Saturday, March 5: Current Sounds: Japan II
Sunday, March 6: Tomojiro Ikenouchi: His Music and His Influence
Festival 2022 will focus on influential composer Tomojiro Ikenouchi and three younger composers. On Saturday, March 5, “Current Sounds: Japan II,” will include exciting new music from Yasutaki Inamori, Hirofumi Mogi and Akiko Ushijima. On Sunday, March 6, “Tomojiro Ikenouchi: His Music and His Influence,” will include highlights from the composer’s body of work, performed by his granddaughter, cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, alongside others. As usual, MFJ’s concert programs will be supplemented by educational lectures and forums with the featured composers alongside New York-based composers, scholars, critics and musicians. More details will be announced as they emerge.
Music From Japan Festival 2021 will introduce a radical new format for MFJ. Interdisciplinary artists Tomoko Hojo and Kazuya Ishigami will bring a weekend of performances coupled with sound installations and multi-channel electronic compositions. The Works of Tomoko Hojo will feature four performances of work composed in the past three years, including two new works commissioned by MFJ. The unconventional, interdisciplinary presentations engage the space through movement, audio feedback, and installation. The Works of Kazuya Ishigami includes five works, with three world premieres of new pieces commissioned by MFJ. These are for electronics and alto saxophone, bass clarinet and shakuhachi, and will be performed by renowned performer/composer Ned Rothenberg. Two older pieces pre-recorded for the festival by the composer, will also be streamed .
Due to COVID-19, all performances will be free and live streamed from Scandinavia House in Manhattan. There will unfortunately be no in-person audience this year.
All photos by Ken Howard
February 22nd: The Works of Noriko Koide
February 23rd: Identity, What Does it Matter? New Generations in Japan
Volvo Hall/Scandinavia House
58 Park Avenue at 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
For its 45th Anniversary Season, Festival 2020 New York, and Fifth Artist Residency, Music From Japan invited composer Noriko Koide and musicologist Seiji Choki to New York for a series of concerts and educational events.
The Works of Noriko Koide
On February 22nd The Works of Noriko Koide included seven works from this composer’s eclectic oeuvre. The concert opened with Mistoffelees, named after the character in T.S. Elliot’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which became the basis for the popular musical Cats. The piece, for alto saxophone and percussion, is playful both in its instrumentation and the sounds these instruments conjured. The percussionist’s battery of instruments included not just concert percussion, but also kazoo, duck call, and many other small instruments. The sounds that come both from the percussion and the saxophone are very light-hearted, perhaps even cartoonish, but this levity does not detract from the depth of this compelling work. Tik-tik bird, a duo for cello and triangle (the triangle was performed by the composer herself), also calls for the two performers to sing. Equally playful as the prior piece, tik-tik bird recalls the humorous scene of a bird waking up the composer on a Sunday morning. Musically the piece vacillates between a percussive texture on the cello and triangle, and sing-song almost nursery rhyme-like passages in the voice. The finale was a harmonized song between the composer and the cellist, Meaghan Burke.
There is often a duality in Koide’s work between the conventional and the experimental, and Hone (Bone), for alto saxophone and koto is no exception. The performance delicately lilted between noisy textures and whimsical melodies, drawing especially upon the traditional melodic stylings of the koto. Like many of Koide’s pieces, Tipsy Steps for accordion and piano was inspired by something in the real world: in this case the work is supposed to be reminiscent of someone who has drank a little too much alcohol. The performance begins with a highly unconventional approach to both instruments—tapping them in places other than the keyboards to get a percussive sound. From there the piece seems to move from one scene to the next, meandering between different styles and motifs, perhaps like a drunk person might act.
Koide explains that A Holiday for Island Hoppers, for piccolo/toy whistle and koto was inspired by a lake designed by Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. The lake contains floating islands, and this short piece calls to mind the visitors playfully leaping from one island to the next across the body of water. The two final pieces on the program are part of Koide’s Treasure Ship Suite, which includes seven pieces corresponding to the Seven Gods of Fortune. Yebisu, for flute, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and piano with conductor, is characterized by light-hearted melodies superimposed on, or punctuated by, percussive textures in the strings and piano. The music finally dissipated into airy and pizzicato sounds before a diminuendo into silence. Bishamon, for flute, percussion, clarinet, baritone saxophone and accordion, with conductor, was commissioned by Music From Japan. The performance for the festival was its world premiere. Perhaps the most dynamic piece on the program, Bishamon features large chordal stops in the wind instruments, with snare drum flourishes reminiscent of a drumline. As the piece progresses, the dynamics decrease as does the density of the chords. The wind instruments, which began by playing long tones, transition into percussive sounds. One unusual element in the piece is the use of hand trowels, which are suspended on cymbal stands in front of the performers. At the beginning, the performers rattle them, and at the end, they slowly walk off the stage carrying them as they rattle, leaving the percussionist alone on stage repeatedly playing rolls on the hi-hat.
Overall, the concert was a fabulous display of this interesting composer’s work. While each composition stood out on its own merits, there was a clear creative voice that permeated them all.
Following the concert there was an edifying forum, moderated by composer Brad Garton, including Noriko Koide, percussionist Sam Budish, and composers Takeo Hoshiya and Yu Kuwabara whose pieces were presented on the Sunday concert. After a warm introduction from Professor Garton, all of the panelists had an opportunity to reflect on the concert and speak about what was to come on the following day. The audience also had the opportunity to ask questions to the panelists.
