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Toshio Hosokawa composer in residence @ Tonhalle Zurich
Toshio Hosokawa is the most famous Japanese composer and this season’s Creative Chair at Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. In his tonal language, Hosokawa combines Western contemporary with traditional Japanese music. Moritz Weber interviewed the composer.
Two years ago, Toshio Hosokawa was commissioned by pianist Rudolf Buchbinder to compose a variation on Diabelli’s famous waltz in C major, over which Beethoven had once composed his monumental 33 variations. “I love piano sounds,” says Hosokawa in conversation, “but there are so many notes in this waltz”. His variations therefore sound as if in slow motion, allowing individual notes plenty of time to unfold. Because of the slow tempo, the piece became representative of his, says the Japanese composer, and even the tonal elements fit his musical language, as in the last 2 to 3 years he has become more and more interested in tonal music again, “and in the future I would also like to compose some tonal music.”
A way to traditional Japanese music through studies in Germany
He found his own language, which combines Far Eastern and Western aesthetics, through a diversion. “My family was very Japanese,” he says. With an ikebana master as grandfather, who also loved Nō singing as well as the tea ceremony and a mother who always played the koto, it was a bit “too much” for him and the traditional Japanese seemed like old-fashioned, even “boring”.
As a piano student, he was particularly enthusiastic about the classical-romantic repertoire, such as Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, so Hosokawa went to Germany to study composition with Isang Yun (in Berlin) and Klaus Huber (in Freiburg i. B.).
Klaus Huber, composition professor of Toshio Hosokawa with his Far Eastern inspired piece Plainte – Lieber spaltet mein Herz, Contrechamps 2018, in house- production SRG/SSR
At Berlin’s Meta Music Festival in the 1970s, contemporary European music was combined with traditional music from all over the world. György Ligeti with Indonesian gamelan music, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra with temple music from Japan. There, Hosokawa heard and experienced the music of his homeland from a European point of iew and in a completely different way, discovering its beauty. Mixed with homesickness and thanks to the encouragement of his teachers, Hosokawa began to combine Far Eastern sound language and philosophy with the European ones.
Differences between Western and Eastern aesthetics
An important difference between European and Japanese music is that the latter is not absolute music, but always serves as an atmosphere or background for certain events such as ceremonies or dances. It is bound to a place. European music, on the other hand, is an architecture that can be played in a variety of places, just as a sculpture or painting can be transported somewhere, Hosokawa says.
“In the Japanese musical tradition, the single note is very important. I always say our music is a caligraphy in time and space and a musical line is like a brushstroke, with a beginning and an end”. The tones are vertical events, like a calligraphic brushstroke on a white paper. In complete contrast to the groups of sounds in Western music that are linked into motifs, e.g. the famous “ta-ta-ta-taaaaaa” from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Hosokawa sings.
Nō theatre and Gagaku music
“The traditional Japanese Nō theatre plays from the 12th or 13th century are about healing souls and this idea is also very important to me,” says Hosokawa: “The deceased come back, tell about the afterlife, heal their souls through dance and song and then return to the realm of the dead.” Musically, the “calligraphy chant” is formative, as are the percussions: heavy beats that cut through time quasi vertically, without opening up large horizontal spaces, as the impulses are events in themselves. This is something he always points out when he works with musicians on his pieces, as he did this season as Creative Chair of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. “These violent vertical cuts are stronger than normal strokes, as are the sudden changes in dynamics. I always say: think when you play, you are painting a calligraphy. Don’t think too formally, but that every moment is a most important moment, every moment an eternity.”
Toshio Hosokawa, Ferne Landschaft III – Seascapes of Fukuyama (1996), Basel Sinfonietta, conductor Baldur Brönnimann 2016, in house-produktion SRG/SSR
Hosokawa also likes the microtonal colourings, which are important in shaping the Nō theatre tones. “There are always small changes around the central tones and I want to hear these, because they make the tones come alive”. Again, in the interview, he sings out a long drawn-out tone and traces the course of the tone with his hand in the air.
