Notes and Editorial Reviews
It is of limited use to group composers by ethnicity, especially today. Even Japan’s culture, isolated from the West until comparatively recently, now produces composers and musicians working in diverse styles. An excellent Naxos series has revealed to us a cross section of 20th-century Japanese composers, many of whom were influenced by the French. Some but not all of these artists incorporated traditional Japanese music into their own “modern” language to varying degrees. Possibly the most well known, Toru Takemitsu, was simultaneously the most traditionally Japanese and the most avant-garde in his approach to composition. The biwa (a Japanese stringed instrument, featured in Months on the above disc) was first heard in a Western context
in Takemitsu’s free-form concerto November Steps, recorded in the late 1960s by Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto SO.
Akemi Naito (b. 1956) initially reminded me more of Takemitsu than any of the other Japanese composers I know. She has lived and taught in New York since 1991, moving there after several years of composition and teaching in her native Tokyo. All the chamber works on this CD were written and premiered in the US. Though employing different groups of instruments, they each exhibit a quality which one might designate as Japanese, that is, a lightness of touch and the etching in of detail (such as one finds in Japanese screen painting); the presentation of suggestions rather than conclusions. On the other hand, there is no mistaking a Western influence, whether it be the impressionism in Voyage (set for the trio of flute, viola, and harp—no prizes for guessing which Impressionist established that lineup), or certain European avant-garde effects, described in the composer’s liner notes as “unmusical,” which appear in the fourth movement of Mindscape: multiphonics and the striking of strings.
East and West meet literally in Months—Spaceship for Zodiac. Although it is divided into 16 short movements, this work is basically one long meditative solo for the biwa with lots of reverberation added, accompanied by an eerie, electronically produced soundscape. This soundscape includes percussive cymbal washes, a wordless solo vocal (I think it’s wordless; if not it doesn’t matter too much because it functions as a strand of the texture). The deliberate effect of the work is to create a sense of timelessness. The soloist floats, as it were, in outer space.
Sanctuary, the earliest of these works (1998), was written for William Schimmel; it is played here by Claudio Jacomucci, who gave the European premiere in 1999 in Amsterdam. I presume most of us have formed an opinion on the prospect of listening to solo accordion music, but Naito’s work recalls none of the kitsch associations of the instrument’s popular repertoire. She comes at it from a different angle. As she points out, the accordion’s sound resembles that of the Japanese sho (mouth organ) and thus evokes for her a deep spirituality. This is a very strong, very unfussy piece of accordion music—quite an ear-opener.
There is light and shade in Naito’s music but not a lot of extreme dynamics or rhythmic activity. For this reason, the disc could be listened to simply as peaceful background music. However, that would be doing the music a disservice: again, as in Takemitsu, a beguiling surface conceals a sophisticated harmonic and structural tension.
Performances and sound quality are all that could be desired. I haven’t even mentioned Memory of the Woods, an evocative piece laid out with marvelous sensitivity by marimba-player William Moersch. The impressionistic Mindscape for two guitars, flute, oboe, violin, and cello is also available in the same thoughtful performance on a Bridge CD devoted to the Cygnus Ensemble. That disc is called “Gone for Foreign,” containing music by Milton Babbitt and others. In such a context, Naito’s sextet must be balm indeed.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Voyage by Akemi Naito
Richard O'Neill (Viola),
Tara Helen O'Connor (Flute),
June Han (Harp)
Sanctuary by Akemi Naito
Claudio Jacomucci (Accordion)
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