Monday, 9 May 2016

A sampler of contemporary Japanese music.

The following passages are part of the conversation between Nurtan and myself regarding the seven Japanese pieces placed on G+ from the end of April into early May. The first part of the blog has links to the seven works and a short commentary which “breaks the ice” to entice the listener to part with a little of his or her time.

Hiroaki Minami: Electronic Symphony No. 1

written in response to the death of his daughter. Looking back on electronic music of the 1950's and 60's it is inevitable that we hear clichés, the medium with its lack of technology ensured that getting distinctive sounds was difficult. To make the music expressive is a greater challenge again but this work manages to not only express emotion but the most difficult of emotional states. The density of the music increases throughout and with it our emotional response.

Litany pour Fuji

Akira Miyoshi's music like that by Joji Yuasa is rich in textural changes but the musical language is closer to the human emotional states of fear, anticipation and uncertainty. The orchestration sometimes reminds me of Stravinsky and the melodic strands of Varese.  At times the music could be taken as film music so strong are the associations that the music invokes in the listener. Music and mountains together makes me think of Hovhaness, and in some ways they are not a million miles apart. Like so many Japanese art prints nature is a major concern, and while not dominating the music its presence is felt.

Akira Nishimura - Mirror of stars

Harmonically enticing, beautifully spaced chords. The staccato repeated note change surprises us, especially as it is followed by a return to the opening style. We are set up for a play between textures and the tension of waiting for these drives the music onward. What is astonishing is how short the interjections can be and how alien they feel to the homophonic material. Recently I saw a ladybird flying onto a blade of grass, there were a million green leaves and one tiny splash of bright red. I wondered how to represent this in music, and this piece does it very well.

Hikaru Hayashi: Concerto for viola and strings "Elegia" (1995)
Influenced by Western values?  Elegies by Elgar and Bridge are well known, and listeners who are familiar with them cannot fail to identify with the tone and mood of this work. At times is seems to be using a similar language but as the work progresses there are moments in which the Japanese character emerges (21.30). The emotional range is wide, sometimes subdued sometimes impassioned. The narrative always seems to be first person. It is of little surprise that the composer had a strong interest in opera and wrote film scores as the music communicates easily and effectively the tensions of human passions.

Joji Yuasa: Territory (1974) 

This is one accomplished musician, highly respected by academics and practical music makers. Territory gives us an idea why this is the case. Brilliant textures with instruments subtly emerging from previous sonorities.  The flute sounds in particular give an authentic Japanese quality to the music. I hear bamboo and wood and natural sounds here adding colour to an intellectual design. One of the joys of this work is that the textures are unpredictable but never outlandishly so, the changes of rhythm and pulse are always easy on the ear.

Toshio Hosokawa - Vertical songs I. for flute solo (or recorder)

The blend of voice and recorder makes a wonderful and natural pairing. The musical gestures are events framed in silence and near silence. Once again I find myself making associations with the natural world, but this is no pretty depiction but cutting and aggressive drama where rapid actions follow moments of tense anticipation.

I find that the rapidity of events within a short duration gives the work a different outlook on time, the seven minutes is over quickly but there are moments in which everything is remarkably still. I would love to see a dancer interpret the music!

Minoru Miki - Marimba Spiritual

I first heard this in a performance by Evelyn Glennie, but I am more than happy with this brilliant and dramatic performance. The opening is an exploration, widening out the scope of the marimba, and then that curious little rhythm begins to establish itself. While the other percussionists mark out the phrases, short sequences begin to drive the music forward and then we are under way gradually moving from broken phrases into a continuity of action. From 7.00 onwards it is a fast ride with a superb ending.

The following is Nurtan's response to the works shared on G+
Another pair of ears.

I wrote this entry several times over and revised it many times it was bordering on ridiculous. I went to a concert last night and on the return trip home, it became very clear what I wanted to say and missed the point in all these earlier revisions. I shall keep the original introduction for a birds eye view came up and go from there.