The mother chord of the Shô
Japanese gagaku music is about 500 years older and originally comes from China and Korea, serving as a ceremonial court music, with the sound of Japanese mouth organ shô being omnipresent. It symbolises eternity in the background, while above it melody instruments such as hichiriki or the dragon flute ryūteki “draw” sonic calligraphies.
Within shô, it is also possible to directly experience breath and circling time. Hosokawa calls this the “mother chord” and he has written various pieces for or with shô. These cycles are also very important to him, as is the idea that gagaku is a cosmic music rather than a human-emotional one.
Natural disasters as opera material
Toshio Hosokawa has become world famous for his unique tonal language and compositions in all genres. Many of his works revolve around natural disasters such as the devastating Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. “My goal is to become one with nature through music and composing. Actually, Japanese nature is very beautiful with its seasons, but not always friendly to people. I experienced this with the tsunami and I began to think about nature in a completely different way. With my fourth opera “Stilles Meer”, I wanted to write a lament for the victims of this drastic event, or a requiem for the dead.” In this piece, Hosokawa has not only composed the elemental force, but also the terrible images of loss, such as children’s shoes or toys floating in the flooded areas.
Toshio Hosokawa, the opera Stilles Meer is for Toshio Hosokawa a lament to the victims of the 2011 tsunami, world premiere Staatsoper Hamburg 2016
The composer is currently composing his sixth opera, which will again revolve around natural disasters, featuring a young couple, a Japanese man and a refugee from Ukraine, who visit devastated places, various “hells” in the sense of Dante’s Inferno, where they see the effects of natural disasters, according to Hosokawa. The opera is scheduled to premiere during the 2025/26 season.
Inner and outer peace
To find his inner peace, Hosokawa likes to walk in the forest or by the sea near his home in Nagano. He also meditates daily, sitting quietly and doing nothing for a few minutes. A source of strength for his contemplative state music, punctuated with eruptive outbursts.
His music should also be a place of contemplation and prayer for the audience. “In Japan, there are many carved wooden statues by anonymous artists where people pray. I want my music to have a similar meaning. It may not save people, but it can somehow protect them.
Spirituality also plays a role in his most recent works: “Ceremony” for flute and orchestra (premiere 2022) and “Prayer” for violin and orchestra (premiere 2023).
The solo instrument in these two pieces acts like a shaman, a mediator between this world and beyond, says Hosokawa, receiving and hearing the elemental force Ki (気). “I find this thought very interesting: composing, not as an expression of a person or his ego, but as receiving what is already there; the elemental force of sounds, the sometimes lovely, sometimes dramatic flow of the tones. “The orchestra represents nature and is therefore in and around the solo instrument or the shaman. He communicates with it, carries out conflicts and in the end should find harmony with it”.
Hosokawa sees himself as a sound engineer of this elemental force, and says: “I would also like to become a shaman” – if he is not one already.
When he rehearses his works with orchestras or musicians, as currently, during his time as Creative Chair of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, it is above all the pulsation and sense of time that sometimes need a little more work.
Zurich Tonhalle-Orchestra: Toshio Hosokawa, Creative Chair, Saison 2022/23
sunday, 26.3.23: chamber music
wednesday, 29.3.23: Meditation to the victims of Tsunami for orchestra.
broadcasts SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, Mittwoch, 22.3.23, 20h, 25.3.23, 21h: Musikschamane und Vertoner der Urkraft, Autor Moritz Weber
Hyper Hyper!? Hyper Duo masters the art of escalation to excess. Pianist Gilles Grimaitre and percussionist Julien Mégroz consistently focus on energy, rhythm and satire. There seem to be no musical styles nor performance boundaries for the duo. Moving between classical avant-garde and pop-rock, Hyper Duo transcends common perceptions in a playful and humorous way. Their new programme Hyper Grid will be premiered at the Gare du Nord – Bahnhof für Neue Musik Basel.
The two artists define Hyper Duo as ‘experimental band’. Julien Mégroz comes from Lausanne and after studying there, he specialised in contemporary music at Basel’s FHNW. Gilles Grimaitre, from Geneva, studied at Bern’s HKB and went on winning a scholarship at Frankfurt’s international Ensemble Moderne Akademie. Both describe themselves as performers, improvisers, composers as well as project inventors.
