BBC Symphony Sounds from Japan: Takemitsu, Kondō, & Fujikura

The BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion series gives London audiences the opportunity to spend a day engaging with the music of a specific composer or part of the world. The double-feature concerts are supplemented with films and education projects in the Barbican Centre, and are an innovative approach to developing a wider audience with a deeper appreciation for the full breadth of contemporary music. The second of this year’s immersion days, Sounds from Japan, took place on Saturday 2nd February, 2013. The 1:00 PM concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble and conductor Sian Edwards performing music of Toru Takemitsu, Jō Kondō, and Dai Fujikura.

Conductor Sian Edwards (photo credit: Katie Vandyck)

This entire day proved to be one of conflicting answers to the question of “Japanese identity” from the featured composers. While every composer performed is Japanese, there was something strikingly familiar in the European structures and logical arguments of the works that made up the day. Toru Takemitsu references the “sound of the East” in Rain Spell by quarter-tone tuning the harp, thus evoking the sound of the Japanese Koto. I both loved the presence of a western classical instrument making these sounds, and simultaneously wondered why it wouldn’t have been better realised on an actual Koto. In the concluding bars of Rain Spell a plucked line in the harp is punctuated by a piano chord and vibraphone note (obviously in standard tuning) that left me wondering what to make of the interaction between these worlds. Beautiful but separate? Discordant yet fused?

These questions were further removed in the ravishing and sensuous opening of Takemitsu’s Tree Line, where the European structure was matched by a similarly European organisation of pitch: octatonic scales are organised around modes, which are organised around selected key pitches. Sian Edwards had obviously connected deeply with the players over this music, and the amount of lift in each beat of her conducting was reflected in an atmospheric rendition of Takemitsu’s music. Oboist Natalie Neophytou brought a haunting quality to the final solo, played from behind one of the beautiful pillars that punctuate the Jerwood Hall concert space.

Jō Kondō‘s Surface, Depth and Colour (2009) was a very different sort of piece. Objective and steady, with long passages of gray punctuated by momentary outbursts of, well, more gray. The programme note suggested the music lay “very much on the surface,” but I was struck by how much Kondō restricts gesture and surface movement in this piece. There was, instead, intense and extended focus on a single sort of colour and a single sort of sound and a single sort of playing.

Composer Dai Fujikura (photo credit: ©Ai Ueda)

Dai Fujikura is perhaps the quintessential composer in this question of convergence between East and West in the contemporary generation of Japenese composers. Fujikura is Japanese, having been born there and lived there until moving to England at the age of 15. Yet he eschews this connection. Fujikura has stated his own desire to break from the standard expectations that accompany his heritage, and the programme note for Okeanos (featured on the second concert at 5:00 PM) went so far as to state:

…Fujikura was new to Japanese instruments, and was not particularly interested in them as Japanese – though he certainly was interested in them as instruments, with their distinct techniques and sonorities, just as he was interested in the oboe, clarinet and viola for the same reasons. He treated the ensemble not as an East-West fusion group but rather as a highly diverse quintet… (from the programme note by Paul Griffiths)

So what do we mean when we say a work like Secret Forest is “from” Japan? In this and later concerts, it was perhaps a little unclear how large a role these questions of identity and origin were intended to play.

Whatever its origins, I found Secret Forest to be an exciting work, and the one in which the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble really shined. Their shimmering string texture was tense and taught as the string players changed bow directions in time with Edwards’ beat. Bassoonist Tom Corin was particularly fine in the role of a “human intruder” to Fujikura’s forest. His fantastic multiphonics are still ringing in my ears, and his solo fulfilled every bit of the dramatic promise in the notes.

Corin’s solo changed the entire sound world of the forest, as the strings suddenly returned en-masse with strumming and pizzicato textures. As with so much of the day’s music, this powerful juxtaposition remained just ambiguous enough to ask purposeful questions of the listener. Fujikura would leave those questions hanging unanswered, with a concise dénouement that wound the first concert of the day to a close.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a composer, conductor, recording engineer & graphic designer living and working in London. He is currently writing an orchestral piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and is the artistic director of The Riot Ensemble. Follow him on Twitter @AaronHNahum.