Identity, what does it matter? New Generations in Japan
Seiji Choki, who curated the second night of the festival, opened the evening with an enlightening lecture on the history of the relationship of Japanese composers to Japanese identity. He separated the past century into five periods, identifying unique characteristics of each, and how composers redefined their relationship to European classical music throughout. Interesting musical examples from Toru Takemitsu, Minoru Miki, Misato Mochizuki and others were offered throughout the lecture. At the end of the talk he discussed the influence of sub-culture, pop culture, and internet culture on present-day Japanese composers. The presentation offered an apt introduction to the sounds that followed.
The concert began with a string trio by Yu Kuwabara called Three Voices, which is built around a series of downward glissandi, unfolding like a series of sighs. Oren Fader, who has been a fixture on MFJ concerts for years, performed the second piece, color song III for guitar solo, by Tomoko Fukui. He gave an introduction to the piece, describing Fukui’s idiosyncratic use of the guitar slide. Like the prior piece, this work also involves a series of glissandos, but rather than a gentle sigh, the music ricochets all over the range of the instrument in upwards and downwards percussive motion. Music for Four String Instruments by Takeo Hoshiya was performed by the Momenta String Quartet. Opting for more traditional string textures, single notes seemed to bounce around from player to player. A second string quartet, this one by Chiku Komiya, called For Formalistic Formal (SONATA?) Form For Four, followed. This strange-titled work relies on an equally strange conceit: the string players only play open strings for the duration of the piece. Relying only on this limited pitch material, based around fifths, Komiya keeps the audience engaged through elaborate rhythmic variations. Into the Offing for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano by Yuka Shibuya pensively moves forward through a series of glissandi, punctuated by chords within the piano and clarinet flourishes. Fred Sherry beautifully led the ensemble, conducting this piece as well as two others on Saturday. The music ebbs and flows, undulating in a series of waves. The final piece of the festival was Gewurzwolfie?! for string quartet by Jummei Suzuki. The composition is based off of a work by Mozart, using the canonical work as raw material to modify and transform throughout.
The 45th Anniversary Festival ended with an interesting forum moderated by critic John Rockwell, with curator Seiji Choki, composers Chiku Komiya and Yuka Shibuya, and music writer Michael Huebner. The discussions covered many topics including the increase in women composers in Japan, the role of gender, and the role of Japanese culture in the music presented.
All photos to the right by Ken Howard
March 2nd, 7:30pm: Japanese Composers Influenced by John Cage
March 3rd, 5:30pm: The Works of Yumi Saiki
Victor Borge Hall/Scandinavia House
58 Park Avenue at 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
For its Festival 2019, the Fourth Artist Residency, Music From Japan invited composer Yumi Saiki and musicologist Miyuki Shiraishi for a series of concerts and other educational events in New York City. To begin the festival, professor Shiraishi, who curated the March 2nd program, delivered a lecture titled John Cage in Japan: Shock and Afterwords. She traced the reception of Cage and of his music in Japan, from his first visit in 1952 until he won the Kyoto Prize in 1989, and beyond.
The Shirarishi-curated concert Japanese Composers Influenced by John Cage began with Jo Kondo’s piece Dithyramb, a duo for flute and guitar. Oren Fader (guitar) and Elizabeth Brown (flute) brought this playful and melodically refined piece to life. Yoichi Sugiyama’s Smoking Prohibited, a Bay Street Ballad II, New York Version is a piece for alto saxophone composed in honor of Eric Garner. In this world premiere, performed by Ryan Muncy, the microtones, wide vibrato, and rubato feeling of the piece lent it a lyrical and contemplative quality. Why You Scratch Me, Not Slap? is an unconventional piece for guitar written by Tomomi Adachi and was performed by Oren Fader. Rather than a written score, the performer is only provided with a video of hand motions. The guitarist must watch the video and perform the hand motions in real time on the guitar, which is placed on a table. The video is also projected for the audience to see.
The piece following the intermission was by far the quietest and most minimal work on the program: Takahiro Kuroda’s string quartet Let’s also be careful about small thing, performed by Momenta Quartet. The piece consisted of alternating moments of sound and silence of approximately the same duration, with the sound gradually, barely perceptibly changing over time. The performance of the Kuroda piece, commissioned by Music From Japan, was a world premiere. Time Sequence by Toshi Ichiyanagi, performed by Vicky Chow, was the oldest piece on the program, and stood out among the pieces because of its very repetitious and overt usage of pulse and meter. Akiko Yamane chose to have two of her pieces performed at once on the same stage: Dots Collection No. 3 for violin and piano and a vibrating sphere in a room No. 1 for violin. Their contrasting textures complimented each other nicely, with Dots Collection No. 3 insisting on the same plodding rhythm throughout, and a vibrating sphere in a room No. 1 consisting of mostly upper register angular lines.
Following the concert, a panel, moderated by George Lewis, convened. The panel included guitarist Oren Fader, composer David Behrman, musicologist Miyuki Shiraishi, and composer Takahiro Kuroda.
