The French Connection

11.03.2010. Concert Hall, R-Talo, Sibelius Academy.

"The Great Wave of Kangawawa" by Katsushika Hokusai. A reproduction of this woodblock-print was printed on the cover of the 1905 edition of Debussy's "La Mer". (Image source: Wikipedia)


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)  Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) for harp and strings
Ichiro Nodaira (1953-)                La Spirale du temps (2002) for harp solo
Toshio Hosokawa (1955-)         Landscape II  (1992) for harp and string quartet
Toshio Hosokawa                       Re-Turning II (2001) for harp solo
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)    Toward the sea (1989) for harp and alto flute
Fuminori Tanada (1961-)           Mysterious Morning I (1994) for harp solo
Toru Takemitsu                            And then I knew ‘twas wind (1992) for flute, viola and harp



Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir, harp
Kristjana Helgadóttir, flute
Maria Puusaari, violin
Pasi Eerikäinen, violin
Max Savikangas, viola
Markus Hohti, cello

Program notes

My second Docmus Concert is dedicated to Japanese contemporary music for harp. The goal of my Docmus concert series is to showcase contemporary harp literature and I found it necessary to devote a whole concert to Japanese music. The harp has a prominent place in Japanese contemporary music and the instrument is an inseparable part of the Japanese sound world. Surely an important reason for this is that the Koto, an ancient ancestor of the harp, is a Japanese traditional instrument and its sound is firmly imprinted in traditional Japanese music. The harp is an obvious choice amongst the western instruments as a representative of the Koto. In many of the pieces in this program there can be found techniques and sounds derived directly from the Koto. The harp's timbre can also imitate various sounds in nature, and nature is a recurrent theme in Japanese contemporary music. The rustling of the wind in the trees or the roar of the sea, even bird calls and thunders can all be reproduced on the harp.

But why does a program of contemporary Japanese music start with a more than 110 years old work by Debussy? Danse sacrée et danse profane are relevant to this program for several reasons. First of all Debussy was a big influence on many contemporary Japanese composers, especially Toru Takemitsu. who on several occasions called him his mentor. Secondly Debussy himself was deeply inspired by Japanese art as well as music. He was fascinated by Japanese ink and watercolor paintings, popular in Paris at the time. For example Debussy, chose the picture The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by the Japanese painter Hokusai as a title page for his score of La Mer, but La Mer was composed during the same period as the Danses. Finally, every time I hear or play Japanese Contemporary music I have to think of Debussy and the Danses in particular. I feel like the piece is a starting point, the beginning of something, an everlasting source of inspiration that composers, consciously or not, continue to embrace.

Debussy wrote Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane for chromatic harp and string orchestra in the year 1904. The work was a commission from the Playel instrument making company and its owner Gustav Lyon. It was commissioned to promote the company's new chromatic harp, invented in 1897. The chromatic harp has no pedals. It is cross-strung and has one string per note of the scale. Although the Danses were written for a chromatic harp, they are today always played on a pedal harp. At the time this would have been extremely difficult, due to the imperfect mechanism of the pedals and their slow response.

When Debussy wrote the Danses it was at a turning point in his life. He had already turned his back on Wagner and his influences and started to search for a new language. Not only for himself, but also for French music in general. He wanted to see French music rise back to its former glory and have its own modern style, free from foreign influences. In order to create this language he took influences from many different sources, such as Gregorian chant, French baroque music, oriental music, and symbolist art and literature. Debussy did not use this material literally or directly but found a way to truly integrate it into his own musical language. The Dances are an excellent example of this new language. Full of colors; they are simple but yet complex at the same time. They sound truly "Debussyan" but are strongly influenced by oriental music, especially Javanese Gamelan music, which had fascinated Debussy only a few years earlier at the World exhibition in Paris in 1900.

Ichiro Nodaira, born in 1953 in Tokyo, is a composer and concert pianist. After studying at high school, undergraduate school, and graduate school of Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music, Nodaira went to Paris to continue his studies. He has composed a wide range of works from chamber music to orchestral music, opera, and electro-acoustic music. Ichiro Nodaira's music strongly embraces a pure modernist European vocabulary and has only vague ties to Japanese traditions. In contrast to the other Japanese composers in this program, who have drawn inspiration from nature and national traditions, Nodaira uses a conceptual prototype as a starting point, derived from his studies and associations with important French figures, including Manoury, Grisey, and Murail. His language is thus more French than Japanese, although his national heritage can clearly be detected in his use of the harp's timbre. La spirale du temps for solo harp is virtuosic and epic in form. Like a spiral the music turns around certain themes, never to reveal them.

