Steffen Schleiermacher

Asia Piano Avantgarde: Japan, Vol. 1

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Asia Piano Avantgarde Japan, Vol. 1, is the first installment in what promises to be a cycle of discs from MD&G focusing on Asian experimental music for piano played by the ubiquitous Steffen Schleiermacher. It focuses mostly on pieces composed before 1975, although a couple of these works date from the 1990s. The music, by Toshi Ichiyanagi, Toshio Hosokawa, Kazuo Fukushima, Jo Kondo, and Joji Yuasa, mainly demonstrates the enormous influence that the 1950s-era chance compositions of John Cage, with their long pauses and short bursts of sound, had on Japanese composers of the late twentieth century. This influence was so prevalent among these composers that the pieces are barely distinguishable from one another, or at least this is the impression one comes away with upon hearing Asia Piano Avantgarde Japan, Vol. 1.

In Schleiermacher's notes, he defends his program by stating that "it is only very late that Japanese composers began to occupy themselves creatively with their own musical tradition" -- nonsense. Perhaps it would not seem so late if Schleiermacher had looked into the output of composers such as Minoru Miki or Toru Takemitsu, whose piano music represents perhaps the best-known example of Japanese avant-garde from the very period Schleiermacher is exploring. No one can deduce what Schleiermacher intends to cover in subsequent volumes of "Asia Piano Avantgarde Japan," but by limiting himself to work that might have been suitable for performance at the Darmstadt Festival, and stating that this music is truly representative of all Japanese avant-garde music in the 1960s seems fundamentally flawed. Such 1960s-era Western festivals had a limited compass of what was considered "acceptable" in terms of style, and in many cases, composers who were outsiders to the avant-garde mainstream composed music intended to "fit in." Of the works here, only the Aphorismen II of Mark Ishii and Joji Yuasa's early Cosmos Haptic possess a distinct profile from the others, with the Yuasa work sounding a little like Messaien, in the manner of Takemitsu's earliest piano compositions. Comparatively, Jo Kondo's High Window is so minimal in texture as it does not seem to be on the recording for most of the track.

A whole disc devoted to Ichiyanagi might have been preferable to this collection, which, despite being a survey, fails to establish what makes Japanese avant-garde music different from other kinds of international experimental styles. Even those who can't resist Asia Piano Avantgarde Japan, Vol. 1, will need a LOT of patience to wait through the long stretches of silence and to pay close attention to the track listing to tell the composers apart. Some of us who enjoy contemporary Japanese music can think of better ways to spend our time than trying to make sense of MD&G and Schleiermacher's Asia Piano Avantgarde Japan, Vol. 1.

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