Author: James Nyoraku Schlefer

Some Practicalities of East-West Musical Collaborations

So you want to write music for the koto, the shakuhachi, or the shamisen? Well, you’re in luck. Up until fairly recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a traditional musician who would be willing to oblige. Beginning in the late 19th century, with its influx of Western culture and the ensuing dominance of Western music, traditional Japanese music was taught within families that jealously guarded their performance practices and repertoire. As a result, a kind of tribalism developed, split along family lines known as Ryūha (schools). Students in one line were unable to venture past the walls of their ryūha. In the last 20 to 30 years, this extreme isolation has begun to fade. Traditional instruments are now being taught in universities in Japan (and in the U.S.A.) where these strictures do not apply. Consequently, a younger generation of traditional players has emerged, and they are very open to a broader musical education. Many seem to be on a mission to share their instruments with a wider world, seeking newly developing and yet-to-be developed musical forms. It is not uncommon to hear jazz being played on the koto or shakuhachi. Some shamisen players have even taken to playing rock ‘n’ roll (and it’s a magnificent fit). In addition, with global culture inspiring an increasing number of non-Japanese masters of traditional instruments, there is a growing pool of performers available. This is particularly true of the shakuhachi, which has truly become a global instrument.

Notation: Most Japanese instruments have an extensive solo repertoire, possibly a reflection of the inward-looking nature of Buddhism. Until the 19th century, instruments were taught and learned orally, so when notation systems were created, each instrument developed its own notation. Of course, they are mutually unintelligible to one another. As a result, in chamber music there are no scores that combine all of the parts, as is the case with Western music. When the instruments first came together to play in ensemble, they simply joined by playing the same melody—hence the heterophonic texture in Japanese chamber music. For all Japanese instrumentalists, their specific notation systems are their primary notations. The good news is that increasing numbers of professional players are now fluent in reading Western music and at last have a common language for printed music; particularly the university-educated generations. Composers can write for Japanese instruments using Western notation and need not learn koto, shakuhachi, or shamisen notation. Frustratingly, many of the subtleties of playing techniques cannot be represented as precisely in this notation, but it nonetheless serves the very important function of providing common ground for music making.

When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time.

Compositional approaches: When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time. But I want them to write music that is in their voice, not to bend their ideas to find an Eastern sonority that somehow suits their style. That green light to go Western can make for some daunting performance and technical challenges, but that is the time-honored role of the beleaguered performer.

Performers of traditional Japanese instruments have spent years mastering their technique based on the melodic patterns found in the Japanese pentatonic scales. Western classical musicians have mastered major, minor, whole tone, etc. scales for their practice. As such, each group will be more comfortable playing what they have for years drilled into their fingers and ears. But this doesn’t mean composers should write pentatonic music for Japanese and diatonic for Western. Composers should write what they write. Performers will either make it work or politely suggest a change.

Audiences: Kyo-Shin-An Arts is in its ninth season of presenting chamber music concerts that mix and match Japanese instruments and Western ensembles via commissions, new music, and standard repertoire from two traditions. Every concert introduces new audience members to one or more Japanese instruments. Some of the audience is extremely loyal and has been returning for years because each concert has a distinct flavor. The differences lie in the unique styles of the composers and the partnering Western ensembles. Over the years, KSA concerts have presented the Arianna, Cassatt, Ciompi, Colorado, Lark, and Voxare string quartets, Ensemble Epomeo, Sybarite5, and many individual virtuosos gamely tackling commissions and favoring the audience with fantastic renditions of Debussy or Beethoven or Shostakovich. I have never heard a single attendee find this to be strange or daunting.

