Eye Music Revives a Memento of 1960s Openness

by Michael Schell

Sapporo, excerpt from score page 1.

Seattle’s Eye Music ensemble is a collection of ten-odd musicians specializing in the performance of graphic scores. Their new album on Edition Wandelweiser is a 50-minute traversal of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, a 1963 composition that hails from a unique crossroads in music history where East Asian aesthetics were being combined with Western avant-gardism by artists from both traditions eager for a fresh start.

Excerpt from Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, performed by Eye Music.

Ichiyanagi, born in Kobe in 1933, belongs to the breakout generation of Japanese composers that includes Tōru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi and many others. Like his peers, Ichiyanagi saw parallels between the music of Webern (whose emphasis on sparse, isolated sound events was the springboard for the post-WW2 European avant-garde) and traditional Japanese music and painting (which likewise emphasized empty space and time). Eager to exploit this insight, Ichiyanagi came to New York in 1952, studying at Juilliard and later attending John Cage’s lectures at The New School in the company of his bohemian wife, a budding vocalist and conceptual artist named Yoko Ono. The couple returned to Japan in 1961, brought Cage over for his first Japanese tour, then divorced. Shortly thereafter, Ichiyanagi, deeply influenced by the graphic scores of Cage and his associate Earle Brown, composed Sapporo for “any number of performers up to fifteen.”

Ichiyanagi (left) with Mayuzumi and Ono in 1961.

Sapporo’s score consists of several loose-leaf sheets, assigned one per performer. Each sheet contains symbols denoting sustained sounds (horizontal lines), glissandos (angled lines) and short, accented sounds (dots), to be played over the course of the performance, whose duration and instrumentation (conventional or otherwise) are left to the discretion of the interpreters. Additional symbols mandate occasional points of interaction between the performers, but the majority of their actions are uncoordinated, lining up by chance.

The score excerpt above shows how the aesthetic of sparseness is implicit in the notation itself, guaranteeing that regardless of the musicians’ specific choices, the end result will be a slow-moving landscape marked by long tones (often sliding up or down) sprinkled with short sounds. Since the number of symbols on each page is fixed, the density and pacing of the music depends on the chosen length and ensemble size. A brief performance, such as the 14-minute 1972 recording by Ensemble Musica Negativa, will be dense and compact. A more discursive one, like Eye Music’s 50-minute rendering, will be drony and marked by numerous silences. The prevalence of glissandi is part of the work’s distinct sound environment, affirming a characteristic of the most enduring open-form works: that their core identity comes through in any good performance.

An illustrative passage begins at 2:15 of the Eye Music recording (see the linked audio sample above). A long silence is broken by a multiphonic from trombonist Stuart Dempster who plays a D♭ while singing the A♭ below it. This leads into a complex of sustained bowed string and percussion tones accompanied by a deep synth glissando and anchored by a low F♮ from Jay Hamilton’s cello. Dempster reenters with another multiphonic, this one sliding downward. When it concludes, it leaves behind a strange tremulous electric drone on A♮. More long tones from Dempster and flutist Esther Sugai appear before they’re cut off by a sharp pluck on a prepared electric guitar followed by a soft drum stroke. Another silence ensues before the next complex begins at 4:00.

The juxtaposition of silent sections with passages built on continuously-sounding drones and tremolos helps to avoid the sense of rhythmic regularity that often plagues performances of chance music. It also helps to fulfill the essential timelessness implicit in Ichiyanagi’s instructions. A proper performance of Sapporo has no real beginning or ending—it just starts and stops, emerging gently from its surroundings like a Japanese garden.

Eye Music (photo: Rachael Lanzillotta).

As the 1960s faded out, interest in open-form composition began to wane. Most musicians, it turned out, either wanted to be told exactly what to play, or else felt that through improvisation they could produce comparable results without having to share control or credit with a composer. Ichiyanagi returned to writing conventionally notated works, eventually packing an impressive work list with symphonies, operas and concertos for both Western and Japanese instruments. Among the highlights of his later career are Time Sequence (an unusual marriage of minimalist rhythm and atonal harmony reminiscent of Ligeti’s Continuum) and Paganini Personal (one of the more offbeat entries in the seemingly endless line of variations on Paganini’s last violin caprice). Today at 85, this old avant-gardist is regarded as the senior statesman of his craft in Japan.

Ichiyanagi in 2015 (photo: Koh Okabe via Japan Times).