Day two of the Festival, The Works of Yumi Saiki, presented a compelling cross-section of the diverse work of the composer. The insistent pulse of Turn My Mourning into Dancing for flute, clarinet and cello, seemed to echo through the ensemble in various guises, before dissolving into trills and glissandi. In the open forum following the concert, pianist Aaron Wunsch mentioned that when he first saw the score for JOY, a piece for solo piano, he was not overcome with the feeling of joy—that is to say that the piece is very challenging. Yet ultimately joy is precisely what his performance projected: an exuberant feeling, not an effort of technique. Entomophonie II comes from a series of Saiki’s pieces inspired by insect sounds. While the repetitive sounds coming from the quintet of winds and strings were unconventional and dissonant, a calm relaxed feeling presided over the hall, much like actually being surrounded by the plaintive and insistent call of insects in nature. The piece was conducted by renowned cellist and conductor Fred Sherry. Deux Sillages II for violin solo and string trio, is, according to Saiki, a juxtaposition of two types of music, “Asian music on the one hand and Western music on the other.” The result was a flurry of musical ideas and musical movement throughout Momenta Quartet, who artfully interpreted the challenging music. To punctuate each of her phrases, Emilie-Anne Gendron, who performed the solo violin part, kicked a cluster of bells suspended in front of her. Pneuma III (a world premiere and MFJ commission) for flute, cello and piano closed the concert. “Pneuma” means “breath” in Greek but also can take on the metaphorical meaning of “spirit.” The central role of the flutist (in this case Elizabeth Brown), and the use of techniques on the flute that emphasized its breathiness, indeed gave it an airy, effervescent feel.
The weekend concluded with another open forum with Saiki, pianist Aaron Wunsch, composer/writer Matthias Kriesberg, and Ryo Sasaki from Suntory Arts Foundation, moderated by cellist/conductor Fred Sherry. First and foremost, they discussed Saiki’s music, and took questions from the audience. Sharon Nakazato served as the interpreter for the forums on both days.
Apart from the public events, Japan Foundation hosted MFJ’s annual symposium, and Yumi Saiki presented at Columbia University’s weekly composition seminar.
Overall, the week was filled with beautifully interpreted new music by Japanese composers, informative educational programs, conversation, and new connections between composers, musicologists, performers and audience.
© Music From Japan, Inc.
Tokyo Concerts Lab
July 5: Classical and Contemporary Gagaku
July 6: Highlights of MFJ Commissions, Tokyo II
Tokyo Final Program
Fukushima City Concert Hall
July 8: Folk Performing Arts of Fukushima
July 9: Iitate Village School
For the MFJ-MCANA institute in Japan, Music From Japan (MFJ) collaborated with the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) to bring ten MCANA critics, one US and one Canadian composer to Japan for various concerts and educational events.
On July 5th Classical and Contemporary Gagaku introduced the US and Canadian visitors to gagaku instruments, their use in traditional music, and their subsequent incorporation into contemporary music. Following an informative lecture by Professor Naoko Terauchi, the musicians performed four classical pieces. Afterwards, John Cage’s One9 and Ichiro Nodaira’s Voix Interieur were performed by Mayumi Miyata. Both pieces were originally composed for Ms. Miyata. The 2012 MFJ commission To Be Human for kugo, voice and haisho, by Fuyuhiko Sasaki, followed.
On Friday July 6th, Highlights of MFJ Commissions Tokyo II featured five chamber works MFJ has commissioned over the years. While most of the pieces have been composed in the current decade, a highlight was Shigeaki Saegusa’s Cello ’88 (1988) performed in its Japanese premiere by Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, for whom it was originally composed.
On the 7th, Tokyo Sinfonietta presented, Music From Japan in Tokyo, a concert at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, with works by the two visiting composers, Zosha Di Castri and Anthony Cheung, alongside two recent MFJ commissions by Tokuhide Niimi and Naoko Hishinuma, and a work by Julia Wolfe. Di Castri’s piece, Cortege, was inspired by a Cavafy poem interpreted by Leonard Cohen. Cheung’s vis-à-vis was for 18 musicians and live electronics.
After the Tokyo Sinfonietta Concert, MCANA critics, visiting composers and staff of Music From Japan made their way to the train to head to Fukushima. The following day, on the 8th, the group was treated to regional folk performing arts of Fukushima Prefecture at Fukushima City Concert Hall. John Fleming, in his article for Musical America, summed it up well: “A dozen children, ages four to twelve, wearing turquoise kimonos and holding fans or flowered hats, performed graceful choreography to a chanting vocalist, drum, and flute. Three Lions of Kuryusawa featured dancers in gold lion masks. Booming taiko drumming [of Ryozen Taiko] showed how villagers might celebrate the rice harvest.” (Musical America Worldwide, August 7, 2018).
During the visit, the critics and composers also had the chance to meet with Masaaki Suzuki, vice-governor of Fukushima Prefecture. He emphasized that radiation levels are safe in most of Fukushima and that the area is recovering.
The final stop of the MFJ-MCANA institute in Japan was Iitate, a village in Fukushima Prefecture where MFJ’s own Naoyuki Miura’s mother was born and raised. Iitate was almost entirely evacuated after the nuclear disaster. In part due to Mr. Miura’s personal connection to the region, MFJ has commissioned several works that were in some way influenced by the tragic events of March 11th, 2011. One such piece, Time, Come Around (commissioned by MFJ in 2012) was performed on that final day by a students’ choir at Iitate’s newly built school.
Overall, MFJ’s events in Japan offered the invaluable opportunity for ten critics and two composers to travel to Tokyo and Fukushima, meet with their counterparts there, be exposed to both contemporary and traditional Japanese musical culture, and gain a glimpse of the Japanese way of life.
© Music From Japan, Inc.
New York City at Scandinavia House/Victor Borge Hall
58 Park Avenue, New York (between 37th and 38th Streets)
February 17th, 8pm: The Works of Tokuhide Niimi
February 18th, 5:30pm: Diversification of Japanese Contemporary Music
For the third year of the Artist Residency Program, Music From Japan invited composer Tokuhide Niimi and musicologist Toshie Kakinuma from Japan to participate in a series of educational events and concerts in New York.
