The term “contemporary classical music” may sound straightforward, but it isn’t. That is why one of Japan’s most influential composers has made it his mission to guide people through what is essentially a sonic labyrinth.
Although the term can refer to any classical music made after World War II, the movement is considered to have begun in the mid-1970s when the modernist, electronic, postmodern and minimalist movements were brought together under one umbrella. Many composers in this genre also incorporate artistic developments from other arts, particularly film and dance.
“What I place most importance on is trying to create more opportunities to showcase the music, in a way that new listeners will be able to understand and feel passionate about,” says composer and conductor Joe Hisaishi, the man at the forefront of Japan’s contemporary classical scene and who is also known around the world for the soundtracks he has created for director Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli animated films.
Hisaishi, a professional moniker for 65-year-old Mamoru Fujisawa, is set to share the stage with avant-garde extraordinaire and self-proclaimed “classicist” Philip Glass and pianist Maki Namekawa to perform Glass’ “The Complete Piano Etudes” on June 5 at Tokyo’s Sumida Triphony Hall. The Baltimore-born composer will be making his way to the capital to play two concerts: the aforementioned “Etudes” and a highly-acclaimed double-headliner comprising Glass and singer-songwriter icon Patti Smith called “The Poet Speaks.”
Hisaishi says he first came across Glass’ work when he was in university, where he majored in music composition.
“At the time I was listening to and aspiring to be like (Karlheinz) Stockhausen,” Hisaishi tells The Japan Times. “But then I encountered Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air,’ and I was simply shocked by it. This was the ‘modern music’ that I was to move toward. I realized that I could express myself better this way, and so I switched to minimalist music over the next two or three years.”
It was at this point that Hisaishi encountered Glass’ compositions.
“My first impression was that ‘this person uses a lot of arpeggios,’ ” he says, smiling. “And (that it was) a challenge to play.”
Hisaishi went on to spearhead the minimalist movement in Japan, and slowly made his move toward orchestral work. So it comes as a surprise to learn that, in the decades since, he still hasn’t met Glass in person.
“I may even only meet him for the first time on the day (of our performance)!” Hisaishi says with a laugh. “Although I may not have the full composure before the concert to say hello anyway.”
Hisaishi released his first solo full-length, “Mkwaju,” in 1981. When combining his solo work and soundtracks, he has more than 100 albums under his belt. He has collaborated with internationally celebrated directors such as Miyazaki, Takeshi “Beat” Kitano and Yojiro Takita. His work as a conductor took him to Cannes in 2004 — he was the first Japanese musician to conduct an orchestra at the famous film festival in France — and he has worked with some of the top philharmonic orchestras in the world, including the London Philharmonic in 2009.
Despite his obvious caliber, Hisaishi says he was humbled when asked to perform the “Etudes.”
“When the offer came, I thought that it was some kind of mistake,” Hisaishi says. “I consider myself a part-time worker when it comes to the piano, but you need to play regularly to stay sharp. Fortunately I’ve been playing it a lot these days so I’ve been able to keep my touch. And I heard that Glass personally asked that I perform, which is a great honor.”
The term “etude” — based on the French word for “study” — refers to short compositions that are usually written for one instrument, and are designed as an exercise to improve a player’s technique or demonstrate their skill. Glass himself used the name because he wanted to enhance his style and present a challenge to his ever-evolving technique. Namekawa, a prolific pianist in her own right, has approached the “Etudes” with a sometimes softer touch than Glass, but one that is just as impassioned. It will be fascinating to hear how Hisaishi approaches the work.
“Even with the smallest modification, the world that Glass has made changes,” Hisaishi says. “Since he composed the pieces, it’s difficult to re-create his sound, so my approach will be to perform as a fellow composer. There will be three different people playing them at the concert, which is a testament to the solid foundation that Glass has created.”
The composer won’t confirm which out the 20 compositions he will he be performing: “I feel like it’s better not to know which ones I’ll be playing. It’s something to look forward to on the day.”
The showcase will undoubtedly be a treat for fans of orchestral music and the piano, but Hisaishi insists that it doesn’t take decades of aural training to appreciate the “Etudes,” as well as his own creations.
“A lot of people that come to the concerts are in their 20s,” Hisaishi says. “I think they come to listen to something new, and I want to be able to provide that.
“I like to make the distinction between ‘modern music’ and ‘music that is modern.’ I used to play more Stockhausen-like music, but now am creating more minimal, or (contemporary) classical music.”
Hisaishi may be known as a leader in the world of soundtrack production, especially due to his long-lasting friendship with Miyazaki — he composed the soundtracks for all of Miyazaki’s animated films from “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) to “The Wind Rises” (2013) — however his true passions seem to lie elsewhere.
“I was originally a minimalist, so that’s my foundation,” he says. “But I don’t dislike entertainment, so I am still working on new (soundtrack) projects now and then.”
It becomes clear where Hisaishi finds the most inspiration these days. “Definitely (original) composition, before anything,” he says. “And if it’s right for the project, then conducting as well. When I was in my 20s, I thought that it was ‘art’ to break the mold of Beethoven, Bruckner, even John Cage. But as a conductor, now I have come to feel like what I am doing is an extension of their work.”
As a minimalist, Hisaishi constantly strives for perfection through elegant repetition, and seeking out the essence of percussion and harmonies.
One lingering question is: What comes next after minimalist and contemporary classical music?
“That’s what I think about most,” Hisaishi says. “Many people think that classical music all started with Bach and Handel. But in prehistoric times there were simple melodies, then polyphony, then harmony, then chamber further down the line. Just like many other things, music also goes in cycles. Now we’re smack in the middle of a transition period, and post-classical music in recent years can get too chaotic — anything is OK — and music loses its energy.”
If anyone in Japan is equipped to tackle this musical matter, though, it is Hisaishi.
“I feel like some recently released music has started to lack in logic, and lose its quality,” he says adding that he wants to create music that “strictly adheres” to music theory. “But I don’t know where it will lead from here.”
“The Complete Etudes” featuring Philip Glass, Joe Hisaishi and Maki Namekawa (on piano) takes place at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo on June 5 (3 p.m. start; ¥13,000-¥14,000; 03-3477-5858). “The Poet Speaks” featuring Philip Glass and Patti Smith takes place at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo on June 4 (2 p.m., 7 p.m.; ¥13,000-¥14,000; 03-3477-5858). For more information, visit www.joehisaishi.com.
Four important names in contemporary classical music
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Arguably the most divisive figure in the contemporary classical realm. Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) is among the most influential — and therefore controversial — characters in music history. His compositions range from the serialist to the electronic, and continue to inspire musicians today, whether they like to admit it or not.
Steve Reich: A pioneer with tape loops, this contemporary composer popularized the phasing technique, where a repetitive phrase played by two or more instruments at different times is moved slowly out of unison, only to go full circle and double up later in the piece. His harmonic rhythms and canons have also taken on historical and racial themes, making him one of the most significant composers in U.S. history.
Terry Riley: Although a master of minimalism, Terry Riley is just as comfortable with jazz, blissed-out electronic music and Indian rhythms. His mind-bending music is a testament to an imagination that reaches for the cosmos, to his instrumental prowess and his ongoing exploration of a universal sonic consciousness.
Philip Glass: Another powerhouse in music history, Philip Glass has influenced creators from across the board. His resume includes symphonies, rock and pop, and his work covers everything from stage productions to Oscar-nominated film scores. Although he does not consider himself a minimalist, he has nonetheless inspired generations of aspiring musicians seeking a more distilled sound. (Mark Jarnes)