Overcoming stylistic and genre boundaries and expanding horizons is the central focus of their duo, always in close collaboration with other artists and musicians. Energetic and humorous, Hyper Duo moves between traditional composition from the classical avant-garde, rocking electro-energy and absurd poetry. They draw inspiration both from popular and cultivated music.
New pieces for their chosen instrumentation as well as modern classics, supplemented with experimental electronics, video or even objects, form the musical core, with compositions provided by likeminded musicians or themselves.
Several Hyper programmes already stand for the unconventional approach to traditional concert formats, bearing titles like Hyper Cut, Hyper Stuck, Hyper Fuzz oder Hyper Rift.
Hyper Rift, Trailer ©Musikfestival Bern 2020
Hyper Rift, for example, consisted in a light and sound installation controlled by seismographic data at the Bern 2020 Music Festival. During a live performance inside Bern’s Monbijou Bridge, the duo, together with video artist Pascal Meury, made tectonic shifts audible and tangible. With percussion and synthesizer, they also pushed the volume to a limit just tolerable.
In Hyper Temper, a trio programme with percussionist Miguel Angel Garcia Martin, the two questioned the grand piano as instrument for its role in the music business, music history, but also as an everyday life object. In Cathy van Eck’s ‘pièce d’ameublement‘, it became an ornamental plant-bearing piece of furniture and thus symbol of bourgeois lifestyle in the 19th century.
In Hyper Grid, the two now perform again on their core instruments – amplified piano, drumset and electronics – as a follow up to their previous projects Hyper Fuzz and Hyper Cut.
Hyper Cut humorously complemented drumset, piano and electronics with video, voice and objects in new works by Simon Steen-Andersen, Sarah Nemtsov or Wolfgang Heiniger, among others.
Hyper Duo: Hyper Cut, Simon Steen-Andersen, difficulties putting it into practice, Video ©Hyper Duo
The Hyper Fuzz project, on the other hand, combined new, explicitly groovy pieces and modern classics with references to pop, rock and jazz, supplemented with electronic interludes by young Swiss sound inventor Cyrill Lim. Works by Frank Zappa, who himself combined electronic and electronic music in aesthetic projects, were heard alongside music by Stockhausen or young Lausanne composer Nicolas von Ritter. The programme was performed in classical concert halls and festivals as well as in rock and jazz clubs.
Hyper Duo / Hyper Fuzz @Taktlos Festival Zürich 2018, Video ©Hyper Duo
In the new project, Hyper Duo deepens its collaboration with two artists:
Serbian composer Marko Nikodijevic, who joins them himself on electronics for the world premiere of his grid/index [ I ] for the Hyper Duo. In his works, Nikodijevic likes to combine traditional instruments with digital sounds, using techno and pop techniques. Grid / index [ I ] is based on a work of the same name by artist Carsten Nicolai, a huge collection of drawings of two-dimensional grids and patterns. Nikodijevic translates the reference into simple rhythmic and melodic patterns reminiscent of the so-called ‘minimal techno’ of the 90s.
Kevin Juillerat, composer from Lausanne, refers to Nikodijevic in his work L’Être-On. His piece is based on a text by the surreal poet Antonin Artaud from a radio programme the artist produced himself in the 1940s. Juillerat explores the analogy between poetry and sound, creating a rhythmic, electronics-infused half-hour ‘mini-oratorio’.
Kevin Juillerat, le vent d’orages lointains, for piano and strings, UA 2018
The two experimental musicians from the French-speaking part of Switzerland never fail to offer subversively funny but also musically poetic programmes, which is plain to see in their numerous videos. Whether hyper hyper can still be intensified is best determined live in the new programme Hyper Grid, on June 2, at the Gare du Nord and from November onwards at several other venues. Especially since live concerts are now possible again, after such a long time.
The Gare du Nord – Bahnhof für Neue Musik Basel invites ensembles from the French-speaking part of Switzerland during three seasons for the Focus Romandie series. Hyper Grid is the third and last programme of this first season.