Unlike Nodaira, Toshio Hosokawa is strongly inspired by nature and national Japanese Traditions - to the point that he mostly avoids to talk about his compositional technique or ideas. For him music and nature are one. He compares his composing process to the art of Japanese calligraphy. With one stoke of the brush the music appears on the page.

Hosokawa's works for solo instruments and ensemble embody a principle of the relationship between the individual and nature, with the interaction resulting in a seamless flow between different entities. Landscape II represents a landscape painted with ink. It explores, like most of Hosokawa's music, the nature of sound and its relationship to silence or the nature of time and its relationship to music.  The nature-like sounds enhance our awareness of silence by providing an acoustic continuum whose function is equivalent to that of the unpainted areas of a landscape painting. In both cases, Hosokawa is interested in "that place where . . . foreground and background, pattern and ground ... inter-mingle and respond sympathetically to each other, that intermediate zone, or "interim", occurring between sound and sound". (Hosokawa in notes to the CD in der Teife der Zeit) (Fonnec 1994,  FOCD 3406))

The piece Re-turning II is a solo version of Re-turning a concerto for harp and orchestra. As the title implies the piece is a kind of musical reflection of the past and a return to nature. Hosokawa quotes  both his own work, Neben dem Fluss as well as the work of Takemitsu, Toward the sea. Both the quoted pieces have nature inspired titles and refer to water, which is the prime material for Re-turning II. But the title can also be understood literally since the piece, not unlike Nodaira's La spirale du temps, turns around itself in an everlasting swirl.

Toru Takemitsu is undeniably Japan's best known composer. Mostly self taught he drew his inspiration from Western music he heard on American and European radio stations during the post second world war years in Japan. It was not until much later that he acknowledged the importance of Japanese Traditional music and started to use it as the basis of his own compositions.

Nature, however was always a strong influence and an inspiration for many of his works. Toward the sea is a part of a cycle of works that all evolve around the theme of water and the sea. Takemitsu wrote in his notes for the score of Rain Coming (also a part of this cycle) that "it was the composer's intention to create a series of works, which like their subject, pass through various metamorphoses, culminating in a sea of tonality". The theme of the Sea is represented literally with the notes (E-flat (Es) E-natural, A-natural) that form the themes for all the compositions of this cycle. The three movements of Toward the sea have titles that are inspired by Hermann Melville's novel Moby Dick. They imply programmatic associations, but the music is vague and equivocal, and expresses a certain feeling rather than painting a concrete picture. Takemitsu composed Toward the sea originally for alto-flute and guitar, but later made a version for alto-flute and harp and a version for alto-flute, harp and ensemble. The piece was commissioned by Greenpeace for their Save the Whale campaign, and was therefore quite a political statement in a country known for whale hunting.

A small interlude between the two "water-inspired" pieces by Takemitsu, Mysterious Morning I by Fuminori Tanada is itself like a little cascade of water. The piece explores the possibilities of the most basic harp effect, the glissando.
Fuminori Tanada studied composition at the National University of Art and Music in Tokyo before, like Ishiro Nodaira, moving to France to continue his studies. He studied at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris where he received first prizes for composition, orchestration and accompaniment. Currently he is the pianist of the contemporary music group Ensemble Itineraire for whom he also composes. Tanada says about his piece:

"What I looked for in this piece was the fluid texture like the air or the liquid, which moves constantly and never stays in the same shape. This is the first piece in which I was inspired by the nature (winds, clouds, water). Before, I wrote pieces that were very much influenced by Boulez, Berio etc. Since then, I continue to make music, influenced by the nature. I think I express my inner state of mind through the description of the nature. There are no literary, philosophical or political ideas inside."

Takemitsu's And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind title is derived from a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson:

"Like rain it sounded till it curved
And then I knew 'twas wind
It walked as wet as any wave
But swept as dry as sand."

Takemitsu wrote that the work "has as its subject the signs of the wind in the natural world and of the soul, or unconscious mind (or we could even call it ‘dream'), which continues to blow, like the wind, invisibly, through human consciousness."
Set for the same instruments as Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind is clearly a homage to Debussy. Not only is the sonata quoted directly, it remains ever present in the sounds and colors Takemitsu chose for the work.
And so the circle is closed, our journey through Japanese contemporary music ends where it started, in France.