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19 November 2014

Living Breath, Juxtapositional Flow and Emergent Spirit

Asian Music Festival 2014 in Yokohama and Tokyo

Daniel Portelli, Andrián Pertout, Howard Dillon and Bruce Crossman at Shibuya Cultural Center Owada Sakura Hall Image: Daniel Portelli, Andrián Pertout, Howard Dillon and Bruce Crossman at Shibuya Cultural Center Owada Sakura Hall  
© Katia Pertout

Bruce Crossman reports from the Asian Music Festival 2014, held in Yokohama and Tokyo 1-7 November.

The sweeping, jutting-out rock face, angled into the sky, intersected without warning with the temporality of the squarely shaped wooden human structures within the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo. My stroll through this former residence of Tokugawa Shoguns in the Edo Period provided a metaphor of the Asian Music Festival 2014, about to unfold in the Japanese autumn of early November.

The palace's key idea relates to what Japanese ancient architectural expert Mitsuo Inoue describes as 'movement space' where momentary spaces are interconnected like 'beads on a string' to create flow without prepared hierarchy. Festival director Isao Matsushita's vision of taking this essence of Japanese culture and aesthetically applying it to a music festival bore beautiful fruit. Sudden interconnections and juxtapositions between sonic ideas - to reveal what Silvio Carta terms each room's 'peculiar aspects' whilst maintaining the flow of people and spirit - unfolded, from achingly beautiful Japanese traditional music, through to the inner oku intimacy and vibrancy of spirit descent within Asian-Pacific-focused contemporary chamber and orchestral music.

The swirling undulating tones of wild koto vibrancy from Kikuchi Kouzan, intercut by the rich head-shaking yuri (wide vibrato) of Tomotsune Bizan's shakuhachi with distilled subtle hand-movement dance from Hanayagi Mikifuu, kicked the festival alive with traditional Japanese resonances. The beauty of this opening confluence of artforms in the opening concert 'Asia, Asia, Asia' in Yokohama swiftly flowed into the halting beauty of New Zealand composer Jack Body's solo violin work Caravan. Here this mentorial figure within the Aotearoa landscape allowed shifting Persian-influenced microtonally tuned scales to interact with equal-tempered utterances - it was as if a held back lyrical passion was seeking to find air but suddenly cut short with a stab ending, leaving an impression of pathos.

Traditional Japanese archer, swordsman and shakuhachi shihan (master) Tomotsune intercut the earthy, long breath tones of shihan Kikuchi Kouzan's unlacquered instrument with strong refined tones of the lacquered equivalent in my own work Spirit-Presence. The gorgeously rich tones of rough and smooth interacting in a virtuosic climactic cacophony of Australian birdsong-inspired sounds amidst the undulating vibrancy of nasal Japanese temple-like chant were a rare privilege for a composer to witness.

This musical journey shifted from the intimacy of the opening concert's wood-panelled small chamber venue in Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall suddenly into its cavernous main hall. It was as if spirit had fluctuated into life in the early venue and now muscled out into the resonance of the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra within the 'Winds of Asia' concert. The tall angular shakuhachi performer Fukuda Teruhisa's ritualised procession into the hall to meet with an orchestral partner, his long bamboo bass instrument dipping and swaying with undulating tones, was captivating theatre. Fukuda created fluctuating tamane (gurgling) tones living across the space to interact with the orchestra as both a dialogue and unified sound within Japanese composer Endo Masao's Pinnacle of Wind. The reinvention of the orchestral sound as living tamane-like gurgling through stacked woodwind and brass layers fluttering and trilling, juxtaposed by stepwise shifting Gagaku-like colour chords, was strikingly original.

Also drawing on the roots of traditional Asian culture was Filipino composer Ramon Santos in his work L'Bad. Santos, the heir apparent to the late venerable Jose Maceda's ethnomusicological tradition in the Philippines, drew on the Yakan people's lebad principle of small musical nuclei whose unrelenting logic drew the orchestra into a singular breath of creative sound that muscled its way into the air with power.