The new works “L’Être-On” for amplified piano, percussion, voice and effect pedals by Kevin Juillerat and “grid/index [ I ]” for drumset, piano and electronics by Marko Nikodijevic will be premiered.
Indigne de nous, Hyper Duo’s first studio album will be released on June 5, 2021 by Everest Records.
Autumn is when the musical seasons traditionally start, in Ticino as elsewhere. Contemporary music has its own niche in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, having a peculiar geographical structure with a relatively large area and uneven distribution of population.
Except for punctual or short events, the continuous presences, spread throughout the year are actually few. Among them, two in particular have marked and are still marking the cultural diversity of Italian-speaking Switzerland.
The first is the 1977 founded association Oggimusica, which has distinguished itself for years as the only institution organizing events in the most diverse present genres: from contemporary music to jazz, from rock to improvisation and world music. Many important artists, now considered part of the musical history of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Cathy Berberian, Steve Reich, Egberto Gismonti, Fred Frith, Laurie Anderson, Iva Bittova, Irène Schweizer, Luciano Berio and many others have been invited – often for the first and only time – to Ticino by Oggimusica.
Alberto Barberis: Oratorio Virtuale, A Stradella reloaded
The peripheral situation of the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland was obviously very different at the end of the seventies compared to the present day, but Oggimusica remains one of the few opportunities for musicians from other Swiss regions to have their contemporary voice heard in Ticino. During this 2019-2020 season, for example, this will be the case for the Neuma ensemble and their interplay between the voices and saxophones of Dominique Vellard and Giacomo Schiavo (tenors) and Pierre-Stéphane Meugé and Marcus Weiss (saxophones), skilfully moving between ancient and contemporary music, but also for the improvised music of Âme Sèche (Walter Fähndrich, Remo Schnyder, Christy Doran, Benedikt von der Mühll) or the Mondrian Ensemble with its “no reality” programme. These are just a few “Swiss examples” of programming.
Nadir Vassena, Markus Weiss, ‘Materia oscura’
Another more recent initiative, which has reached its fourth season, is EAR: Electro Acoustic Room. Music as pure listening experience. Acousmatic music is a young art form, originating from the radio, born only a hundred years ago. If the label “Contemporary music” is already ambiguous, stating everything and nothing at the same time, that of “electronic music” is perhaps even more so. The soul behind EAR can be seen, or rather heard, from the programming. It’s not club music, nor 90’s raves or Zurich’s Street Parade, but rather the search for a moment dedicated to intimate, concentrated listening. The verb “to hear” (sentire) can also mean or be synonym of “to feel” in the Italian language and there is an archaic link between the skin and the hearing related to the embryo’s development, as both organs – ear and skin – develop from the same germ layer. Just as touching always gives a feeling to be touched, when speaking, one can always hear the own voice. Knowing how to listen, to oneself and the others, is underestimated and should never be taken for granted as it is the foundation not only of musical experience, but also a fundamental aspect in the sphere of human relations.
RSI Rete due: Neo
Radio remains the privileged space to talk about (and listen to) these issues, both by vocation and institutional duty. It is therefore a pleasure to learn, that from October 29, 2019, every last Tuesday of the month at 20:05, Retedue of RSI will make room for contemporary music with ‘neo’, a programme curated by Valentina Bensi, that will look for and find material as well as themes on neo.mx3.ch, the new SRG SSR platform for Swiss contemporary music.
Esther Flückiger, Verso Nikà, 2019
Radio broadcasts neo / RSI, curated by Valentina Bensi:
Monday, December 23: meet Esther Flückiger, composer, representing Switzerland at the ISCM World Music Days 2020 in New Zealand.
Tuesday, October 29: meet Alberto Barberis, new artistic director of Oggimusica
Concerts Oggimusica: LAC teatrostudio, 12.1. / 16.2. / 1.4. / 15.5. / 5.6.2020
Concerts EAR: LAC teatrostudio, 28.2. / 20.3. / 24.4.2020