Music of Japan Today II: Tradition and Innovation
Symposium II - April 9-10, 1994
Sponsored by The Japan Foundation and Hamilton College Departments of Music and East Asian Languages, Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Office of the Dean of the College
Since 1970 most of the instrumental music composed by Jackson Hill has been strongly influenced by Japanese traditional music. This influence is manifest in the use of Japanese pentatonic scales, structure and temporal pacing derived from gagaku (imperial court music) and Buddhist music, specific embellishments used on specific scale tones, and ornamentation derived from shomyo (liturgical chant) and bunraku. Much of his Japanese- inspired music has been performed worldwide, including performances at the Azabu-Juban Festival in Tokyo and the Almeida Festival in London. His Serenade for shakuhachi, violin, cello, and koto, has received more than forty performances, and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the Huntingdon Trio have regularly performed and commissioned works by Jackson Hill. Orchestral music includes Secrets, Toccata Nipponica, and Chambers, which together form his Sinfonia Nipponica. Works for solo flute include Whispers of the Dead and Hikyoku, as well as his Three Transparencies for Shakuhachi. Hill's Aki no ko-e II was premiered last summer at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by the Hilliard Ensemble from the UK, his Toro Nagashi was performed last January during the "Crosscurrents" Focus Festival at Juilliard, and his Tholos for seven instruments is currently being toured by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.
Jackson Hill, born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1941, was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Ph.D. in musicology in 1970). A composer from the age of 14, he studied composition with Iain Hamilton at Duke University (1964-66) and Roger Hannay (1967-8). In 1977, Hill studied Buddhist liturgical music in Japan at the Chishaku-In in Kyoto, and has made a specialty of Japanese traditional music. His Buddhist studies are part of a long-term project involving music and mysticism in Eastern and Western cultures, begun at the Research Unit of Manchester College, Oxford, in 1975. Mr. Hill is the recipient of 30 composition prizes and awards, in addition to 1972 awards for distinguished teaching. In 1982-3 he was a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, and presented lectures at eleven universities in Great Britain. He has taught at Duke University (1966-8) and since 1968 at Bucknell University, where he has served as Chair of the Department of Music from 1980 to 1990, and where he is Professor of Music.
My own fascination with Japanese traditional music came with my discovery of phonograph recordings of hogaku in the 1950's and 1960's. I became increasingly interested in the notion that music was more than entertainment or even art in the traditional Western sense, but instead was a vehicle for spiritual power. What appeared at first as simplicity, revealed layers of complexity that only gradually unveiled themselves to me. I became enticed by notions of how music and power could be wrapped up in each other. I became fascinated by the timbral aspects of certain non-Western musics, in particular specific sonorities like the sound of the shakuhachi or the timbre of the sitar, the mirliton buzzing that is so characteristic of Asian and African sounds, and the breathy sound and the enhanced overtones of the shakuhachi. The timbral inconsistencies in non-Western musical cultures excited me, as did the fact that in non-Western cultures there is often no one perfect sound but a complex of possible sounds.
I became interested in other characteristics of non-Western music: modes, pentatonic scales, hybrid scales, equally divided and gapped scales with notes appearing "in the cracks" in the Western sense. I was entranced by the insistence of drones in Indian music and by the pseudo-drone that results from the natural resonance of the koto, whereby one derives a species of pentatonic drone: the in scale that is certainly a scale, but which sometimes appears as a drone-like cluster of five pitches. I was captivated by the clusters of notes played by the sho in gagaku.
I was also fascinated by the use of monophony and heterophony and the concept of a single sound being embellished in a rich way, fascinated by 'grace' notes and other ornaments in which the grace note seemed more important than the note itself. I loved the timbral variations from note to note and very long notes -- notes held in time and in the imagination for an extremely long duration. The pacing in gagaku and shomyo fascinated me greatly. Repetitive figures I found interesting in part because I associated them with the idea of the accumulation of spiritual power -- "alpha-state" listening, as it came to be known in the 1960's and 70's. Also, I was entranced by the layering in Japanese music, particularly in Shinto music -- the layering and superimposition of different musical events happening simultaneously.
What interested me most, however, about Asian music was its pacing and its temporal dimension, and the ideal of pace as space -- emptiness, musical choreography, the sense of "presentness" in the music, the absence of striving, letting music become itself in its own terms, the universe that is inherent in a single note, the occasional lack of planned continuity, the absence of climax or emotional curves, or emotional contours in which the climaxes are in the "wrong place." Likewise, the non-causal relationships within the music, the absence of characteristic Western musical argument. The concept of music as a series of juxtaposed present moments made sense to me and caused me to wonder why we had missed out on such a perfect notion somehow in the West. The concept of unplanned resolutions and incompleteness and the notion that incompleteness is okay struck me as a perfect idea. I wondered how we had missed out on that in the West. Music that is more passive than active -- what's wrong with that? Likewise, the idea of additive rather than divisional rhythms seemed to make both musical and aesthetic sense.
But another thing that occurred to me was that in Asian music we seem to have a strong sense of the awareness of the importance of music and how important music is as a spiritual force. The West seemed somehow to have lost that. There could be seen pockets of such a notion in Western music history, but for the most part the West had ignored or lost an extremely important dimension of the musical experience. These were some of the thoughts that plagued me as a composer.
To be sure, not all of my own compositions are influenced by hogaku, but Japanese traditional music is part of the complex sound palette that swirls around in my own musical conceptual universe and has done so unrelentingly since about 1965 when I took a graduate course in Asian music during my doctoral studies.
The first piece in which I used any Japanese elements at all was a set of four haiku for solo voice and koto that came about as the result of "baby-sitting" a koto and a shakuhachi one summer while their owner returned to Japan. Although I cannot pretend to have learned to play the koto or shakuhachi, it was a good experience to be able to make noises on them, and I wrote my four haiku at that time. They are not in any way auspicious pieces -- more a dabbling or juvenilia you might call it.
The first piece that I wrote with any serious intent to incorporate Japanese stylistic features or to utilize Japanese sonorities that were part of that world-music sound-palette I referred to, was a piece called Serenade for shakuhachi, violin, cello, and koto -- a piece that was unperformed for about eight years and when it was finally performed, it was played not by shakuhachi but by Western flute and not by koto, but by piano. I had to wait sixteen years before I finally heard this piece with its proper instrumentation. The piece avoids meter for a long time, it emphasizes pentatonicism, and stresses certain notes that are uniquely embellished in specific ways. It is not Japanese music, but is, as I say, music that was informed by all of the music that I was listening to and absorbing into my mental imagination. But in particular, because it uses the shakuhachi and the koto, the links with hogaku are more than obvious. This piece has received about 40 performances.
In 1976 I was asked to write a solo flute piece, which I wrote to Western flute, but a piece that was clearly informed by a lot of the shakuhachi music that I was listening to at the time. I called the piece Whispers of the Dead, in part out of my fascination with the film Kwaidan and the notion of spirit musicians coming back from the dead as depicted by Lafcadio Hearn in his writings and in the film version of Kwaidan. This piece exhibits the shakuhachi-like devices of tone bending, ornaments limited to specific notes, accented grace notes, breathy tone production, and so forth.
I was in Hiroshima on Peace Day in 1977 and found the experience profoundly moving. I found that I could not express my deep emotions other than through my writing, so that evening, I went back to my hotel and wrote a piece that I called Toro nagashi. Invariably when it is performed, people come up to me after the concert to say how moved they have been by the music. Toro nagashi is for two pianos. The first piano plays only 13 notes, the notes of the kumoijoshi koto tuning. The second piano assaults the first piano with a variety of Western harmonic and contrapuntal devices ranging from romantic to atonal. At times the two conflicting sonorities blend; at other times the two are layered one on top of the other.
Other pieces that I make mention of are a piece for solo piano that came from that same summer in Japan. It is a piano piece with only 13 notes -- the same thirteen notes of the kumoijoshi koto tuning -- and strongly influenced by the spirit of Toro nagashi. The solo piano piece I called Nocturne: Azabu juban, after the section of Tokyo where I was staying at the time. About that same time, I wrote an organ piece for an organist at Bowdoin College in Maine who had once lived in Okinawa. This piece, which I called Five Zen Fragments contains five movements entitled Shomyo, Koan, Shakuhachi, Kagura, and Gagaku, each movement highly descriptive of its type of Japanese music.
Also about the same time a playwright at Bucknell University asked me to write music for a play that he had written about the mercury poisonings at Minamata. The music for this rather kabuki-like play, goes all the way through the performance and lasts about 90 minutes. The music was scored for flute/shakuhachi, violin, cello, koto, guitar, and percussion. A group of musicians on a platform located stage-right performed that music as the action took place on center stage.
In 1984, I wrote a piece called Remembered Landscape which was influenced by what was for me a strong visual memory of two sets of hills -- on set is the hills surrounding Kyoto and the other the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire in England, a landscape associated with the composer Edward Elgar. In this work there are some elements borrowed from Elgar, as well as some elements that could only be described as Nihon-shiki. Certainly there are echoes of hogaku throughout the work.
Other examples that I could cite briefly are the cycle for solo voice, flute, cello, and piano called Songs of Wind, Rain, and Liquid Fire from 1984, and a piece called Voices of Autumn (Aki no ko-e) for four-part choir, which has a number of shomyo references.
In conclusion, I would cite a number of pieces written for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, most recently a commissioned composition called Tholos that uses a large array of Japanese stylistic devices and images. This piece is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, and is being released in 1996 on CD on the MMC label. This piece represents a species of "combatimento" between Western and hogaku elements.
All together, I consider approximately one-third of my music to have been strongly influenced by Japanese traditional music. I do not consider this music in any way to be Japanese music, but rather a highly personal musical statement that is explained merely in terms of the complex sound world that exists in my own ear.
SPECIFIC WORKS REFERRED TO IN THE TALK:
Four Haiku (1968),voice and koto
Department of Music
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 17837
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