Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Discovering Toshio Hosokawa through Pianist Momo Kodama

Earlier this month ECM New Series released its second solo album of Japanese pianist Momo Kodama. The title of the album is Point and Line, which is also the title of the second of six piano études written by the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa between 2011 and 2013. This is very much a “programmed” album, because Kodama has chosen to interleave these six études with the twelve solo études that Claude Debussy composed in 1915. Furthermore, Kodama seems to have a deliberate interest in how the individual compositions in both collections relate to each other, because neither set is performed in the order in which it was published.

It is worth beginning by observing that Hosokawa has not gotten a particularly fair shake on the Internet. His Wikipedia page is depressingly skimpy; and the list of his compositions is not even explicitly marked as incomplete (meaning, of course, that the études are not included there). The entry that Yoko Narasaki prepared for Grove Music Online has a bit more substance, but it is still pretty sketchy. At least in this case the list of Hosokawa’s works is explicitly marked as “selective.” The result is that the best “third party” source to consult for information about his études can be found on the sales page for the sheet music provided by the publisher Schott.

Attempts to provide the “program” for this album have been provided in the accompanying booklet by both Kodama and Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich (translated into English by J. Bradford Robinson). Having listened to this album several times, I must confess that I have not been convinced by either of them. Nevertheless, I would not want to let that opinion cast negatively on the album itself. Thus, I shall try to be bold enough to develop my own perspective on Hosokawa based on the sources available to me.

Hosokawa was born in Hiroshima in 1955; but his talents as a composer were shaped in Germany, first at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin by Isang Yun and then at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg by both Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough. (Note that none of these teachers were either Japanese or German.) During his time in Berlin, Freiburg, and the Darmstadt summer courses, Hosokawa had considerable exposure to what came to be called the “new complexity.” However, his own interest tended to techniques based on Asian visual influences in both calligraphy and landscape paintings. As a result he faced the problem of realizing his perspective on Asian creativity through Western techniques and, in the case of these études, an instrument whose very nature had been shaped by the progress of Western music. Thus, three of the six études (including the one after which the album is named) seem to have been conceived as impressions of the “Asian visual” refracted through the capabilities of a “Western” instrument.

This contrasts sharply with Debussy’s approach to his own set of études. Written late in his life, they reflect back on the pedagogical origins of compositions created to develop and refine specific technical skills. As Jungheinrich observes in his booklet notes, that is a practice that basically goes all the way back to Ludwig van Beethoven’s best-known pupil, Carl Czerny (who is recognized by name in the first étude in Debussy’s collection), as well as the two sets of études (Opus 10 and Opus 25) published by Frédéric Chopin. In addressing how this difference in motive reflects back on Hosokawa, Jungheinrich asserts that, for Hosokawa, “‘exercise’ has been wholly sublimated into a spiritual posture.” He then suggests that the “transcendental” études of Franz Liszt might be more appropriate predecessors of Hosokawa’s set by virtue of being “entirely divested of pedagogical dross.”

As a scholar I have to say that I am intensely curious as to how Kodama would reply to Jungheinrich’s assertion. However, I must now go back to my cautionary observation in the third paragraph that “technical” matters of theory should not be allowed to interfere with the in-the-moment practices of listening (not to mention performing). Each of the eighteen tracks on Point and Line makes for a thoroughly engaging opportunity to reap the rewards of serious listening. Kodama has performed all of these pieces frequently, and she has clearly established techniques for presenting them with her own perspectives on expressiveness. From that point of view, the question of whether or not there is a logic to the overall “programming” of the album bears little relevance.

Will listening to Debussy influence how one listens to Hosokawa? Will listening to Hosokawa influence how one listens to Debussy? Personally, I am reluctant to give an affirmative answer to either of these questions. Nevertheless, Kodama’s performances have definitely provided me with new “auditory lenses” for considering Debussy’s études, while, on the other hand, I am more than satisfied with the opportunity to engage with Hosokawa’s music strictly on its own terms. I suppose the result is that, where this album is concerned, I am likely to turn to iTunes to provide me with more selective ways to listen to the tracks.

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