Nonetheless, it is still a common industry paradigm to automatically equate music that uses Japanese instruments (or any non-Western instruments for that matter) with something extra-musical such as cherry blossom season, moon-viewing, or samurai lore. Once, in proposing some of KSA’s commissioned works to a major orchestral institution, the somewhat unenlightened response was typical: “Well, it might work if we were to have some special Asian festival.”  For high-profile institutions, programming new music of any kind has always been a challenge. It can be wielded as a marketing hook or slipped in under the radar of a standard blockbuster. Living composers fight the good fight, and tastes evolve. But from my vantage point, the idea of classical music that incorporates Japanese instruments still sparks the notion of exoticism and “otherness.” I want to change this norm. Imagine a musical landscape where non-Western instruments are heard alongside Western instruments without notice. I am striving to achieve this through Kyo-Shin-An Arts with concerts on our series at home at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC, as well as in concert venues around the country and abroad. It is my hope that one day the sounds of these instruments will be welcomed simply as yet another color in the orchestra, as the clarinet or the celeste once were.

Ensemble partners: Performing partners with whom we have worked with over the years have enthusiastically embraced our commissions. This includes several orchestras in addition to the numerous string quartets, instrumentalists, and singers who have performed with KSA in NYC and on tour. All of the musicians have welcomed Japanese instrumentalists with interest and respect, not merely curiosity and tolerance. Clearly it is the musicians themselves who may be the strongest driving force for the creation and presentation of this new music.

Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter Japanese instruments.

Is it difficult to work with Japanese instrument performers? Yes and no. Language can be a challenge, so working with Japanese musicians who speak English or having a member of the Western ensemble who speaks Japanese can be quite helpful. And as I mentioned earlier, Japanese instruments have remained pretty much the same for the past several centuries and did not advance technically as they did in the West. Compare the modern silver flute with the blockflöte of Bach’s day and then the five-holed bamboo shakuhachi across the same time period. Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter the limitations of the Japanese instruments. But in general, it is not difficult, and ultimately a joy.

In a time when cultural sensitivity and discourse seem to be receding, understanding through the language of music remains one of the strongest expressions of our humanity. Integrating world cultures through music transcends divisions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Creating and presenting new music for Japanese and Western instruments is my pursuit, and over the last several years I have been gratified to discover that more and more composers, performers, and ensembles are exploring this work as well. Audiences and musicians alike are intrigued with the idea and the results. It is a global movement, and I am proud to say that I have been a positive influence for some of it. I look forward to continuing my work and celebrating Kyo-Shin-An Arts’ upcoming 10th anniversary in 2019.

Paul Moravec’s Shakuhachi Concerto, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts and Meet the Composer commission, performed by James Nyoraku Schlefer and the Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis Music Director.

Elements of Japanese Music

I have been writing about myself, my work, a little history of Japanese music, and the intersections or disconnects between Western and Japanese music. Now I would like to discuss musical elements that are distinctly Japanese.

MU / MA / : Perhaps the most ubiquitous and well-known concept in Japanese aesthetics is that known as Ma. Translated as nothingness or emptiness, Ma emphasizes the space, in time or dimension, which is prevalent in all Japanese art forms including theater, architecture, gardening, and—of course—music. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, and the stillness between movements. Much more than the absence of something, it is a palpable entity. In music, Ma typically manifests as the silence we “hear” between phrases. It is that nothingness that separates sound and removes it from a position of prominence. After the first phrase of a shakuhachi solo is played and the player takes a breath, that silence, or Ma, can create a tension that brings a small relief when the next phrase eventually begins. Or if that silence separates the sounds completely, and allows each phrase to be independent, then the silence becomes its own world upon which to meditate.

Timbre as a compositional element: The musical traditions of the globe have each charted their own paths, and Europe was no exception. Western classical music evolved as an ensemble art, and beginning in the 17th century, tempered scales became the standard for composition. The evolving manufacture of musical instruments developed to suit this pitch-oriented musical language. Eventually, keyboard instruments could play all the chromatic tones and do so with a consistent timbre. Woodwind instruments transformed from tubes with holes to ever more complex machinery, the goal being consistent timbre between the ranges and tighter control of pitch. Thus, the trajectory of Western instruments has long held the goal of equalizing the sound quality across the full range of the instrument.

Japanese instruments embrace the difference of timbres between pitches, and the music developed to accommodate that.