Nevertheless, Sapporo continues to stand as one of the few classics of its genre. And Eye Music’s recording demonstrates why this Pacific Rim-based ensemble is particularly well-suited to its advocacy. With a diverse group of musicians drawn from the local drone, improv and electronic music communities, performing on a combination of conventional and homemade instruments of both acoustic and amplified means, Eye Music delivers an optimal mix of rigor and abandon to Ichiyanagi’s aleatory landmark. In this recording, their first for a major contemporary music label, they offer a snapshot of a zeitgeist best defined by its eager exploration of new freedoms: social, sexual, economic, political…and artistic.

ALBUM REVIEW: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’s Sing Me Home

by Maggie Molloy

In light of recent tragedy and political turmoil around the world, we need music now more than ever—not as a distraction or an escape, but as a gateway toward experiencing our shared humanity. We need music to open our hearts, our ears, and our minds. We need music to connect us in ways which transcend language, religion, tradition, and geography.

That’s the idea behind Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a global music collective comprised of performers and composers from over 20 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.

With such an array of distinct cultures and musical voices present in their collective, the music of the Silk Road Ensemble is at once contemporary and ancient, familiar and foreign, traditional and innovative. The group makes culturally conscious music, drawing upon instruments, ideas, and traditions from around the world to create music that is reflective of our 21st century global society.

Their new album Sing Me Home is a musical culmination of this ethos. Silk Road members each selected a musical work of personal significance to them, then invited guest musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds to collaborate with the ensemble on each piece.

Sing Me Home

The result is an album which travels fearlessly from the folk melodies of Macedonia to the traditional textiles of Mali, from the fiddle ditties of Ireland to the harvest songs of Galicia, and from the taiko tunes of Japan to the sitar suites of India.

“When you listen to the album you’ll hear how different our homes are,” Yo-Yo Ma said. “For us, this is one of the great pleasures of Silk Road: we celebrate difference; we cultivate curiosity in our exploration and generosity in our sharing. In our home, something completely unfamiliar presents a precious opportunity to build something new.”

Yo-Yo Ma

Released as a companion album to the documentary film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the album stands confidently on its own as a glimpse into the music and personal memories that most inspire the individual artists of the ensemble.

The journey begins with Chinese pipa player and composer Wu Man’s piece “Green (Vincent’s Tune).” Eastern folk melodies come alive through an orchestra of Chinese wind instruments, Western strings, Kamancheh (an Iranian bowed string instrument), assorted percussion, and, of course, the visceral Tuvan throat singing of the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth.   

Violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen’s contributions to the album include two imaginative arrangements of Western folk tunes: the Irish “O’Neill’s Cavalry March,” featuring Martin Hayes on the fiddle, and the American “Little Birdie,” featuring vocals by Sarah Jarosz. Each arrangement expands the timbral and harmonic palette of Western folk music by incorporating Eastern instruments like the pipa (a four-string Chinese string instrument), the shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), and the sheng (a Chinese free reed instrument).

What follows is a new arrangement of the traditional Malian tune “Ichichila,” for which the ensemble enlists the talents of Toumani Diabaté on kora (a West African string instrument) and Balla Kouyaté on balafon (an African wooden xylophone). Traditionally sung by the Taureg people while dyeing textiles in indigo pits, the song’s colorful, upbeat cadence comes from the rhythm of the textiles being plunged in and out of the dye with long sticks.

Balkan vocalists Black Sea Hotel lend their voices to an arrangement of the traditional Macedonian folk song “Sadila Jana,” while Japanese percussion instruments take center stage in a contemporary arrangement of the Japanese “Shingashi Song.” Indian raga is the inspiration for the organic and free-flowing “Madhoushi,” featuring Shujaat Khan on sitar and vocals, and “Wedding” features a vibrant marriage of clarinet, oud (a Middle Eastern string instrument), and wordless vocals in a heartfelt tribute to the millions of Syrians who have fled to find new homes in recent years.

But perhaps no other song captures the spirit of the album more than “Going Home,” a piece that has passed through countless composers’ capable hands in the past century. Originally composed as part of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, it was later arranged as a song with lyrics by his pupil William Arms Fisher. On this album, we find it rearranged and translated into Chinese in a twinkling string rendition featuring vocals by Abigail Washburn.

Jumping from China to Spain, the work is followed by a Galician harvest chant. Davide Salvado lends his voice for a new arrangement of a traditional Galician work song titled “Cabaliño,” his voice slow and steady above a bed of lively strings and warbling accordion.