The Works of Tokuhide Niimi
Musicologist Toshie Kakinuma gave a compelling lecture called “Trends in Contemporary Music in Japan after the Osaka Expo in 1970,” preceding the concert. In it, she discussed the history of, and shed light on some of the ideological dissonances within, the field of avant-garde composition in Japan after this momentous occasion. The Expo represented a turning point both for the cultural history of Japan and in the life of Professor Kakinuma.
Following the lecture, Momenta Quartet performed Tokuhide Niimi’s String Quartet No. 2 Asura, composed in 2011. The piece began with a pianissimo flurry of notes, that increased in a slow crescendo. Niimi, who seems to have a penchant for bringing life to simple material through his imaginative thematic development, then introduced a four note chromatic descent. That four note theme would reappear in many forms throughout the piece, which was sometimes manic, sometimes brooding. As it came to a close, the chromatic line was inverted into an ascending one, and just as the work began with a tremulous flurry of notes, it seemed to disperse back into the place from which it came, tapering off into nothingness.
The second section of Concerto for Chorus, Bios, followed. Performed by the C4 vocal ensemble, the work opened with a unison that gradually broke off into dissonances. Like the quartet before it, Bios covered a lot of compositional ground, from ponderous chordal stops to tremulous unisons in the upper register. The text, which drew from Kenji Miyazawa, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a Latin aphorism, were all delivered in their respective languages. Nonetheless, the meaning of the words—which all contemplated the most penetrating questions of life—seemed to be transmitted through the music itself, for all to know and feel.
The final piece, a piano quintet called shape of the soul, was the world premiere of a commission by Music From Japan. While the piece employed some of the atonal elements of the previous two pieces, it also hinted towards a tonal center and heavily used a mode with a prominent augmented second. The use of two double-reeded instruments (oboe and bassoon) emphasized the references to the Middle East, already made apparent by the frequent use of the augmented second.
After the concert, the first panel included Mr. Niimi, Timothy Brown (the conductor of C4 Vocal Ensemble), John Fleming (the current president of the Music Critics Association of North America) and Barbara Jepson (former president of the Music Critics Association of North America), who moderated the panel. The panelists each voiced their impressions of the program, and asked Mr. Niimi questions about his music. The second panel included American composers Anthony Cheung and Julia Wolfe, and Japanese conductor Yasuaki Itakura; John Fleming and Barbara Jepson remained. The panelists discussed MFJ’s upcoming collaboration with MCANA Institute and two American composers, to take place in July in Japan.
Diversification of Japanese Contemporary Music
The second concert of the weekend opened up with two short piano pieces by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, arranged by Yuji Takahashi. Sakamoto, who is famed for his remarkable adeptness at writing and playing music across many genres, from the avant-garde to the classically elegant, the two pieces that began the program fell into the latter camp. Both River and Grasshoppers, smartly interpreted by Aaron Wunsch on piano, gleamed with clarity and compositional precision, but at the same time did not seem like a repetition of the past, through certain rhythmic eccentricities. Melodia for bass clarinet, by Makiko Nishikaze and performed by Marianne Gythfeldt, followed. Ms. Nishikaze is interested in the spacialization of sound, and somehow, even though the sound was coming from a single performer positioned at the center of the stage, the long tones and staccato notes seemed to emanate from the corners of the room itself. The wa-go-n an ancient koto indigenous to Japan, was the featured instrument in the only traditional piece on the program, Shizuuta, which was transcribed by Mayu Masuda from a manuscript compiled over one thousand years ago. Kayoko Nakagawa performed the piece, which consisted of mostly broken chords complementing the vocal line homophonically. The next piece, shima-zima (Islands), by Makiko Nishikaze did involve an actual spacialization of the sound, with the six performers walking about the auditorium while playing. Like the collection of islands that make up Japan, in shima-zima each performer simultaneously existed as a unique entity and came together to perform as a musical whole. The performance of the piece was the world premiere of a MFJ commission.
After the intermission, Kayoko Nakagawa returned to the stage with the wa-go-n to perform Mayu Masuda’s new work, Narrating Function IV—Rain Rain, another MFJ commission and world premiere. Unlike Shizuuta, the voice and wa-go-n seemed to act more in counterpoint. Dharani, a work for guitar and voice by Yoshihiko Shimizu and performed by Oren Fader was a slow meditation on a single note interspersed with flourishes and microtonal chords on the guitar, and grace notes and glissandi in the voice. The concert closed with HIka Runners High + a playful piece by Noriko Koide. Each of the seven performers also held a music box, with a melody written by Koide. The work, for flute, clarinet, percussion, guitar, piano, and cello, heavily employed chromatic scale runs, glissandi and repetitive machine like rhythms. It was conducted by esteemed Japanese conductor Yasuaki Itakura.
Before the post-concert panel began, there was a demonstration on the wa-go-n. As Mayu Masuda explained different features of the instrument, Kayoko Nakagawa demonstrated, finally performing a short piece. A forum including several of the composers, Stephanie Griffin (Momenta Quartet), John Fleming, and musicologist Toshie Kakinuma, followed.
The Mitsubishi UFJ Trust Foundation for the Arts
The Asahi Shimbun Foundation
© Music From Japan, Inc.
New York City at Scandinavia House/Victor Borge Hall
58 Park Avenue, New York (at 37th Street)
February 18th, 8pm: The Works of Kenji Sakai
February 19th, 5:30pm: New Directions in Japanese Contemporary Music
Festival 2017 Program
The Music From Japan Festival 2017 marked the second year of MFJ’s Artist Residency program. This year, we invited composer Kenji Sakai and musicologist Fuyuko Fukunaka to participate in a series of educational events, a symposium and two concerts. Both concerts included pieces commissioned by Music From Japan.