Japanese instruments, on the other hand, embraced the difference of timbres between pitches, and the musical language developed to accommodate those differences. Frequently the same pitch is heard with different fingerings, resulting in a vastly different dynamic level and tone color. Take for example the sawari sound of the shamisen. The lowest string is purposely positioned off the nut at the top of the fingerboard to create a distinctive buzzing effect similar to the jawari sound of the sitar. To the Western ear this buzzing may come across as unfocused or unclean, but this is in fact an indispensable sound of the instrument. Likewise, pushing the string on the koto to raise the pitch, rather than plucking a neighboring string with the same pitch, results in an almost imperceptible but distinct sound. And the robust pitch of an open hole on the shakuhachi contrasts with meri, the same pitch achieved with a partially covered hole and the lowering of the player’s head. As a result, Japanese music evolved to accommodate the dissimilarities inherent in the physical makeup of the musical instruments.

Wabi-Sabi: Wabi-sabi is an idea—an essential concept in Japanese aesthetics constituting a view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It is not an official element of Japanese music, but as a composer and performer, I do feel that it is important for Western listeners to appreciate the concept. As an example, the pottery items used in the most refined and exacting Japanese tea ceremonies are often rustic and simple looking, with shapes that are not symmetrical and colors or textures that appear to be coarse. The tea bowls may be deliberately chipped or nicked at the bottom. It is up to the observational ability of the participant to notice and discern the hidden signs of a truly excellent design or glaze. So too, in Japanese music, must the listener be able to discern the subtle differences in sound quality and execution, putting aside preconceived musical experiences to appreciate the artistry.

The urgency to “fix” the sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians.

The urgency to “fix” the natural sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians as it did in the West, and the beauty of these subtle nuances of timbre became the standard. This is a fundamental difference in musical philosophy that presents one of the greatest challenges in merging the sounds of East and West. Nonetheless there have been many composers in the last few decades, both Western and Japanese, who have forged ahead to create some magnificent and ground-breaking new music; some are facing the challenge by essentially ignoring the disconnect, some by probing into the subtle complexities.

A performance of the composition Miyako no Haru (都の春) by Yamase Shoin I (1845-1908) on May 21, 2017 featuring Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto and voice, Sumie Kaneko, shamisen and voice, and James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. Yamase was engaged as the first professor of koto music, at the Tokyo Academy of Music, and composed this work for the inauguration ceremony concert of the Institute in 1890.

The Intersection of Genres

Kyo-Shin-An Arts was conceived in the collision of my musical worlds. I had become professionally proficient in two very different, highly structured classical traditions. I was acutely aware of their musical parallels and seemingly irreconcilable differences, and as a teacher, performer, and erstwhile musicologist, pretty well steeped in their history. This meant that I knew why the work I wanted to do ought to succeed, but that I needed to help lead the way for others. So, embracing a history of differences between Japanese and Western classical music, I set out in pursuit of a tangible way in which to reconcile them.

Japan’s classical music traditions flourished in virtual isolation.

Japan’s musical history in brief: Japan was a closed country for nearly three centuries before it allowed itself to succumb to outside influences. During that time, its classical music traditions flourished in virtual isolation. Many instruments maintained and expanded solo musical traditions, reflecting the Buddhist and Confucian ideals of inwardness and moral rectitude. The principal Japanese instruments in these traditions were the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), koto (harp/zither), and shamisen (three-string lute). Collectively the instruments and the music are known as hogaku. The solo traditions have their own names as well; for the shakuhachi it is honkyoku.

The chamber music tradition known as sankyoku evolved as performers of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi began to copy one another’s melodies and played them together in a heterophonic manner, displaying idiomatic instrumental characteristics without building an individual voice. These musical traditions came to a crashing halt in the late 19th century when Japan officially opened to the West and the Meiji government banned the playing and teaching of Japanese instruments in favor of European instruments. Nonetheless, despite being marginalized by the new government, the practitioners persevered. The music continued to be passed along by aural tradition and was preserved with the help of relatively new notation systems—one system for each instrument. To this day, traditional sankyoku is played with three different notation systems; one each for koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.

