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Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio

March 3, 2016

St Andrew’s on the Terrace
28 February 2016
As the programme pointed out, this was ‘real Festival fare’: three masterful Japanese musicians demonstrating what their instruments can do in traditional and modern repertoire. The trio consisted of Tosiya Suzuki (recorder) Mayumi Miyata (sho) and Nanae Yoshimura (koto).

Each of the trio played a solo performance of a traditional Japanese piece. The solo sho “Banshiki no Choshi” opened the concert, and instantly the usual associations that you’d have with the label ‘traditional’ were demolished. The sho is built to play a certain set of more or less dissonant clusters/chords, and at first sounds like someone randomly blowing into a harmonica. Because it can be played inhaling and exhaling, the piece was a continuous sound that slowly shifted from harmony to harmony, and dynamics gradually swelled and disappeared. The piece was like a welcome to a very mystic and esoteric ceremony, which was perfect!

An example shō piece:


Mayumi Miyata playing the shō. Sourced from here.

In the middle of the concert was a recorder version of a piece (Tsuru no Sugomori/Nesting of Cranes) traditionally played on shakuhachi. Tosiya Suzuki studied ‘classical’ recorder (including a lot of modern works!) in Europe, and this piece was a great demonstration of the way that techniques thought of as ‘modern’ or ‘extended’ in the Western tradition are an integral part of Japanese shakuhachi performance. I was really amazed at the way that the apparently much less flexible recorder could be coaxed into producing a very similar effect to the shakuhachi. Technically this was a very impressive performance but this was all put to work to create a musical journey that was a struggle between chaos and movement and meditation.

The final member of the trio was last to perform ‘traditionally’ but she also put in an extra feature: vocal accompaniment! Once again it was amazing to hear and see a master performing a masterpiece on an unfamiliar instrument and giving a totally entrancing introduction to a foreign aesthetic.

This was the piece:


A Japanese woman playing the koto, drawn in 1878 by Hasegawa Settei.
From wikimedia commons.

The non-traditional pieces were split between three New Zealand composers who’d written new works for this combination of instruments, and two modern Japanese composers who had also created their own new ways to use these sounds.

There was a kind of similarity between the New Zealand works, which were all fairly static and not easy to get into. Chris Gendall’s Choruses made use of small fragments of music which were echoed around and transformed by what the three instruments could do. It mostly came across as a recorder solo with accompaniment, but combined the instruments in different ways to create strange but compelling blends of sound.

Samuel Holloway’s Mono (もの) was a lot more concentrated and (in keeping with the name) single minded. It only used a small number of tones and a generally constant tempo, and was an experiment with attacks, suble rhythmic offsets, and tonal variations. It was quite hypnotic and the performers did get across the subtleties beautifully, but the piece was probably too austere for most! I appreciated the dedication to exploring aspects of sound and music that are usually too subtle to be of foreground

Dylan Lardelli joined the group on guitar for the final piece. This was very similar in style to Gendall’s one, and I didn’t think the guitar added a great deal to the texture. Coming at the end of the concert this piece didn’t make a huge impact as anything new after all the other things we’d heard.

As for the Japanese works, the first was “Phoenix Chicken” by Osamu Kawakami. In a similar way to the solo recorder piece this highlighted the frantic madness and rapid reactions of the bird as well as some more placid moments. The piece wasn’t easy listening but I think it had more direction and theatre to it than Gendall’s work which it followed. It felt closer to the Japanese traditional pieces, whereas the New Zealand works were more akin to other 20th Century and beyond Western works. It was really interesting to have this contrast and this was a pretty fun piece too. Especially notable for the recorder player’s sometimes violent gestures and physically intense playing of an instrument normally considered rather simple and child-like!

The only other piece I haven’t talked about was Toshio Hosokawa’s Bird Fragments IIIb:

It followed Samuel Holloway’s work and was only for recorder and shō alone. It included the Great Bass Recorder which looks like this:


The great bass recorder. Sourced from here.

As you can hear this piece is quite wild and once again is not a ‘pretty twittering morning’ type of bird piece. I like it for its excitement and the unpredictable shifts and extreme dynamic and pitch contrasts from the recorder. The sho was again just a backing instrument to the recorder chaos. I think the best aspects of this piece were in the intensity and danger of the recorder part which almost made me (and I think much of the audience) feel under physical threat from the screaming recorder. I can imagine birds swooping at me when I listen again!

(There’s a bunch of other Hosokawa works on YouTube if you’re interested)

Despite a few moments which tended towards the more boring side of modern/intellectual that sometimes happens with new compositions, this concert was really excellent. All the compositions took risks and tried to create something new and interesting, rather than relying on the traditional sounds and capabilities of the instruments. The traditional playing was spellbinding though! I felt very lucky to get to hear three performers who were totally masterful, able to give compelling performances of strange and unfamiliar repertoire on unusual instruments. A wonderful trip with relentlessly creative performers and composers, proving that there is still far more to say with music, inspirational!

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