Program Notes for October 1 Program – “At the Japanese Garden”

by Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen

Ohara Koson (1877–1945), Moon, Deer, Miyajima,” Woodblock Print, circa 1910


For our opening concert this season, Director Julia Tai has given us a deceptively simple title: “At the Japanese Garden.” We may think we know what this means, but through this title, Julia is asking us to delve into the complexities of identity and borrowing, of musical styles and musical languages. Must all Japanese music fit into a Japanese garden? Can non-Japanese composers write Japanese music for this garden?  Like some of the music we’ll hear today, the ideas she has generated in this program are kaleidoscopic and refractory, shifting as we attempt to ponder them.

Toru Takemitsu

Born: October 8, 1930, Tokyo, Japan

Died: February 20, 1996, Tokyo, Japan

Three Film Scores (1994-1995)

The first piece on the program is by the very well known Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, whose career spanned a truly kaleidoscopic range of styles, influences, and genres. As the composer said, “for a long period I struggled to avoid being ‘Japanese,’ to avoid ‘Japanese’ qualities. It was largely through my contact with [American composer] John Cage that I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.” And to muddy the waters even further, it was Cage’s interest in Zen approaches to his own music that appealed to Takemitsu, so Japanese traditions were filtered through American philosophical musical approaches and then back to Japan. As the wonderful music critic for The Guardian, Tom Service, wrote about Takemitsu: the real substance of the composer’s Japanese heritage can be “expressed by the Japanese word ma, which suggests the concept of a void that isn’t empty, an absence that is really a presence, a space between things that is full of energy.” And Service then pivots to the theme of our concert today, writing that ma is “a principle that underpins Japanese gardens, with which Takemitsu often compared his music. ‘My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener’ [wrote the composer]. ‘Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern, and texture.’”

The set of pieces by Takemitsu that we’ll hear today certainly takes us through a kind of experiential journey. Takemitsu composed a great deal of film music, ultimately writing scores for nearly one hundred films. In the set “Three Film Scores,” we’ll necessarily hear music that is somewhat episodic, but we are confronted with another question: can such music be divorced from its film context and heard separately in an entirely different venue, as concert music? This is an especially important question given Takemitsu’s careful approach to film music; as he said, when writing a film score, he tried to “extend” the director’s feelings with his music. The first section of “Three Film Scores” is drawn from the music for a 1959 Japanese movie called “José Torres,” which is about a Puerto Rican boxer, thus the unusual title for this segment: “Music of Training and Rest.” This jagged opening segment is followed by “Funeral Music,” drawn from the score of the movie “Black Rain” (1989); the work concludes with a surprising and gentle “Waltz” from the film “Face of Another” (1966).

Alan Hovhaness

Born: March 8, 1911, Somerville, Massachusetts

Died: June 21, 2000, Seattle, Washington

Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints (1965)

Our next piece brings up equally complex considerations. Alan Hovhaness is well known in Seattle because he spent the last thirty years of his life in our city, and wrote many works reflecting his life here, including his Symphony No. 50, Mount St. Helens, to commemorate the eruption of the volcano. He also wrote a great deal of music reflecting his Armenian background, especially in his early career. (Perhaps it is better to call this his mid-career, as he destroyed many of his earliest works, numbering in the hundreds or even more, in the 1930s and 1940s.) In the early 1960s, Hovhaness spent several years in Japan studying seriously the music and instruments that were traditional there, and this study is reflected in the piece on our program, “Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints,” which was written in 1965,  after he returned to the US. Although written for a Western orchestra, the work “sounds Japanese,” particularly because of the ways in which he uses the orchestral instruments (especially percussion) and the pentatonic scale (think of a five-note scale played on the black keys of a piano). The work is a concerto for xylophone, another instrument that reflects both Japanese and Western aesthetics—in particular, its woody, natural sound evokes aspects of our Japanese garden. In places, you’ll swear you are hearing raindrops!

The title of the work refers to the juxtapositions of color and pattern that are characteristic of Japanese prints, and this is, indeed, a composition that is built on patterns and colorful musical ideas. The piece juxtaposes freely repeating passages with strictly ordered rhythms (this will be particularly clear in the opening section) and it combines unusual instrumental sounds (listen for a prominent piccolo part that suggests Japanese instruments). Hovhaness also contrasts different textures, for example the pizzicato (plucked) strings versus the sprays of notes produced by the xylophone versus the sustained melodies produced mainly in the upper strings. All of this is funneled through a consistent focus on pentatonic scales and strong rhythmic patterning.

Kosaku Yamada

Born: June 9, 1886, Tokyo, Japan

Died: December 29, 1965, Tokyo, Japan

Symphony in F Major, “Triumph and Peace (1912)

Our last work, the Symphony in F major by Kosaku Yamada, brings us yet another permutation of our theme: this is a symphony written by a Japanese student in a German conservatory, trained by German professors in a style that was, at the time he studied there, between 1910 and 1913, somewhat old fashioned. Does this symphony “sound Japanese”? Given these circumstances, could it “sound Japanese”? The work is a lovely and fluid presentation of the Germanic tradition of symphonic movements, arranged in the customary ordering and presented with absolute thematic and formal clarity. Yamada had intended to premiere some of the works he had written during this time in Germany, and he returned home to prepare them. He was then prevented by the outbreak of World War I from going back to Germany, so he came to New York, where he conducted a series of his own works (not this symphony, alas) at Carnegie Hall in 1918.