Monday, May 22, 2006

Ivan Hewett's 'Why The Japanese Are Hooked On Classical Music' And 'The Sound Of Strangeness Could Be The Saviour Of Tradition'

"Where is the nerve centre of classical music in the early 21st century? Answering that question depends on your criteria. If it's to do with possessing a venerable tradition, you might choose Vienna. If it's the location of the best orchestras and opera houses, you might choose Berlin. If it's finding exuberantly creative ways to reinvent the tradition, London or New York seem strong contenders. But if the true measure is a passionate devotion amounting almost to idolatry, Tokyo would win the palm.

It's revealed in a thousand ways, not least in the sweetly earnest way people talk about the art form. The president of the Japan Arts Corporation wrote in his company's concert brochure that "music has the power to foster a richer greater experience for the human soul." Audiences listen in a silence that one can only describe as fervent. At one concert in Tokyo, my neighbour sat perfectly still, eyes closed, for the entire three hours of Bach's St Matthew Passion, with only a tiny rhythmic movement of his little finger to show that he was still alive.

Even more striking is the way the Japanese put their money where their mouths are. Tokyo has eight orchestras, which is one more than Berlin, a city normally seen as the acme of orchestral lavishness. On any night you find at least as many concerts in as many genres as you can in London. And these concerts take place in venues of a quality that puts London's halls to shame. Often they're buried inside vast gleaming complexes of shops and hotels, such as the well-known Suntory Hall. Even more exquisite in sound and sight is the main hall at Tokyo Opera City. Everything that meets your eye is made of wood. Music in here rings out beautifully, as if the hall is vibrating like a giant violin.

This profusion isn't just a feature of Tokyo. Even quite modest provincial towns have lavish arts centres, thanks in large part to the so-called "bubble" economy of the '80s and early '90s. One of them, the Mito Art Tower, has one of the world's great chamber orchestras in residence, whose chief conductor is Seiji Ozawa. The chief executive, Yazawa Takaki, is clearly proud of the centre, and is keen to show me the theatre, modelled on Shakespeare's Globe. But, once inside the concert hall, he reveals an anxiety about the arts in Japan. "You hear the silence in this hall? That is what music really needs, but we have so little silence in our lives. I really wonder whether the younger generation will be able to hear music at all."

It was a surprise to hear Yazawa unwittingly express the ancient Japanese idea of ma. This guiding concept behind much traditional music performance says that music lives only in constant dialogue with silence. It was a reminder that many factors come together in the Japanese love affair with classical music, some ancient, some new. The most obvious factor is fairly recent - Japan's decision in 1868 to end centuries of isolation and open itself to the West. One of the first imports was Western music. By 1872 Western music had supplanted traditional music in the Japanese school system, and in 1884 the philosopher Shoichi Toyama actually suggested that Christianity should be adopted because it would help the new music to take root." ...

Ivan Hewett "Why they are hooked on classical" The Telegraph U.K. May 20, 2006


"In the global marketplace of "world music", Japanese traditional music holds itself aloof. There are no travelling stars of the ancient music of the Imperial Court known as gagaku, no sell-out albums by players of the sighing bamboo flute called the shakuhachi. The music doesn't lend itself to "fusion"; you couldn't really imagine the deep meditative twanging of the koto or zither put against a Latin beat.

And this is only natural, because the music's sounds embody a way of looking at the world which is deeply strange, and deeply fascinating. Robin Thompson, an expert in Japanese music and performer on the sho (a kind of Japanese mouth organ) is one of many Western musicians who have felt the impact of Japanese music like a thunderbolt.

"I was playing in an improvising group with Stockhausen in the '70s," he says, "and we visited Japan where I heard a player on the koto. For the first time, I heard something where every note seemed exactly right and necessary. It had to be this sound at this moment, and no other." ...

Inevitably, such a refined and aristocratic tradition is under threat, even though in Japan it's tended as carefully as a hot-house flower. The traditions are subsidised as "intangible cultural assets", and the leading players given the title "national cultural treasure". The ancient guild system means that a small number of aged masters lead rival styles on each instrument. Each master has his eager acolytes, who have to pay for the privilege of performing in the guild's annual showcase concert. But audiences are dwindling. Record producer So Fujimoto says he sells only a tenth the number of traditional music albums he sold 20 years ago.

The strangeness and unpopularity of Japanese music may, however, turn out to be its saviour. In a world full of globalised aural soup, something inviolate and "other" is starting to seem attractive....

Another development which is bringing new life to an old tradition is music for mixed ensembles of Western and Japanese instruments. One of them, Okeanos, is giving a concert at the Spitalfields Festival in London next month. The interesting thing about this group is that the shamisen and sho are not simply added like spots of exotic colour to a fundamentally Western texture, as so often happens in these cross-cultural fusions. It's the Japanese instruments that set the tone of rapt meditativeness, which the Western instruments have to defer to."

Ivan Hewett "Sound of strangeness could be the saviour of tradition" The Telegraph U.K. May 20, 2006

The Isamu Noguchi Museum and Garden, Long Island City [Queens], New York City, United States.

"The recently renovated Noguchi Museum is one of the most peaceful, beautiful, spiritual, and moving places in New York. Master sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the space himself; it previously was a photo-engraving plant. Make your way slowly through the different rooms, some of which are open to the sky, and save the remarkable garden for last. Take your time breathing in the essence of each individual piece, walking around it to feel the full force of Noguchi’s expert craftsmanship. Notice the difference between the smooth and rough sides of "Shiva Pentagonal" (area 1). You can almost hear the soothing flows of "Waterfall" (area 3). Area 14 houses the circular red marble "Sun at Noon," "Downward Pulling" on the ground, and "Ding Dong Bat" hovering near the center. Two versions of "Walking Void" begin area 6, in which you’ll also find "Magic Ring" on the floor — check out the rough edges where you can see Noguchi’s chisel marks. In a room virtually unto itself resides "Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima.""

Caption and photo credit: This Week in New York: The Insiders Guide to the City since 2001. With thanks.


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