Enter the West. Suffice it to say that, beginning in the late 19th century, the Japanese embraced Western classical music with enthusiasm. At the same time, their own music tradition was becoming a socially marginalized art, and Western classical was rapidly becoming the focus for music education.  Despite the efforts of a few great 20th-century composers such as Michiyo Miyagi and later Minoru Miki, who were writing new music for traditional Japanese ensembles, East and West were separate and it was assumed they would remain that way.

Despite the efforts of a few great composers, East and West were separate.

In the West, however, composers enjoyed tinkering with Eastern sound worlds. Of course, the incorporation of exotic influences began earlier—we have Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy et al. In 20th-century American music, the pioneers of classical/world music crossover included Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. And yet, the most seminal influence is often debatably attributed to Toru Takemitsu.

Fifty years ago, Toru Takemitsu was probably the only Japanese composer of Western classical music to have crossed over into the world of high-profile name recognition. However, when prodded by Leonard Bernstein to write an orchestral piece including traditional Japanese instruments, he balked. Largely self-taught in the classical music tradition, and especially fond of the music of Debussy and Messiaen, Takemitsu couldn’t see how the two classical music traditions of Japan and Europe could effectively be brought together. But, reluctantly, he agreed to try.

The more I looked at the two worlds of sound the greater the differences loomed, and I nearly decided the project was impossible. I thought of giving up… but completed a work in order to show as great a difference between the two traditions as possible without blending them.

—Toru Takemitsu: Confronting Silence – Selected Writings (Berkeley CA: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995), p. 62.

Indeed, so challenging did he find this task that when he finally composed November Steps, long considered the seminal work for traditional Japanese instruments and orchestra, the two sound worlds literally never interact. That was 1967.

So what are these differences that Takemitsu found so difficult to overcome? Music is after all music, a collection of sounds in some manner of organization. But music is also a reflection of culture, of language, and of purpose. And perhaps of philosophy as well. Can a difference in approach to life, its meaning, purpose, and legacy, be reflected in musical language? Two thoughts come to mind. Buddhism points to the impermanence of life—don’t become attached to things or desire them, as they will go away. Confucianism honors fealty and social harmony over individuality. Both of these abstractions differ from Western thought and tradition and work their way into musical expression.

There are also significant structural differences between the classical music of Japan and the classical music of the West. One big difference is that Western music uses harmony and traditional Japanese music doesn’t. Structurally, Western music also incorporates the concepts of repetition, contrast, and variation to define the common forms of sonata-allegro, rondo, etc. Japanese music uses a form known as “jo ha kyu.” A quiet beginning (jo) proceeds to a complex middle section (ha) and then to a fast conclusion (kyu) followed by a final brief stasis. Scale patterns are also different (pentatonic and diatonic) as are tone color, dynamics, and pitch range. That said, the sonorities and technical abilities of Japanese and Western instruments are highly compatible. Which brings me rapidly back to the 21st century and its uniquely global aesthetic.

Today, performers of Japanese instruments and composers of classical music are forging new ground.

Re-enter Kyo-Shin-An Arts. For the last decade, I have had the good fortune to be the artistic director of a music organization designed to represent my personal vision of bringing Japanese musical instruments into the fold of Western classical music. KSA exists to commission great composers and produce or facilitate performances that combine these two classical traditions. The grass roots conditions were ripe when KSA was founded, and I believe its high-quality work has helped to mainstream a new reality. Today, performers of Japanese instruments and composers of classical music are forging new ground and building relationships that are stripped of the old stereotypes of conventional constraints. They are creating a new, cross-cultural voice in music. In Japan, the old standard-bearers of musical tradition, who have proprietorially guarded their musical lineages through the Meiji Era and well into the 20th century, are facing their decline in an increasingly global musical world, enabling a new generation of unfettered musical exploration.

My composition Dream Corner is the result of my longtime desire to write a work that would unite my two favorite chamber music ensembles: the European String Quartet and the Japanese Sankyoku (the traditional trio of shakuhachi, koto, and shamisen).

