Japan had been closed off from the rest of the world for nearly 200 years when the Americans and Europeans forced their way in during the 1860s. The Japanese rapidly took to many Western things like battleships, baseball, and Brahms. By the mid-20th century, Western-style orchestras had sprung up throughout the country, children were getting intensive classical training, and several important musicians and composers had emerged.
Although Japan has been admired for the many great classical musicians it has spawned, its composers are less well known. This year's Music in Time series sheds some light on them with a concert of U.S. premieres by several of Japan's most distinguished composers: Toshi Ichiyanagi, Somei Satoh, and Toshio Hosokawa.
"These Japanese composers are as global as any other composers," says John Kennedy, the festival's resident conductor and long-time organizer of the Music in Time contemporary music series. "It's good for us to be reminded that a lot of fantastic music is being composed and not all is part of this European-American axis."
The program came together when the festival got permission to perform Ichiyanagi's Symphony No. 8, which was written in response to the devastation caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting damage at a nuclear power plant early last year in Japan. The work premiered in the country in December 2011.
"We had the opportunity to perform it and it was too good to pass up," Kennedy says, "and then decided to make it an all-Japanese concert."
Ichiyanagi, 79, was one of the leaders of the Japanese avant-garde in the '50s and '60s and is considered the elder statesman of classical music in Japan. (He was married to an even better-known Japanese artist, Yoko Ono.) Ichiyanagi studied with John Cage and, over his long career, has created operas, orchestral works, and chamber music — works that mix traditional Japanese and Western instruments, and others that employ electronics.
The composer has said of Symphony No. 8, "This work has a subtitle‚ Revelation 2011, which comes from my feelings about the shocking national disaster caused by the great earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit east Japan. ... This unprecedented experience has led me to consider my thoughts on Japan's geographical features and on our way of living in the country."
While Revelation 2011 was inspired by the destructive power of nature, the other two works are tied to its gentler side. Satoh's Listening to Fragrances of the Dust is a quiet mediation on nature, while Garten Lieder by Hosokawa is an ode to spring.
Satoh, born in 1947, is a self-taught composer considered part of the minimalist movement and has worked extensively with visual and theater artists. Among his many unusual works was one for man-made fog, lasers, and eight speakers placed a kilometer apart from one another. Both the Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can have commissioned pieces by Satoh. He's a favorite of Kennedy's, and his work has been featured in Music in Time in the past.
Hosokawa, 57, explores the relationship between Western avant-garde art and traditional Japanese culture and is heavily influenced by the transience of nature and the Buddhist notion of the balance between life and death. Well-established in Europe as well as in his native country, Hosokawa has written for solo instruments, orchestras, and chamber groups, along with operas and oratorio.
Morihiko Nakahara, music director of the South Carolina Philharmonic and a native of Japan, says that it's not surprising that Americans don't know much about these Japanese composers; the Japanese don't know all that much about contemporary American composers either. Until the last 10 to 15 years, finding recordings or sheet music by Japanese composers was difficult outside of Japan, says Nakahara, who has led the Philharmonic in performances by Japanese composers a few times.
The love of Western classical music that started in the late 19th century in Japan endures through serious music theory and history courses taught in Japanese schools. In an interview several years ago, the Japanese violinist Midori said, "For the Japanese, it is unfathomable that music is not taught in school curriculum."
Phillip Bush, a Columbia-based pianist who has been a member of the Steve Reich and Philip Glass ensembles, has performed works by Satoh and Ichiyanagi several times, including Ichiyanagi's Piano Media, of which he says, "I can tell you a lot about that piece — like how it will almost kill you if you try to play it.
"These are all major composers," Bush says. "They're not as well-known as they should be."