Rhiannon Giddens’ gypsy jazz-infused vocals sparkle atop a tangle of accordion, Klezmer clarinet, and yangqin (a Chinese hammered dulcimer) in an arrangement of the “St. James Infirmary Blues,” while Bill Frisell’s soulful guitar solos shine in “If You Shall Return…,” a Kojiro Umezaki original which takes its inspiration from Bhatiali boat songs.

The album comes to a close with Rob Mathes’s arrangement of the jazz standard “Heart and Soul,” featuring vocalists Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter. The song plays like a smile: it’s got all the waltz and charm of 1930s New York jazz, but with more global instrumentation.

Because in the end, that’s what the album is really about: bringing together an entire world of sound, listening to one another with open hearts and open minds, and ultimately, creating harmony and understanding in a world that is too often divided.

“All around the world, people constantly meet the unfamiliar through change,” Yo-Yo Ma said. “Rapid or dramatic change can feel threatening, tempting us to build walls to defend against the unknown. At Silk Road we build bridges. In the face of change and difference, we find ways to integrate and synthesize, to forge relationships, and to create joy and meaning.”

ALBUM REVIEW: Mamoru Fujieda’s “Patterns of Plants”

by Maggie Molloy

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© Susan Scheid

We experience plant life through a variety of senses: sight, taste, touch, smell. In fact, flowers and other plants have long been featured in visual arts, culinary arts, medicines, fragrances, and more. Despite all of the many ways in which we encounter vegetation, though, we have never actually been able to experience plants through sound—until now.

Japanese post-minimalist composer Mamoru Fujieda has spent 15 years of his career creating music based on the electrical activity in living plants. The result is his magnum opus, an ongoing series of compositions appropriately titled “Patterns of Plants.” The pieces have been arranged for a variety of instruments and ensembles.

This past September, Fujieda released a two-disc album featuring a large selection of these works performed by renowned pianist Sarah Cahill. The album, titled “Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants,” is the first solo piano recording of this music to be sold outside of Japan.

Hop over to Pinna Records to purchase the album!

The compositions, created between 1996 and 2011, were made possible with the help of the “Plantron,” a device created by botanist and artist Yūji Dōgane. The “Plantron” measures electrical fluctuations on the surface of plant leaves and converts that data into sound using Max, a visual programming language for music.

“I understood these data to constitute the ‘voices’ of plants, and tried to make those voices audible as melodic patterns,” Fujieda said.

Fujieda sifted through the sounds in search of pleasing musical patterns, which he then used as the basis for composing a number of short pieces. He then grouped these pieces into collections, sort of like little bouquets full of Baroque dance suites.

The pieces reflect the subtle beauty and uniqueness of each plant, often drawing from a number of vibrant musical influences while still maintaining a consistently calming, gentle theme throughout.

“[The pieces] resonate with Baroque music, but also with the folk music of Ainu and Celtic cultures; with the lyricism of Lou Harrison; with medieval chant; and with a modal language that hints at alternative tunings, even when played in equal temperament, as they are on this recording (with Mamoru’s blessing),” said Cahill, who has been playing many of these works since 1997.

The rich but subtle diversity of each piece makes them quietly captivating both as individual compositions but also as a whole. Part of the album’s charm is the way it flows gently from Pattern to Pattern, immersing the listener in a lush forest full of ornamented melodies and delicate details.

“They embrace the repetitive structures of post-minimalism; but just as the leaves of a tree appear uniform from a distance, and only on closer inspection reveal surprising diversity, so the attentive listener discovers a multitude of variations and transformations within each Pattern,” Cahill said.

The pieces are poignant, sweet, and sincere. It is as though each Pattern is its own gentle flower, one small but infinitely nuanced part of the larger landscape. Just as flowers may be arranged in any combination, the Patterns may be listened to in any order. Cahill chose the order of the pieces in the album, with Fujieda’s approval.

“Sarah’s performance, with its refined phrasings and delicately controlled sonorities, imparts an individual character to each of the pieces,” Fujieda said. “The patterns together create an impression of being interwoven endlessly like a tapestry. It is as if the lives of plants are revived in her piano through this continuous chain of interrelated variations.”

Fujieda may have planted the seed with his first Pattern in 1996, but this album proves that his music has since grown into a beautiful garden full of delicate, charming melodies.