How I Got Here (Making New Music with Japanese Instruments)

The first time I tried playing a shakuhachi, it was an epic fail. It was the spring of 1979. I had just attended my first performance of traditional Japanese chamber music. I was quite taken with the incredible virtuosity and commanding technique of all the players but paid particular attention to the shakuhachi, the instrument that was closest to my own. There was an incredible richness to the sound of the bamboo and an unexpectedly wide range of color and dynamics, which I found captivating.

“As a classically trained flutist, surely it should not be so difficult to make a sound on an open tube of bamboo,” hrrumphed the arrogant 22-year-old that I was. I tried again, and again, repeatedly, until much to the delight of the three Japanese members of the ensemble, I handed the instrument back to its owner—frustrated but with quiet respect.

Record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.”

At the time, to me, the nascent term “world music” meant Ravi Shankar and Babatunde Olatunji. And record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.” It was only years later that I realized how incredibly rare it was to encounter a concert of Japanese instruments, and to attend a performance like the one I had just heard in of all places, an apartment in New York’s famed Dakota building. I related this story to the contemporary flutist Harvey Sollberger, with whom I was taking some lessons at the time, and he replied that he actually had a shakuhachi but had given up on it because he couldn’t make a sound. (I began to see a pattern.) Would I like to borrow it? Well, of course I would, and over several days, with concerted effort, I began to make a sound.

A local cliché is that you can find anything in New York. Well, true to form, I found a shakuhachi teacher in short order and began what was to become a lifetime obsession with learning, teaching, performing, and composing music for the Japanese bamboo flute. The late Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin was my first teacher. My initial approach to practicing was casual, to put it kindly, but over time (decade number one) I began to get better. And as I learned more and more about Japanese traditional music and musical culture, and made multiple trips to study in Japan, I became more and more fascinated. I observed that the rigor of the training, the complexity of the music, and variety of musical genres required a deep understanding of a highly sophisticated and complex tradition and that each had a parallel with that of classical music training for Western instruments. After years of study it became clear to me that while Japanese classical music bears no relationship whatsoever to European music, the rigor of technical mastery and knowledge of performance practices are remarkably on par.

Fast forwarding through the 39 years following my first, singular experience with the recalcitrant bamboo—countless lessons, performances, teaching, and three degrees of certification later—I have at last developed a decent technical ability on the instrument. I humbly lay claim to a fairly comprehensive understanding of both the traditional solo and chamber music repertoires, and I have moved beyond the traditional into the world of contemporary and new music for Japanese instruments.

As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?”

My latent composer genes began to surface in 1997. I began by writing original music for shakuhachi, and then ensembles of Japanese instruments with koto and shamisen. My personal influences of rock, the blues, and Western classical music seeped in and colored my explorations. As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?” I took the plunge in 2006 and wrote Quintet No. 1 for shakuhachi and string quartet. Three years later, my pursuit of this idea led me to brazenly complete and perform my first concerto and to found Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a contemporary music organization that commissions and presents new music combining Japanese and Western classical instruments. I wanted to play Western-style music again—this time on the shakuhachi—and the repertoire needed to be helped along. Through KSA, the last decade has brought the great joy of bringing some remarkable composers to the Japanese well, convincing them to attempt a work outside of all previous experience, and shepherding the premieres of quite the trove of fantastic music.

In homage to a daring and intrepid bunch of wonderful composers who have joined me in my journey this past decade, my gratitude goes out to Victoria Bond, Chad Cannon, Ciara Cornelius, Douglas Cuomo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Daron Hagen, Matthew Harris, William Healy, Takuma Itoh, Kento Iwasaki, Mari Kimura, Angel Lam, Daniel Levitan, Gilda Lyons, James Matheson, Paul Moravec, Mark Nowakowski, Thomas Osborne, Charles Porter, Yoko Sato, Somei Satoh, Benjamin Verdery, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Donald Womack, and Randall Woolf.

Spell No. 8 composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts commission, performed by Jennifer Aylmer (soprano), Jennifer Choi (violin), Wendy Law (cello), Kathleen Supové (piano), and James Nyoraku Schlefer (shakuhachi) on November 19, 2017, as part of the concert “Exploding Chrysanthemums” at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC.