JAMES NYORAKU SCHLEFER, Artistic Director
MEG FAGAN, Producer

Artistic Director’s Statement

The idea for the Kyo-Shin-An commissioning project is rooted in my own extensive experience with both Western and Japanese classical music. As a performer and scholar of Western classical music, my passion and understanding for this discipline is an essential part of my artistic center, making it near and dear to my heart. I pair that with 30 years of study and performance in Japanese classical music, which has brought me to an equally high level of insight and knowledge within a second tradition. Comfortable within both musical worlds, the logical evolution is to facilitate the merging of these styles, bringing forth the outstanding virtuosity of traditional Japanese instrumentalists in the context of Western classical music.

The project’s intent is to commission exceptional composers to create new repertoire that combines the virtuosity and unique sound of traditional Japanese instruments with the structure and language of established Western classical ensembles. The sonorities and technical abilities of the instruments are highly compatible. However, instruments aside, there are significant 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. The composers will need to have both superb compositional craft and a creative concept that can unite and blend these two sound worlds in a meaningful, non-stereotypical manner, drawing upon either, both or neither musical tradition in creating this new repertoire.

The principal Japanese instruments for this project are the shakuhachi (bamboo flute,) koto (harp/zither,) and shamisen (3-string lute.) These three instruments are the core forces in the vibrant genre of Japanese classical chamber music that has been practiced since the late 17th Century. It is music that has developed over a period of time paralleling the late Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods in European music history. Collectively the instruments and the music are known as hogaku.

During the 1960s—a time of great inventiveness in American classical music as well as a growing, social awareness of Eastern thought—composers began to experiment with sonorities from many Asian cultures. At the same time in Japan, traditional music was becoming increasingly marginalized and Western classical was rapidly becoming the focus for music education. What is happening today, 40 years later, is that Japanese classical tradition has expanded beyond the confines of Japan. This is in keeping with the explosion of popular global fusion that has influenced so many music genres, with artists from multiple cultures creating new sounds, often in an improvisatory fashion. Quite recently a number of young Japanese artists have pushed into the area of rock music, particularly with the shamisen. Agatsuma is the most recent performer to do this, and the shakuhachi player Dozan Fujiwara is exploring a J-Pop, world-beat style.

The Kyo-Shin-An project addresses the ability of two venerable musical traditions, each a sophisticated “high art” form, to meet within a formal structure. The music that emerges will be greater than the sum of its parts and will allow for a cross cultural musical experience that has never been so thoroughly and profoundly explored. There are both highly virtuosic Western masters of Japanese traditional instruments and great Japanese players who are excited by, and capable in, the Western tradition. As today’s generation of performers emerge from the Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidei) and other conservatories, many can perform at the exceptionally high level that addresses both the needs of hogaku, as well as modern, increasingly demanding, Western style compositions. This new generation of hogaku players is also fluent in Western notation, and listens to many kinds of music including classical music.

I believe we are reaching a tipping point. There are enough hogaku players who have the talent, the broadmindedness, and the desire to move into new areas of expression to actually perpetuate a new body of musical literature. There are also multiple composers throughout the world testing these waters in an isolated fashion. To my mind, it is clearly the perfect time to bring all of this potential together in the classical arena and inspire new repertoire which will still be heard beyond my lifetime.

—James Nyoraku Schlefer

© 2016 Kyo-Shin-An Arts