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Dividing its instrumental focus between the kugo – an ancient harp that has been resurrected by organologists in recent years – and modern performing forces, the festival includes eight newly commissioned scores, and aims to raise money and awareness for the small farming village of Iitate.
The damage to Iitate, just 24 miles from the Fukushima power plant, has been particularly intense, according to Mari Ono, Miura’s wife and collaborator. ‘Nearly the entire village was evacuated,’ she says. ‘Some businesses were allowed to keep operating, but the workers were relocated. The only people still there are the residents in a facility for elderly people, a little over 100 of them. It was too difficult for them to relocate.’
But the concern for Iitate and its inhabitants is more than purely humanitarian – it’s also deeply personal. Miura’s mother grew up in the village, and mayor Norio Kanno, who will be on hand to speak before the festival’s opening concert, is Miura’s first cousin. So when Miura took the contributing artists to tour the devastated area several months ago, for him it was also a trip back in time.
‘The plight of afflicted communities in Fukushima runs like a leitmotif through the programming , whether old or new’
‘The weather was clear on the first visit, which made the village look like a ghost town without any people or animals,’ he wrote in an email translated from the Japanese. ‘The fields were overgrown with weeds and I wondered with much concern how long it might take to reclaim them. I also reminisced about my childhood visits there with my mother and family every summer. We had to walk a long winding path from the bus stop, picking flowers and wild berries along the stream and up and down the hills. Now we can drive right through the village.’
Raising relief funds is a new and potentially challenging thing for an organisation that, as Ono notes with a rueful laugh, ‘is not into money that much. We’ve just been trying to promote Japanese contemporary music, which is not something that sells a lot of tickets.’ Some of the festival’s operations are supported by grants from the Japanese government and the state of New York, and Miura says that funding from the Asian Cultural Council has been increased for this year. Still, the goal is to raise more than $25,000 with ticket prices that are far above what they have been in the past.
Since its inception, the festival has been concerned primarily with raising the visibility of Japanese music in New York and throughout the United States, providing a platform for artists whose work is rarely encountered outside their native country – and often not even there. Miura, who began his career performing a double-bass concerto with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, first came to America in 1965 as a Fulbright Scholar; he stayed on to study at the Juilliard School of Music and play in the orchestra of the New York City Opera.
The festival began with a single commission for a dance piece, and then quickly expanded to encompass concerts at Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall, symposia on the Japanese new-music scene, and a growing inclusion of older musical traditions. Since 1993 the format has been relatively standardised, with an annual concentration on one traditional instrument (for example, previous years have seen explorations of the koto and the shakuhachi), for which a wealth of new pieces are often written for the occasion.
At the centre of this year’s programming is the 23-string kugo, which dates back at least as far as the 8th century. Current performers – including Fuyuhiko Sasaki, who features in the festival as both gramophone.co.uk performer and composer – perform on modern replicas reconstructed from instruments found in the Japanese imperial treasury, but the style of playing is often of modern invention.
Sasaki, who began his career as a student of the Western harp, explained in a translated email that the playing position of the kugo is the reverse of the Western pattern: it’s braced against the left shoulder rather than the right, and the right hand plays the lower strings rather than the higher ones. He also said, ‘No tradition or classical methodology has come down to us. So most of my kugo techniques have been adapted through trial and error from methods of Western harp playing.’
The festival’s opening concert will combine Sasaki’s kugo with several other traditional Japanese instruments: the sho (mouth organ), the hichiriki (a double-reed instrument), the haisho (panpipes) and the hokyo (percussion). In a characteristic blend of ancient and modern, the programme offers contemporary works – including three commissioned premieres – alongside music reconstructed by Sukeyasu Shiba from fragmentary scores in the centuries-old cache of manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, China. Another concert is devoted to commissioned chamber pieces for Western instruments.
But the plight of Iitate and other afflicted communities in Fukushima runs like a leitmotif through the programming, whether old or new. Sasaki’s commissioned work, To Be Human, is set to a poem by Jotaro Wakamatsu, who lives in nearby Minamisoma; the piece, Sasaki wrote, is both an acknowledgement of the tragedy and an invocation of optimism.
‘Until the nuclear disaster, fields were tilled, the cattle were tended, and people lived a good life there. The nuclear tragedy brought a halt to all that. I am deeply saddened to think about the situation for Iitate village, which is celebrated for its natural beauty and spirited people. However, we cannot give ourselves over to anger and despair. We have to and we do retain hope for the future.’
fuyuhiko Sasaki plays the kugo during a lecture by Professor toshiro Kido
Music FroM Japan: Festival 2012
February 18, Merkin Concert hall, Kaufman Center, New york; February 22, Freer gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC ‘Resonances of the Kugo’ with harpist Fuyuhiko Sasaki; music by Sukeyasu Shiba, Fuyuhiko Sasaki, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Akiko Yamane, Takehito Shimazu, Maki Ishii kaufman-center.org; asia.si.edu
February 19, Merkin Concert hall, Kaufman Center, New york World premieres of new works commissioned by Music From Japan by Chikage Imai, Noriko Koide, Junmei Suzuki, Toshiya Watanabe and Akiko Yamane, performed by the Music From Japan Chamber Ensemble kaufman-center.org
GRAMOPHONE february 2012 III