I will start with a confession that I know very little about so called ''Eastern'' music and I usually listen to music with Western ears – well almost because I like to listen to Turkish/Greek/Anatolian music. I am a little more familiar with the Indian music than Japanese music. It is a marker that makes me a naive listener who is tied pretty closely to another sound world. I know some of the works of only three Japanese composers: Toru Takemitsu, Kosaku Yamada and Minoru Miki and not very extensively at that. All three blend East and West but mostly in the Western idiom.  I liked most of whatever Eastern music I heard, but only by chance encounters. I justified this lack of curiosity by ''I am both heavily committed and busy enough not to seek more of it.” Therefore I have to excuse my naiveté by ars longa Vita brevis.

Ken has selected a varied collection of modern pieces, probably as comprehensive in its coverage as any seven reasonably short pieces one can chose. I enjoyed listening to the seven pieces; each is beautiful in its design, sonorities and appeal. Hearing these pieces and thinking about them made me think that these contained the conflicts, sonorities, similarities and differences contained in any seven pieces you choose and listen to from the catalogue of Debussy, Bartok, Malcolm Arnold, Berio, Ligetti, Beatles, Jerry Garcia, Saygun, Shostakovich, Gorecki, Getz, Coltrain, Stockhausen, Bernstein or Boulez. In fact, the entire "Western music" literature of the 20/21st century is as varied and different within as it is the same and different between "Eastern music". We cannot explain the sonorities contained within Schoenberg's 2nd string quartet by the sonorities in Debussy’s ''Le Martyre de saint Sébastien'' or Joji Yuasa's ‘‘Territory’’ nor can we dismiss the similarities between them.

There is considerable amount of Milton Babbitt sonorities or Richard Strauss' ''Tod und Verklarung'' musical elements in Hiroaki Minami's ''Sorrow Songs the Stars sang'' and it also shares an amazing amount with my ''Quiet Sorrow''. The three composition mentioned are very closely related and similar but they are nothing like each other. Similarly, no one in his/her right mind would argue that any of the seven Japanese examples are a derivative of ''Le Martyre'' or ''Tod und Verklarung''

One might argue that there are several levels of listening to music. One might listen to and carefully to understand the musical structure of a piece, or listen for the sonorities that build the sound world of the composition. One might seek a psychologically determined reaction to the musical content or simply enjoy the technical complexity or simplicity of a piece or a passage.

After several hearings of the work one might, aided by recall start to listen to all of these factors simultaneously. The performers are analysed by the same factors and additional unquantifiable factors such as phrasing, appropriate rubato, tempi etc. One thing clearly obvious is that any one factor cannot be considered superior to any other factor by any kind of logic or data. In the enjoyment of listening to music one individually reacts pleasurably or finds the musical experience within his/her expectation criteria of enjoyable. One may argue that listening experience is not a constant and can change more or less arbitrarily. Therefore, the appeal of the music is judged in a very personal manner.

I don't believe that there is cross-cultural data on music listening and enjoyment; not even at a simple interview based research on the factors which influence a person to like or dislike a musical piece (as rigorous research this would be a bad idea). With that in mind we can argue logically why the enjoyment of art might have a commonality. From a physiological point of view, the sound reception and perception is universally the same even though it might differ in acuity by age (young hear better) and by some cultural or life style influences (quiet surroundings lead to better hearing). In all brain scanning or other neurologic investigations (some we reported) an origin or nationality based difference has not been observed. This suggests that the stimuli we receive are the stimuli we perceive irrespective of what our origin might be. The technical understanding and comparative statements are universally based on the data received and perceived, tempered, or judged by the listener's knowledge and preferences. There is likely to be cultural differences in how we process the perceived stimuli as likes and dislikes; this probably has a strong influence on our ''preferences''. This offers an explanation on the universality of music as well as how similar very different music can be.

I don't know what fraction of listeners listen to music passionately or which would be more strongly influenced by culturally learned experiences or which would be more strongly influenced by the technical knowledge of music. One is not superior to the other and the lack of technical knowledge does not necessarily diminish the enjoyment. I believe that a person who listens to music passionately or dispassionately or both has a huge universe to enjoy. The judgement of a piece can only be in multiple levels such as technically superior or flawed, interesting or boring, etc.