The Works of Kenji Sakai
Musicologist Fuyuko Fukunaka gave an enlightening lecture called Multi-Culturalization in Japanese Contemporary Music: Sources & Politics. The lecture rebuked Western essentialism and orientalism and offered a more nuanced perspective on Japanese identity in music. She focused on several ideas in Western rhetoric about Japanese music, such as ma and stasis, and explained how these are not only insufficient descriptors for modern Japanese music but are also often misleading. Using the story of John Cage’s first visit to Japan as an example, Dr. Fukunaka described the complex relationship between Japanese identity and American projections of it.
The Works of Kenji Sakai began with a virtuosic performance of his Blaze by bassoonist Yen-Chen Wu. The piece was a flurry of arpeggios spanning the entire range of the instrument, interrupted by brief silences and more pointillistic textures employing extended techniques and long tones. Fanfare toward the dusk, an extremely challenging piece for trumpet and piano, followed. The piece seemed based around a single repeated pitch interrupted by sometimes-abrupt transitions and improvisatory flourishes. Borders a world premiere commissioned by Music From Japan, was conducted by the highly esteemed Yasuaki Itakura and featured the shakuhachi player Akikazu Nakamura, both of whom came from Japan for the performance. Finally, Mixtures, performed by the wind quintet Windscape, closed out the concert. The piece was beautifully executed by Windscape, and alternated between sustained chordal sections and more contrapuntal gestural moments.
After the concert, music critic John Rockwell moderated a panel with Mr. Sakai, Yasuaki Itakura, Akikazu Nakamura, American composer Ned Rothenberg, and publisher Masaya Takagi. The Japanese members of the panel discussed how they understood their own identities and relationship to Japanese culture, and Ned Rothenberg and Mr. Sakai discussed microtonalism and the use of shakuhachi among Western instruments. Before the evening was done, several questions were taken from the audience.
New Directions in Japanese Contemporary Music
New Directions in Japanese Contemporary Music, curated by Fuyuko Fukunaka, featured the work of several Japanese composers, with a special focus on those born after 1975. The evening showcased three American premieres as well as the world premieres of two new pieces commissioned by MFJ.
The concert began with Pergola by Jo Kondo—the oldest piece by far on the program. As Dr. Fukunaka explained during the post-concert panel, the piece served as a sort of stylistic and historical point of departure for the pieces that followed. Shoichi Yabuta’s string quartet Edge came next. The piece consisted of several recurring themes—accelerating dissonant chords, dense counterpoint, and passages involving furiously executed scratch tones and other extended techniques. All of this was artfully interpreted by the fantastic Momenta Quartet. Next, Tetsuya Yamamoto’s Crossroads / Y Intersection had complex stage directions with both performers wandering about the stage while performing. The performance culminated in a full blackout of the stage. Shohei Amimori’s piece Love/27/10F began with all of the performers making a “shhh” sound in various rhythms before each eventually turned to performing on their instruments. Like Borders on the previous night, Maestro Itakura conducted the piece.
After intermission, the audience returned to hear Yuta Bandoh’s Seesaw. The piece called for preparations on the piano sonically reminiscent of John Cage’s work for the instrument. After Seesaw, Miya Masaoka (21 string koto), Akikazu Nakamura (shakuhachi), and Brad Garton (electronics) took the stage for an improvisation. Masaoka began the piece with a staccato texture almost like the dripping of water. When Garton and Nakamura entered, the audience was soon immersed in a lush soundscape. The program closed with Yoshiaki Onishi’s string trio, Envoi II. The trio sounded almost machine like, with scratchy and percussive tones repeated in an ever evolving, but repetitive rhythmic pattern.
After the concert, there was an open panel led by Brad Garton with the commissioned composers, Miya Masaoka, curator Fuyuko Fukunaka, and the eminent critic John Rockwell. The main topic discussed was each composer’s relationship to their Japanese identity and how it influenced his or her music. While there were subtle differences in each artist’s answer, the prevalent sentiment was that Japanese identity was relatively low on the list of things that influenced their music, considering the globalized world we live in today.
© Music From Japan, Inc.
New York City at Scandinavia House
February 27th: The Works of Misato Mochizuki
February 28th: Japanese Composers in the 21st Century
Music From Japan Festival 2016 Program
Before the concert began, musicologist Dr. Yuji Numano gave a lecture on the history of Western classical music in Japan, and in particular, how identity has informed the growing repertoire by Japanese composers working in the Western idiom. He opened by discussing the Meiji Restoration, when, in 1868, for the first time in two hundred years, Western music, culture, and goods were allowed to flow into the country without restriction. Less than half a century after the introduction of this new music, Japanese composers struggled with the question: how do we compose using Western instruments and Western harmony, but still express our quintessentially Japanese identity through music? Over the course of the following century, composers found various solutions to this tension, yet each had its problems. Dr. Numano concluded that only recently have Japanese composers synthesized something truly and uniquely Japanese in contemporary classical music, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of orientalism.