The shift from the cavernous space back to the beautiful wood-panelled tiles of Minato Mirai small hall for the ACL Young Composers Award was marked by a more intimate but equally vibrant aesthetic from the assembled youth of the Asia-Pacific. The task set for the composers was an exploration of duo textures. Australian composer Daniel Portelli produced a work of living breath that undulated its way into being. Portelli's piece, entitled Undulations, explored shakuhachi-like breath qualities of two soprano saxophones whose long airy dronal qualities were reed-stabbed with dabs of colour which gradually grew in density and tension before subtly subsiding back into breath tones. The unpredictable inevitability of the shifting dabs of colour harkened to Jackson Pollock-like 'blue poles' of sound. This visual approach to sound is something that the late venerable Peter Sculthorpe identified as an Australian approach to sound perhaps drawn from a visual landscape culture and certainly expressed in his Sun Music series.

The vibrancy of the pointillist painterly-dab sounds found a sympathetic interconnection in the exciting jazz-infused warmth of Chilean-Australian composer Andrián Pertout. Like the intersecting materials of the Tokugawa Shoguns Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the festival moved from intimate wooden resonances to electronic and jazz-infused world of Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse-home to Motion Blue Yokohama jazz. In this 'peculiar room' within the 'Electro-acoustic Concert' Pertout's virtuosic grooving piano writing in Riesenschritte, with its repetitive single-note forward drive energised by sudden licks into the momentum, was brilliantly handled by pianist Ohno Mayuko. The smooth but richly toned saxophone lines from Tamura Masahiro balanced the grooving piano riffs; both were enclosed in a type of mathematical structural precision that drove the piece to its conclusion. The tired lingering audience was revived in their journey by these breaths of creativity sweeping the Red Brick theatrical cavern.

Delegates, after the red brick resonances had settled, were swept off by late night bus into the twisting intimacy of Tokyo's ever-revealing inner oku spaces. After navigating Shibuya crossing - surely the world's busiest intersection which had earlier brimmed with Cosplay costumed teenagers - the inner sanctuary of Shibuya Cultural Center discretely revealed itself. Here the brightly coloured costumes of four Buddhist monks settled the atmosphere within the gritty tones of Buddhist shomyou (hymns) in the 'Meditation East and West' concert. The ritualised repetitive-note chanting broke out into heterophonic polyphony of raw mesmerising trance-like sound.

Into this world entered the distilled harmonic beauty of Australian composer Howard Dillon's piano work Möbius. It seemed like complex serial harmony with Debussian colouristic sensibility drifted across the auditorium as if cloud had shrouded Mount Fuji; later this harmonic resonance broke up into focused chordal spaces of holistic resonance with the beginning.

This journey ended in the Japanese ministerial district - the habitat of the modern day Shoguns of Edo - in Akasaka at the wooden sculptural interior of Kio Hall. The dramatic theatre of Japanese composer Isao Matsushita's Ten-Chi-Kyo-O Wadaiko concerto Number 2 rumbled like a Tokyo subway into vibrant life. This concerto for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and traditional taiko drummer Hayashi Eitetsu literally shook the audience. The undulating orchestral writing of Matsushita mirrored the rippled muscles in the drummer's back. The sound was at once densely textural and mesmerising in its repetitive intensity - the Japanese equivalent of the earlier-mentioned Santos nuclei strength - yet also breathed intimately with a delicate middle Gagaku-like dronal space derived from the organ-like sho instrument. A quiet moment of spirit had managed to emerge as a spiritual space of oku where heaven speaks to earth amidst its trauma. It was a fitting 'peculiar room' of emergent beauty of sound that flowed together with the bead-like spaces of the multiple rooms of richness within the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Bruce Crossman is a Senior Lecturer in Composition, University of Western Sydney. His music-theatre work based on Chinese opera traditions, Gentleness-Suddenness, with leading Australian musicians Michael Kieran Harvey, Claire Edwardes, James Cuddeford and Lotte Latukefu, has just been published by Filigree Films.


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