Let’s start with a Quiz Question, so please sit up and look as though you’re interested, especially those people shuffling around at the back. Now then, can you give me the names of three 20th century Japanese composers? This is not too difficult because if you cast your eyes down the column you will see that I have generously given you two names already, but what about a third? Let me try to jog your memory. You might recall the name of Toru Takemitsu who is perhaps the most revered among 20th century Japanese composers. He composed hundreds of works that combine elements of Eastern and Western music and philosophy, to create his own unique sound landscape. More than anyone, Takemitsu put Japanese music on the map.
Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japanese composers have tended to look towards Western musical culture as well as drawing on elements from their own traditional music. Komei Abe was one of the leading Japanese composers of the twentieth century and his First Symphony of 1957 is a good introduction to Japanese classical-music-in-the-Western-style although it’s a curious mix of musical idioms. The prolific Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores and if you’d like an entertaining musical experience, seek out his Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra. Kunihico Hashimoto was another leading Japanese composer whose music reflects elements of late romanticism and impressionism, as well as of the traditional music of Japan. The strange thing is that Japanese orchestral music simply doesn’t seem to have caught on in the West. There’s no obvious reason why this is the case. At least, I cannot think of one.
Yuzo Toyama is a native of Tokyo who studied with Kan-ichi Shimofusa, a pupil of the German composer Paul Hindemith. The Rhapsody for Orchestra is probably the composer’s best-known work. He is also known as a conductor and for years held the post of chief conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. In case you are wondering, NHK stands for Nippon Hoso Kyokai – the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. In 1960 Toyama conducted the orchestra on a world tour on which the orchestra performed several of his most popular works. His most important musical influences were probably Bartók and Shostakovich and he is fond of incorporating Japanese traditional music into his work, drawing on folksongs and the classical Japanese dance-dramas of Kabuki theatre. Toyama has written well over two hundred compositions and has received numerous awards in Japan for his contributions to the nation’s musical life. The Rhapsody for Orchestra dates from 1960 and it’s is based on Japanese folk songs in which traditional instruments, including the kyoshigi (paired percussive wooden sticks) are blended into a conventional Western orchestra. You’ll notice distinctive Mikado-like moments from time to time. The work starts with thunderous percussion so don’t set the volume control too high. With excellent sound and video, the performance looks superb in full screen mode.
Yoshimatsu is also from Tokyo and like his compatriot Toru Takemitsu, didn’t receive formal musical training until adulthood. He left the faculty of technology of Keio University in 1972 and became interested in jazz and progressive rock music, particularly through electronic means. Yoshimatsu first dabbled in serial music but eventually became disenchanted with it and instead began to compose in a free neo-romantic style with strong influences from jazz, rock and Japanese traditional music. He’s already completed six symphonies, twelve concertos, a number of sonatas and shorter pieces for various ensembles. In contrast to his earlier compositions, much of his more recent work uses relatively simple harmonic structures.
This curiously-named work is technically a triple concerto and the ornithological reference reappears in his Symphony No. 6 written in 2014, subtitled Birds and Angels. Yoshimatsu described this concerto as alluding to “an imaginary bird in the realm of electronic cyberspace.” It’s a concerto for saxophone in all but name and uses a free atonal jazz idiom for the soloists against a conventional symphony orchestra. It was composed in 1993 for Hiromi Hara who performs it on this video. The three movements are entitled Bird in Colours, Bird in Grief, and Bird in the Wind. There’s some brilliant playing from these talented young musicians with a lovely haunting second movement and a joyous third movement with some fine brass writing and a thunderous ending. If you are into eclectic modern jazz this video, with its superb sound and video, will be right up your soi. As Mr Spock in Star Trek might have said to Captain Kirk, “It’s classical music Jim, but not as we know it.”