Composer Joji Yuasa awarded Otaka Prize

by Tai Kawabata

Veteran composer Joji Yuasa has received the 51st Otaka Prize, which is presented to Japanese composers in recognition of outstanding orchestral pieces.

The Otaka Prize was created in 1952 to honor the achievements of Hisatada Otaka, a composer and conductor, who died at age 40 on Feb. 16, 1951. For the last 10 years of his life, Otaka was the full-time conductor of the Nihon Symphony Orchestra, the predecessor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Until his untimely death, he led the orchestra through difficult times.

In its announcement of this year’s recipient, the NHK Symphony Orchestra cited Yuasa’s Cosmos Haptic V for Orchestra, which was selected from among 29 pieces nominated by 15 musical organizations.

This is the fourth time that Yuasa has received the Otaka Prize. The last time was in 1997 for his “Violin Concerto — 1996 — In Memory of Toru Takemitsu.” Yuasa is also known for his film scores for works such as Juzo Itami’s “O-soshiki (The Funeral).”

At a news conference last week, Yuasa said he was inspired by the concept of haptic perception discussed in the 1955 book “Icon and Idea,” by Herbert Edward Read. According to the English poet and critic, prehistoric man was able to comprehend the cosmos intuitively. Yuasa said in his Cosmos Haptic series, he wanted to express the awe that man felt toward the cosmos long before human intellect tried to explain its existence.

In the second half of the piece cited, the composer used the pentatonic melody from the bon odoridance of his native town in Fukushima Prefecture along with a different pentatonic melody and Japanese festival drum rhythms that he had heard as a child.

The 73-year-old Yuasa said, “When I was in my 60s, I wrote many quiet and haunting pieces like the one for the late Takemitsu, or one based on Friedlich Holderlin’s poem or one called ‘Requiem for Reconciliation.’

“But I regard myself as a composer whose essence lies in writing works full of life and force. I would like to write pieces that venture into unexplored territories. I am glad that a juror characterized my cited piece as being full of youth.”