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Distances - Music from Japan at Asia Society

Published on
February 16

            The first piece of the second half of the concert was called “Distances III,” but in many ways Music From Japan (MFJ)’s 40th anniversary new music concert at Asia Society, "Highlights of MFJ Commissions III," revolved around this idea. In the piece, performed by the truly incredible Richard Stoltzman on clarinet and Fred Sherry on cello, the two instruments explore almost every conceivable notion of distance: the physical location of each note on the staff, the temporal location of notes in space, expanses of sounds and silence. It almost seems as though the instruments are trying to unite despite the distance between them: in several passages, the clarinet seems to be trying to imitate the cello’s double stops and sustained pedal tones with multiphonics and long-winded (literally) low notes of its own. Similarly, Music From Japan has been trying to unite two worlds – the world of “classical” music in America (mainly including composers of the Western European tradition) and the world of modern art music written by Japanese composers – and like the two instruments in “Distances III,” MFJ finds many similarities despite the differences.

            MFJ was founded 40 years ago by Naoyuki Miura, who was troubled by the lack of inclusion of Japanese composers in prestigious New York City concert halls.  Since its founding, MFJ has performed and commissioned works by hundreds of Japanese and American composers. This concert featured the works of five composers, including two world premiere commissions and one US premiere. All of the pieces were quite distinct from each other, ranging from a simple and beautiful setting of a Japanese poem to a frenzied piece pairing solo violin with a bombastic carnival of electro-acoustic sounds. My personal favorite of the afternoon was the final piece of the evening: “Two verses by Du Fu,” for mezzo-soprano, viola, clarinet, and piano, written by Yoichi Sugiyama. Although the two verses have poetic, natural titles like "Spring View" and "Facing Snow," the texts tell a story of broken, war-torn countries. The music was inspired by a Chang'an folk song, but is drawn out and often disjointed, mirroring the text and its statement that "communications are broken." In the final movement, a repetitive desolate instrumental texture repeatedly silences as the vocalist enters, as though making a last declamation over a silent, barren land "after the battle". As the singer repeats the final line, “I sit, but cannot read my books for grief,” the texture slowly breaks down, and the instrumentalists begin rhythmically exhaling instead of playing. The piece fades away to nothingness. I found the composer’s choices in setting the text particularly effective, rife with meaning and poetry in itself.

            I left the concert with one worrying thought in my head: all of the pieces I heard were interesting and unique, at least on par with (and perhaps more so) any of the other contemporary music concerts I’ve heard recently. Why is it, then, that I had never heard of any of these composers before? It is certainly far easier to hear art music from a variety of cultures today than it was when MFJ was founded 40 years ago (the New York Philharmonic programmed a thrilling clarinet concerto by South Korean composer Unsuk Chin this past September, as an example). But still, when people think of art music (or “classical” music in general), they generally think of the same monumental composers of the Western European tradition. I am certainly not dismissing the value of music by these composers. But if classical music is to remain a living and vibrant part of society, then we must be open to exploring the unfamiliar as well as the familiar. We are fortunate to live in a city where you can hear such a wide variety of musical voices, genres, and cultures. Take some time this semester to explore a musical voice that you’ve never heard before, simply because you’ve never heard it before. Whatever your musical preferences are, it is always possible to broaden your understanding of what music can be. Perhaps you’ll find that the distance between the music you know and the music you don’t know isn’t as insurmountable as you thought.

Photo Credit: Cellist Fred Sherry. (Ken Howard)