Last night I heard a magnificent performance of Britten's ''Sinfonia da Requiem'', Strauss' ''Tod und Verklarung'' and Elgar's ''Enigma Variations'' by Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On the return journey home I thought about these three pieces and the seven Japanese pieces. The answer to my question was crystal clear. At least, fully at the technical and partially at the passionate level.

Ken: In getting to point where Nurtan posted that reply we had shared e-mails on the blogs including the topic of what makes some music difficult. In considering difficulties it was quite natural that the cultural aspect should arise.

This particular link is being shared via the blog and is new to Nurtan, it has a junior school style of presentation but it is both useful and clear:

The following was shared by e-mail and considered the shared heritage which influenced Western views of Japan.

The drip feed of culture from the East:

You say that you are less familiar with oriental art, and that is a statement with which I can sympathise, but I think that both you and I have familiarities with Japanese art as a result of its influence in other art forms.  Lets remind ourselves of some basic facts that visitors to the grand houses of the National Trust would be all too aware of (I know it is a charity that delights visitors from the USA – I watched an aunt from NY visiting a local attraction, Erddig, with a dropped jaw expression that stayed with her for hours).

Collecting Chinese and Japanese artefacts was popular in the UK from the 17th century onwards. Finding examples of Porcelain, lacquered cabinets, screens, tables and tea services with an Eastern quality seemed to be a part of my life from my teens onwards. TV shared its part in educating me about such matters with the Antiques Roadshow regularly introducing us to everything from armour to bamboo flutes.

Most of us are aware of the restrictions on trade with Japan for a number of years, the embargo or isolation period (a better description) came to an end around 1854 (The Convention of Kanagawa). The situation with China was more fluid, there being some trade with the English East India Company, but the Treaty of Nanking opened doors not just to trade but to the interest in art objects.  The culmination of this interest came in 1862 with the Great London Exposition, where both Chinese and Japanese arts and crafts were represented.

The influence of Japan on artists was felt in two distinct ways, Whistler and Degas studied Japanese art works for their style and form while other artists – like Monet represented oriental objects as part of their own paintings. This has little difference to the cultured collection in stately homes of screens and the like without great thought for integration.

Degas, mentioned above, makes use of space in his works in a way that we now identify as belonging to the mindset of japonisme, this is to us more interesting than the inclusion of chrysanthemums as an indicator of influence. There are other indicators of Japanese influence on 19th century art, tilted perspectives are popular, but these don’t transfer into musical perspectives.  We are both familiar with Haiku poetry, I think it fairer to say that we both love this style, but it came as a surprise to me to find out that Japanese poetry was very closely associated with Chinese poetry in its earlier history:

Much of the literary record of Japanese poetry begins when Japanese poets encountered Chinese poetry during the Tang Dynasty. Under the influence of the Chinese poets of this era Japanese began to compose poetry in Chinese (kanshi); and, as part of this tradition, poetry in Japan tended to be intimately associated with pictorial painting, partly because of the influence of Chinese arts, and the tradition of the use of ink and brush for both writing and drawing.
This short extract from Wiki is interesting to me because of the association of calligraphy and drawing and the way that they are integrated. I suppose that could take us to Cage, but let’s not jump the gun.

I am sure now that I have started this trawl through Eastern influences that you will come back with more illustrations of the same.  I look forward to reading some.

Maternal Caress: Mary Cassat

It is difficult to work out how many people listened to the music placed on G+, some indicated their pleasure with a + and the usual small group added supportive comments, Giorgio shared with me a work which he came across that was new to me, thank you.

D. LO - MUSIC FOR A STARRY NIGHT... [für Ensemble, 2015]

If you have found Japanese music that has excited, puzzled or delighted you why not share it?

You may do so by responding to this blog or simply place a link to the work on the G+ pages.

It has occurred to me on several occasions that the notion of craftsmanship is strong in Japanese music; one should say the same of all serious music despite its ethnic origins. ‘Craftsmanship’ isn’t a term that appears regularly in writing about Western music, a composer like Frank Bridge stands out as one nominated in this way and I can think of reasons for why Bridge carries this distinction, both good and bad. Perhaps a reader with greater familiarity with Japanese culture might like to help me out with this thought.