaki’s Nonexistent, or Like a Flash (2024, MFJ commission, world premiere), for baritone sax and string trio, was inspired by contemporary Japanese poetry. Interspersed with long silences were frantic outbursts of strings vying with the sax, lurking like a gentle giant, mostly heard in unsounded or lightly voiced percussive key strokes, with the occasional blast of a deep pitch. Contrasting with the instruments was an electronic track with sounds of pulsing static, a ringing cell phone, and a toy celesta, like a mildly irritating background track, which somehow grounded the music in the everyday.

The youngest composer, Koji Fukumaru (b. 1997), is completing a master’s degree in Tokyo; his focus is the connection between Christian theology and music. Fukumaru offered two connected pieces, Figless II (2022) and Figless III (2023, commission, world premiere). The title refers to a passage from the New Testament (Matthew 21: 18-19), when the hungry Jesus cursed a fig tree without fruit to permanent barrenness and then turned the moment into a parable about the power of faith.

Figless I (not heard here) is for solo marimba; Figless II uses vibraphone and adds viola and cello, creating a dialogue between percussion and sustained sound. The vibraphone takes the lead with a frenzy of notes, answered by the strings, which alternated between pizzicato and bowed answers. There was a sense of urgency, briefly mitigated when the percussionist abandoned mallets to play with his bare hands. In the second movement, he took up brushes, and textures grew more delicate, but a feeling of unease took over.

A panel was held in conjunction with this year’s Music From Japan festival.

Figless III was originally conceived as a third movement to Figless II, but it developed in another direction. With the addition of piano and accordion, the expanded sound took on an entirely different character. Whereas the earlier piece relied heavily on string pizzicato, echoing the pointillistic attack of the vibraphone, sustained chords and increased volume in the keyboard instruments created a romantic lushness that was almost too much for the intimate space. At 11 minutes, the piece was also the longest on the program.

At the post-concert talkback, the question asked was: Can you pull this all together? This is a version of the question often posed at MFJ concerts: How is this music identifiably Japanese? To my ear, these pieces were reflective of the generally more refined soundscape of a culture less pervasively noisy than the U.S. Each piece drew in a listener with a quiet opening, and all made use of grand pauses, enabling one to digest a phrase or a section before the music continued.

Extended instrumental techniques were common, including in Cicada’s Wings, which used the only traditional Japanese instrument of the concert. But for this Westerner, it would be hard to peg the evening’s music as identifiably Japanese, even if some of the inspiration drew explicitly on Japanese life and traditional idioms. In the end, the music was engrossing and intelligently programmed. It’s a good bet that Music From Japan’s 50th anniversary will be something special.