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2 November 2010

Space, Silence and Sound: Asian Music Festival 2010 in Tokyo

Kawamura Taizan (shakuhachi performer) with Bruce Crossman Image: Kawamura Taizan (shakuhachi performer) with Bruce Crossman  

Bruce Crossman reports from the Asian Music Festival 2010, held in Tokyo 1-6 October.

The sweeping calligraphic gesture came from a deliberately sized-up and considered moment by the calligrapher; the moment generated a suddenly acted-on impulse of a spraying energy from left to right of black ink, as if life had sprung forth creatively in the moment. The enacted mark - a type of energy force revealing the identity of the maker in the moment - celebrated creativity as the central force amidst the space, silence and sounds of the beautiful wood interior of the Sagakudo, Tokyo University of the Arts performing space. The Asian Music Festival 2010 in Tokyo was underway in October with an international gathering of composers, performers and musicologists from around the Asia-Pacific region. Matsushita Isao, Chairman of the Festival's Executive Committee, had clearly defined research through a calligraphical character (knowledge), amidst a leading Japanese academy, as creative action. Aptly, the calligrapher was Miyata Ryohei, the president of the Tokyo University of the Arts.

This moment within time was lead to by the beautiful haunting plaintive tones of the shakuhachi progression moving gradually across my field of vision, performing the fragile-soft-rounded beauty that dipped and arched in melodic contours of Matsushita's own music. The performances reminded me of shihan (shakuhachi master) Jim Franklin's explanation, in the Australian-published Music of the Spirit, of the Japanese concept of ma as a metaphysical space, 'a gateway through which a possibly undefinable "something" may present itself'. This Japanese-focused festival, subtitled 'Japanese Sounds and Spirits', provided such a space where silence and sound from many cultures were allowed to present and touch on something indefinable in the six days of concerts.

The opening ceremony was followed by an orchestral concert featuring music from Japan, USA and Korea. Of particular impact was Korean composer Cecilia Heejeong Kim's MuGa for traditional singers and orchestra. A heartfelt, aching melodic contour from the Pansori singer ebbed and fell, with the occasional rhythmic punctuation of the sori-buk (a traditional Korean drum used to accompany the singer), before spreading out to involve the whole orchestra. The proliferation of percussive-inspired sounds followed a samulnori-like trajectory of slowly increasing rhythmic densities that found a cathartic release from the opening han - or characteristic Korean sadness.

The more intimate space of the chamber concert hall within the Tokyo University of the Arts provided an innovative sounding of digital musics from the Asia-Pacific region, including both Australia and New Zealand. The Melbourne-based Brigid Burke's Island City created a glowing patchwork quilt of sonic textures interwoven in chunky juxtapositions of busy space with beautifully evolving sine wave-like purity of clarinet tones, glowingly formed with flawless intonation from Burke amidst the electronic language. Interestingly, in contrast to Masushita's spaciously meditative use of shakuhachi, Burke's music used the sonic materials in a constantly moving series of juxtapositions of a more European orientation. Similarly, young Christchurch-based composer Jason Long, in his electro-acoustic work Glassback, created a roller-coaster of squash court hand-ball movement sounds, recorded from life and woven into a spacious network of sounds, similar to the visual superstructure interplay of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space. Here, the networked architecture of the music felt poised as if ready to expand into larger utterances.

It should also be mentioned that Australasia was also represented by Ross Carey's Peanuts Clusters, Grasshopper at the later piano concert of works at Bunkyo Civic Hall, Recital Centre; the concert was seen as a gift for the children of the world - one of the educational themes of the festival.

Later at Hokutopia, Sakura Hall, the steep-banked seating gave the audience a well placed vantage point to hear the thickly toned, rich mass choir sounds alongside fined-toned soloist colours of the chamber choir Vox Humana. Several works from Australasia and Hong Kong demonstrated a variety of responses to creativity. Australia's Stuart Greenbaum responded to musical impulses with What the Sirens Sang; the work was beautifully sung by the massed choir with well tuned conventional choral richness and characteristic jazz-like harmonic colours rooted in tonal relationships. New Zealand's Carol Shortis responded to her culture through the beautifully integrated chamber vocal textures in Tangi. The choral purity and linear elegance of the British cathedral tradition seamlessly linked to the changing vowel sound drones of Maori chant-inspired lines. These timbre sensitive moments in embryo were starting to permeate the composer's voice in an achingly beautiful confluence of traditions - perhaps a Pacific-European voice? Continuing on the Pacific traditions, Hong Kong-based composer Hung Ming-kin Christopher set portions of the Chinese classic Peony Pavilion. This amazingly refined and energetic Kun opera tradition was beautifully evoked by Hung in a type of ordered chaos. Finely wrought solo lines with vigorous overlapping sliding moments of energy stood out in his work.

The final day of the festival featured Japanese Sounds and Spirits in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space's Concert Hall. Amidst the beautiful wooden surfaces of a space nearly as large as the Sydney Opera House concert hall, every nuance of the fine traditional Japanese performers could be heard. Resonant space, and silent tones amidst massive sounds filled the hall in this largely Japanese concert which embraced two outsiders-one from Hong Kong the other from Australia. Hong Kong's Chan Kam-biu Joshua, who trained at the Sydney Conservatorium, created incredibly resonant, dissonant overlapping single entity moments of many differently-tuned kotos in Mimesis; it was inspired, as is the Chinese tradition, by nature in its strong evocation of volcanic rock.

My own short solo shakuhachi work, In Gentleness and Suddenness, was masterfully performed by Kawamura Taizan-the shakuhachi teacher from the Tokyo University of the Arts. Kawamura beautifully controlled the timbral relationships of the shakuhachi with each sound seeming to glow and be sharply differentiated to the next isolated sound as a type of living colour garment, broken by space, and reformed into frenetic catharsis to once again subside into silent spaces that merged with the audience's silence. The whispering of the massive Wadaiko drum in Masushita Isao's Japanese Drum Concerto: Hi-Ten-Yu echoed the graduating silent noise to frenzy of the earlier shakuhachi performance; but this time the graduation of sound swelled to a huge barrage of traditional Japanese instrumentation. Sharply plucked kotos, to massed shakuhachi chorus cut by shamisen strings stirred up a massive acoustic excitement. I have heard an excellent performance of this piece under conductor Yuasa Takuo with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but here, under his leadership the work was rewritten for a largely Japanese traditional instrumental ensemble which was biting in its rhythmic trajectory. As the piece gained momentum, driven by the frenetic movement of a wirily fit traditional drummer, both Japanese inspired rim-shot percussive momentum and angular European stabs of sounds merged; it was as if a felt slip-stream of sound had caught the audience in a whirlwind to another place. Indeed, this seemed a fitting end to Masushita's festival; the jostling of many moments in space from silence to sound towards something quite indefinable but felt.

Further links

Bruce Crossman - AMC profile

Bruce Crossman is a Senior Lecturer in Composition, University of Western Sydney. Crossman was recently scholar-in-residence at the David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies (LEWI), Hong Kong Baptist University with an attachment to the Chinese University of Hong Kong researching Chinese Opera traditions for his forthcoming opera.


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