“The Works of Misato Mochizuki” opened up with three pieces from her “Intermezzi” series. The series, inspired by Roland Barthes’ fragmented discourse, is a collection of pieces without a preconceived form. Instead, the form is defined as the piece unfolds, much like Barthes’ style of argumentation. In Intermezzi I, Margaret Kampmeier excited the strings of the piano with various implements, including a piece of a bicycle tube. The piece also called for the flutist, Elizabeth Brown, to play directly into the piano at times, so that the sounds of the flute would resonate through the piano’s strings when the pedal was depressed. In Intermezzi II, for solo koto, Ms. Mochizuki sought to use the koto in ways that were not immediately evocative of the instrument’s history in Japanese traditional music. At first the strings were dampened by a cloth, to deprive the koto of its characteristic resonance. As the piece progressed, the cloth was removed, but soon enough, other extended techniques were used—the strings were scraped by the finger picks, and finally, in the finale of the piece, a ruler was run across the strings. Intermezzi V featured an unusual combination of instruments—accordion and viola. The opening of the piece featured the viola alone, in a kind of morphing ostinato, which included pitches spanning most of the viola’s large range. The use of the accordion was highly non-idiomatic—piercing high notes and the clicking of keys brought the instrument far out of its traditional role as a folk instrument. Finally, Le pas d’apres, which was commissioned by MFJ in 2002 for the Festival 2003, was performed. A trio of flute, guitar, and violin, the piece was percussive in nature. Tapping on the guitar coupled with col legno battuto (a technique that involves striking the strings with the wooden part of the bow) on the violin and accented staccato notes on the flute resulted in a highly pointillist texture.
After the concert, composers Misato Mochizuki and Richard Teitelbaum spoke on a panel with critics Donald Rosenberg, Ken Smith, and Richard Ginell. Mr. Rosenberg moderated the forum. The discussion was mostly about Ms. Mochizuki’s music, her relationship to her own Japanese heritage, her compositional process, and especially the role of the program note and being able to describe and defend one’s work in general.
The Sunday concert featured eight compositions by eight different composers, all written in the 21st Century. Each one of the performances was an American premiere, except for New York Dance by Hiroyuki Yamamoto and commissioned by Music From Japan, which was a world premiere. Much of the material from Satoshi Minami’s Zigzag Bach is quoted from Book I of J.S. Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier,” Prelude in C, and A Musical Offering. While the references to the pieces were quite clear at first, the material quickly underwent transformations and soon enough only the impression of the older masterpieces remained in the music. Next, Masahiro Miwa’s work Rainbow Machine Koan-001 was a flurry of notes from the piano artfully interpreted by the formidable Stephen Gosling. Myoclony, a work by Haruyuki Suzuki for violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and oboe, was intentionally disruptive in its flow. Throughout the piece Mr. Suzuki introduced both musical and theatrical disruptions in order to surprise the listener. Falling Dance, by Sunao Isaji, was delightfully evocative of Japanese culture while avoiding orientalist clichés. The cellist (Fred Sherry) and the pianist (Stephen Gosling) used their voices while Mr. Sherry made sweeping glissandi all over the range of the instrument. Yoshifumi Tanaka’s piece An Interview with L.B. Interpreted by viola and piano was a kind of transcription of an interview of Luciano Berio by a Japanese scholar. The work is part of Tanaka’s series “The Speech Transplant Project” in which Mr. Tanaka attempts to transcribe speech into instrumental music, despite the challenges inherent in such a method. While all the composers featured in the Sunday concert are Japanese, Dai Fujikura’s Cutting Sky was the only piece that was written for a Japanese traditional instrument. The piece, for koto and viola, found common ground between the instruments through the use of pizzicato. While the content of Akiko Yamane’s music is far from populist or condescending, she finds inspiration in pop culture themes, often regarded as naïve by the art music world. In this vein, her piece Ambiguous garnet colored fragments was based on her husband Motoharu Kawashima’s dance music piece A Paris. Finally, Hiroyuki Yamamoto’s piece New York Dance was performed. Unlike much contemporary music, New York Dance had a strong implied pulse, with thunderous accents and clusters alternating between the instruments.
The forum following the concert included composers Hiroyuki Yamamoto and Haruyuki Suzuki, critic Nancy Malitz, and musicologist Yuji Numano. Carl Stone moderated the panel, and Sharon Nakazato interpreted. The forum began with comments about the preceding concert and how the composers related to the concepts of “Neo-Japonism” that Yuji Numano introduced in his lecture the day before. Afterwards, Nancy Malitz summarized a symposium that included MFJ and members of the Music Critics Association of North America that happened the preceding Friday, on February 26th. In particular she spoke about a new project that the Music Critics Association of North America has been developing and maintaining: a website called Classical Voice North America. Ms. Malitz explained that Classical Voice North America aims to “provide some of the support structure that was lost when print publications began their long decline” including, but not limited to, editorial support, design and layout, the gathering of photos and multimedia, and marketing. After the panel discussions, the conversation was opened up to the audience in a brief question and answer session.
Overall, MFJ’s Festival 2016 facilitated an incredible amount of dialogue, both verbal and musical, between musicians, critics, and scholars from Japan and the US. Composers and critics alike were given a voice in several different forums to share ideas, share work, and attempt to look towards the future of contemporary classical music.
© Music From Japan, Inc.
All photos by Ken Howard unless otherwise noted
New York City Festival at the Asia Society
February 7th: East Asian Vibrancy
February 8th: Highlights of MFJ Commissions III
New York Brochure
Washington DC at Freer Gallery of Art
February 10th: East Asian Vibrancy
Fukushima City at Fukushima City Concert Hall
March 6th: East Asian Vibrancy
Tokyo at Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall
March 7th: Highlights of MFJ Commissions Tokyo
March 8th: East Asian Vibrancy
The New York and Washington DC chapters of Music From Japan’s 40th Anniversary were celebrated with unique cross-cultural exchange between the US, Japan, and its neighboring nations: China and Korea. On February 7th, for East Asian Vibrancy, three world class performers of East Asian traditional instruments performed contemporary and classical repertoire. The program was dedicated to Beate Sirota Gordon, who, as the Director of the Performing Arts at both the Asia Society and the Japan Society, helped Music From Japan organize its first events. Geoffrey Gordon, Beate’s son, was in attendance. On February 8th, Highlights of Music From Japan Commissions III featured highlights of past Music From Japan commissions presented alongside the world premieres of two new pieces by Japanese composers.
