N.J.E. Celebrates Today’s Japanese Composers


In November 2009, as part of Carnegie Hall’s festival of Chinese culture, the New Juilliard Ensemble made a great impression with music by Chinese composers who live and work in China and are largely unknown here. As a result, Carnegie Hall invited the ensemble to participate in its current JapanNYC festival. That concert will take place Friday, April 8, at Alice Tully Hall, and it will be dedicated to the memory of the thousands who lost their lives in the March earthquake and tsunami.


The situations of today’s Japanese and Chinese composers are quite different. Western-style concert music is relatively new in China, its development having been arrested during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Japan on the other hand, has had a lively classical music culture since the late 19th century, when the country opened up to the West after 200 years of isolation. Its pioneers included Tomojiro Ikenouchi, the first Japanese person to study in France, who revolutionized music education by introducing French methods of teaching solfège and harmony in Japan. (He was also the grandfather of Juilliard alumna Kristina Reiko Cooper.) Today’s Chinese and Japanese composers differ from each other in another respect. Almost all the Chinese composers known in the West are émigrés to the United States and Europe, among them Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long. Most Japanese composers, however, still live in Japan but have a higher profile because they have traveled extensively, studied and taught abroad, been recorded, and received major foreign commissions.

Nevertheless, ask most musicians to name Japanese composers, and the only name likely to surface is Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), whose music is now part of the standard solo, chamber, and orchestral repertory. Despite its great power, the music of Takemitsu’s contemporary Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997) has receded somewhat from center stage. (When American composer Henry Cowell showed Leonard Bernstein a score by Mayuzumi at Tokyo’s East-West Music Encounter in 1961, Bernstein immediately decided to put it on his program, substituting it for Cowell’s own piece!) Unfortunately, very few other Japanese composers have found traction here. As is often the case with today’s composers, they have done somewhat better in Europe.

So large is the Japanese repertory for sinfonietta orchestration that my challenge in programming this concert was to focus it. Ultimately I decided, with great regret, to bypass the Takemitsu-Mayuzumi generation. That was especially difficult in the case of Toshi Ichiyanagi, who studied composition at Juilliard from 1954 to 1958 and became part of John Cage’s circle. During that time a student named Yoko Ono who dropped out to of Sarah Lawrence marry him. Having enjoyed performing his music, and knowing him slightly, it was difficult to for me not to include him, but limiting the program to younger composers gave it coherence.

I did include two composers who reside in the United States now but actively retain their connections with Japan. Karen Tanaka (born in 1961), once a Parisian and now a Southern Californian, remains very involved in Japanese musical life. It was she who brought N.J.E. to the attention of Suntory Hall and opened the way for our 2009 concerts in Tokyo. N.J.E. will perform Tanaka’s Water and Stone (1999) at the April 8 concert. Composer Ushio Torikai (born in 1952) splits her time between Tokyo and New York. I originally planned to bring back Fuse VII, which she wrote for N.J.E. in 2000, but when I informed her (during a chance encounter at a swimming pool), she suggested a piece I did not know about, Venus Is the Plane (2005), composed for Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern. Her vigorous music is especially welcome since so much Japanese music is predominantly peaceful.

Toshio Hosokawa, 55, who is extremely well known in Europe, also writes quiet music, but often with a gritty edge made possible by his mastery of extended instrumental techniques. He has written many pieces for chamber ensemble with soloist, and it is always nice to have a soloist, especially if it is tuba, although the original N.J.E. soloist for Voyage VIII (2006) unfortunately ran into an insuperable obstacle. Hosokawa asks the tubist to sing while playing, and our student’s voice was too high. Fortunately for us, master’s student Lee Jarzembak, who will perform at the concert, is a bass!

Jo Kondo (born in 1947), in some ways the most international of these composers, has for years traveled extensively in Europe and America, first as a student, later as a teacher, writer, and featured composer at festivals. We met at a festival in Poland many years ago. His Syzygia (1998) takes its name from a rhetorical term in ancient Greek literature signifying “coupling” or “conjunction in pairs.” In this composition, it signifies pairings of independent lines moving in different rhythms. Because the lines are distributed in fragments among different instruments, the linear structure is disguised. In the end, Kondo says, it is the texture, not the contrapuntal relationships, that draws listeners’ attention. 

Somei Satoh (born in 1947) is a master of peaceful but extremely intense music, and his From the Depth of Silence(2000), which will receive its New York premiere at the concert, is a case in point. Like Hosokawa, Satoh often reflects upon an element of Japanese culture or religion, though in a very different aesthetic that is devoid of edginess. Some New Yorkers will remember his Kisetsu, which was one of the New York Philharmonic’s “Messages for the Millennium” commissions. The piece garnered extra attention because at each performance, about a minute into the stunningly quiet opening, conductor Kurt Masur would stop and wait until audience members stopped coughing before continuing the music.

The concluding piece on April 8 is 58-year-old Akira Nishimura’s Corps d’arc-en-ciel (“Rainbow Body,” 2007-8), which also takes as its point of departure a religious image, in this case from Tibetan Buddhism. According to tradition, when a Buddhist master who has attained full enlightenment dies, his body emanates light in the colors of the rainbow and disappears. The number seven, representing the seven colors of the rainbow, played a central role in the structure of the piece, especially its seven extremely diverse mini-movements. A commission of Radio France, it receives its Western Hemisphere premiere at this concert.


Popular Columns

Recent Issues