The festival began with a lecture called Exploring the Music of East Asia by scholar and shakuhachi player Ralph Samuelson on the music of East Asia and the connections between the instruments found throughout the entire Asian continent. He explained how instruments traveled along the Silk Road, which became an important travel route for ideas and culture as well as goods. He also pointed out an important event when, in 749, for the dedication of the temple of Todai-ji, musicians from all over Asia traveled to Japan to perform. The instruments they brought with them would then be adopted, slightly modified, renamed, and become the basis of the ensemble for gagaku, the imperial court music of Japan. Sonically, Mr. Samuelson explained, tone color plays an extremely important role in the music of Eastern Asia—more so than in western music. He also explained that in Eastern Asian music there traditionally is no clear separation between composer and performer. Instrumentalists play the role of both composer and interpreter, and typically the tradition of committing music to writing at all only served as a memory aid rather than some kind of definitive manuscript.
After the lecture and a short break, Rachel Cooper, the Director of Performing Arts at the Asia Society, took the stage and commented on the power of music and culture in general to facilitate understanding and diplomacy between nations— certainly not a farfetched claim, especially considering the full house included many dignitaries, including UN Ambassadors from Papua New Guinea, Korea, Cambodia, and Japan.
Mayumi Miyata opened the concert with the piece Hyojo no choshi, a traditional piece for sho, one of the wind instruments used in gagaku. The piece is traditionally played as a prelude, and conjures up a particular mood or color in the audience’s mind. Before beginning, Mayumi dedicated the performance to Music From Japan. The piece itself featured long sustained overlapping tones, the pitches sometimes creating harmonic beats—a kind of wavering effect caused by the closeness of the intervals.
Next, Jin Hi Kim performed Dasrum, also a kind of prelude for another ancient East Asian musical form, in this case kagok, a type of Korean vocal music. The piece was slow and meditative, often with significant space left between each gesture. Wu Man then took the stage, wielding her pipa and first performing Xi Yang Xiao Gu (Flute and Drum Music at Sunset). She graced the audience with a flurry of fast tremolo, overset by beautiful melodic lines.
To begin the contemporary portion of the program Wu Man performed two of her original pieces. Night Thoughts was slow and melancholic, featuring lilting augmented seconds and chromatic passages punctuated by silence. Leaves Flying in Autumn lay at the opposite pole, featuring furious tremolo and fast virtuosic lines.
Mayumi Miyata returned to the stage, this time performing Yumi Saiki’s piece Entomophonie VII, which was inspired by insect sounds. Indeed, the performance at times was reminiscent of sounds of the forest: long tones were punctuated by quick chirps and punchy dissonant chords.
Jin Hi Kim then performed on her electric komungo, a modified version of the instrument, manipulated by computer electronics. She immersed the audience in a soundscape of lush textures as she used a variety of extended techniques, including using a bow on the instrument, which is traditionally plucked.
After intermission the three musicians came together in an extended improvisation. The three women spontaneously created some exciting music that was at times sparse and with a fluid sense of time, at other moments dense and upbeat.
Finally, the three performed Unkai the MFJ-commissioned piece by Ned Rothenberg. The piece artfully orchestrated this unique configuration, employing seamlessly both traditional and contemporary instrumental techniques. The ancient spirits of the instruments were evoked, but at the same time the sonic palettes of each were expanded into new realms, both individually and as an ensemble.
In total, the evening was a wonderful blend of instruments, styles, and techniques. No one could have achieved this better than Mayumi Miyata, Jin Hi Kim, and Wu Man, each known in their own right for expanding the repertoire and pushing the boundaries of these three traditional instruments.
The second day, Highlights of Music From Japan Commissions III, began with Quatuor En Hiver, a piece by Ichiro Nodaira. The piece featured Stephen Gosling on piano, Fred Sherry on cello, Ah Ling Neu on viola, and Eriko Sato on violin. Musically, the piece vacillated between punchy and percussive fragments and longer sustained gestures. It seemed Mr. Nodaira was often treating the ensemble—especially the trio of strings—as a single instrument, with lines, specific pitches and gestures bouncing between the violin, viola, and cello freely.
Next, Mari Kimura expertly performed Mari Takano’s Full Moon, a piece for violin and electronics. The accompaniment, played from Kimura’s laptop, spanned the gamut between purely synthetic sounds and violin samples. The piece was energetic, dense, and polystylistic, showing off a wide range of timbres and techniques on the violin.
Distances III by Michio Kitazume, performed by Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman, was reductive and even elemental, using as its elements deconstructed phrases, tones, and sounds. The composer employed silence, trills, and glissandi to make for a brilliant dialogue between these two performers, who were facing each other seated close together on stage.
Oyasuminasai, a piece by Joji Yuasa and performed by Stephen Gosling on piano and Wonjung Kim on voice, was a break in an otherwise highly abstract program of music. Yuasa’s use of the piano and voice was relatively idiomatic, employing lush romantic harmonies in the piano and beautiful melodic lines for the soprano.
Two Verses by Du Fu for voice and instruments by Yoichi Sugiyama was composed in such a way that allowed the performers some flexibility in the unfolding of the piece. Rather than following a definitive pulse followed by all of the musicians at the same time, each performer proceeded independently from the others, working with durations that lacked a pulse. As such, the piece seemed improvisatory at times. Stylistically, the first movement was atonal and melancholic and the second movement employed a kind of busy dense texture among the instruments that would pause each time Wonjung entered with her voice.
The New York chapter of the festival was concluded by two open forums. The first was a conversation between Sharon Nakazato and Kotoko Fukunaka in which Ms. Fukunaka, who wrote a book on Music From Japan, discussed its historic importance. In particular, she placed an emphasis on the large scale projects that MFJ organized and took part in, such as the composer portraits and their collaboration with the New York City Opera on Kinkakuji in 1995.
The second forum brought all three commissioned composers onto the stage, along with interpreter Sharon Nakazato and cellist Fred Sherry. Mr. Sugiyama and Mr. Kitazume discussed what it meant to be a Japanese musician composing in a Western idiom. They both seemed to think that the issue of nationality wasn’t particular important, especially since from the beginning their musical training was not in classical Japanese music, but in Western art music. Rothenberg, who has had the very different experience of studying traditional Japanese music as an American (in addition to his studies in European and American music), summed up the general sentiment, explaining that musicians are a product of what they love, irrespective of nationality. It seems that in a time when international musical resources are so accessible, composers and performers can truly choose their own path, according to what interests them.
Both New York performances were favorably reviewed in the February 10th edition of the New York Times. Check out the article by clicking here.
On February 10th, the East Asian Vibrancy trio performed at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC, where they performed to a hall filled to capacity. As the musicians were more familiar with Rothenberg’s Unkai, the performance of the piece was even more nuanced than the premiere in New York, and so the trio enjoyed a well-deserved standing ovation.
© Music From Japan, Inc.
For its 39th season, Music From Japan presented music from Okinawa, the chain of islands that make up the southernmost prefecture of Japan. Naoyuki Miura, Music From Japan’s Artistic Director, worked closely with the band The Ryukyuans to develop a program of diverse Okinawan music in what would be their North American debut. The Ryukyuans performed a wide variety of traditional and contemporary songs, representing several of the many cultures and languages found in the expansive Ryukyuan archipelago. Each band-member’s own cultural heritage and music path is unique, yet they share an interest in contributing to the rich Okinawan folk-music tradition by breathing life into traditional songs and performing new works. The three-stringed sanshin, the quintessential Okinawan instrument, is central to the music of the Ryukyuans, as it has been central to Okinawan music for centuries.
The first concert was preceded by a lecture-demonstration led by Sharon Nakazato. Sharon began by sharing some background information about Okinawan music, language, and culture gleaned through her own research and from the Ryukyuans. Each musician then discussed the basics of his or her instrument and approach to voice.
In Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today, The Ryukyans performed folk songs from their respective cultural origins: Yukito Ara representing the Yaeyama region, Isamu Shimoji the Miyako region, and Shinobu Matsuda the Okinawa main island. Throughout much of the program these musicians were accompanied by Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone who performed on the shima-daiko, the Okinawan version of Japanese percussion. The program began with Yunta Shoura, a traditional antiphonal song usually sung in the workplace or during celebrations; it was beautifully interpreted by Yukito and Isamu, who sang without accompaniment. Isamu then took the stage alone to perform songs from the Miyako region of Okinawa. The spare sanshin playing, coupled with longer vocal phrases, created an evocative, melancholic atmosphere. Next, Shinobu Matsuda, wearing a traditional Okinawan kimono, performed folk songs from the Okinawa main island. These pieces tended to be more upbeat, and featured a sanshin accompaniment that was more dance-like than the opening songs of the evening.
After intermission, the sound of waves on a beach created the setting for Yukito to take the stage. He shared songs characteristic of his birthplace, the Yaeyama Islands, as well as a Ryukyu dance song called Kanayo/Amakaa. The rest of the program offered more modern pieces, written from the middle of the 20th century through to today. Some of the songs had lyrics written by Isamu or Yukito, or music composed by Isamu, and all incorporated elements of American popular music while still bearing the stamp of Okinawan folk song. The evening ended with an encore entitled Honen Ondo or “Harvest Song” performed by the entire group. This number was upbeat and heavily influenced by American rock music. As the song neared its conclusion the tempo increased, making for a high-energy finale to a diverse night of music.
On Sunday, in New Songs of Okinawa, The Ryukyuans focused on more contemporary repertoire. The evening was, nonetheless, peppered with more traditional songs, including some reprised from the previous night, reminding listener and performer alike of the important connection to tradition that is still part of Okinawan popular music. In some of the newer pieces we could hear the strong influence of American popular song on modern Okinawan music: Jazzy Myahk was appropriately jazz-infused, and featured a section in which the lyrics were delivered rapidly on a single pitch, evoking the sound of American rap music; Last Waltz and That Summer Day, both sung with standard acoustic guitar, are beautiful modern ballads with melodic content similar to that of American love songs. The afternoon ended with two encores: Honen Ondo and Shidei Gafuu or “A Prayer for Blessing and Joy.” The latter was written especially for the 2014 Festival and commissioned by Music From Japan; with lyrics by Yukito and music by Isamu, it featured an energetic call and response between the members of the band.
The Sunday afternoon concert was followed by an open forum entitled “Creative Process and Language in Okinawa,” moderated and interpreted by Sharon Nakazato. Discussion topics included the backgrounds of the musicians, the many languages of Okinawa, and the process of writing culturally and politically responsible songs.
In Washington, DC, The Ryukyuans reprised their performance of Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today, and sang two encore pieces. The Washington Post spoke highly of the event, saying that the songs “were absolutely stunning in their spare, evocative and often plaintive beauty.”
© Music From Japan, Inc.