Hosokawa: String Quartets

Photo: Hosokawa: String Quartets

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Toshio Hosokawa Silent Flowers For String Quartet ,
Landscape I For String Quartet,
Landscape V For Sho And String Quartet,
Urbilder For String Quartet,
Blossoming For String Quartet.

Συντελεστές

Mayumi Miyata (Sho).

Quatuor Diotima.

The Sound of Silence

Yonejirô Noguchi (1875–1947), who wrote poetry in both Japanese and English and mediated between these cultures as an essayist, penned the following words in 1914: “Japanese poetry, at least its early variety, differs from Western poetry in the same way that the sound of silence differs from the sound of a voice… No explication can be given on the basis of Japanese literature… Those who cannot decipher from the poems what is not being said will never grasp them.” The things left unsaid are thus just as important as the things said, and their meaning must first be fathomed in astute deduction from the vast wealth of double entendres and multiple ambiguities inherent to the Japanese language.

Hosokawa rarely turns to analogies from early Japanese lyric poetry to explain his music. Far more often he refers to the tradition of calligraphy. He ‘paints’ his compositions on the background of stillness, a canvas of silence. Nonetheless, he is thoroughly familiar with traditional Japanese lyric poetry, having set eighth-century tanka poems from the Manyôshû collection and seventeenth-century haikus by Matsuo Bashô.

Like lyric poetry, calligraphy tends toward momentary forms. A tanka, a short poem consisting of 31 moraes (syllables), invokes a single instant and captures it with precision and musicality. Hosokawa’s compositions often resemble meditations; though seemingly improvised, they are artfully constructed and seek to capture nothing but that single instant. The moment arises; something appears and vanishes, scarcely audible, on the threshold of perceptibility.
Hosokawa’s music invariably reveals a well-considered formal division into multiple sections (usually about twenty bars long) and typical progressions: sound emerges from silence, unfolds from gentle noises to ordinario tone, becomes more distinctive, burgeons into long drawn-out notes or tiny sonic gestures and returns to the interior, to silence. His music frequently evolves gradually toward a definite climax, which often occurs two-thirds of the way through the piece. (Despite this distinctive personal style, his works are strikingly individual.)

Hosokawa carefully varies the manner in which these meditations take place. At the beginning we often hear soft to barely audible noises emerging ex nihilo. After a fairly long spiralling progression, ‘something’ gradually crystallises – a line of seeming motivic specificity in Silent Flowers (1998), a sound-sculpture in Landscape I (1992), a small delicate fissure in the blending and harmonic superposition of colours in Landscape V (1993).

Hosokawa composed Silent Flowers for the Donaueschingen Festival and the Arditti Quartet, who premiered it on 17 October 1998. In Japanese Nô theatre, flower (hana) is a metaphor for the perfect artistic presentation. However, the title also reflects the temporal (and transient) character of this flower, especially in relation to the art of ikebana. “The flowers used are first cut from living plants. Death already stands waiting in the background.” Nonetheless, the flowers burst into bloom before they perish. “Life does not last forever; it is fleeting and evanescent, and it is beautiful for this very reason. This view of the transience of time can be found in all of Japan’s traditional arts.” In ikebana, the flower is cut only after a period of preparation and concentration in which the ikebana artist probes the possibilities inherent in the stem and visualises what the finished flower arrangement will look like.

Hosokawa finds a correlative to this procedure at the opening of the piece “with a three-beat rest and a vertically ‘cut’ sonority (danzokuon) that functions as the end of this rest”. At the same time he refers to calligraphy, comparing a sweeping brushstroke across the paper to the pressure exerted by the bow on the string. A crucial part of this is the silent motion that occurs in space before the brush touches the paper, or the bow touches the string, as well as the silence that follows. The noisy ‘truncated’ sounds then give rise to longer phrases. The motion of the musical line changes from sound to silence and back again with the involvement of various noises. It is then gradually transformed into what Hosokawa calls “a low-pitched song”, which then bursts into flower.

Another piece that Hosokawa wrote for the Arditti Quartet is his string quartet Landscape I (1992), premiered in Tokyo on 21 May 1992. “The principal concern in my Landscape series is to bring the isolated note or sonority to life and to mark the distance of that note from its successor, its shadow, which forms the background. I wanted to present a soundscape with foreground and background.” Unlike Silent Flowers, the piece emerges from a sharp opening impulse followed by a rest, whereas the sharp initial impulse in Silent Flowers forms the end of an initially inaudible motion of the bow. At the climax of the piece we hear a violently vibrating sound-sculpture, vividly primed and accentuated by solo pizzicatos in the cello.

Landscape V for the mouth organ shô and string quartet (1993) was inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko, in which two almost identical colours merge together. But it was also inspired by a natural event: in the Finnish town of Kuhmo, Hosokawa observed clouds of differing density tinged by the setting sun, floating alongside each other and overlapping, all the while changing shape and colour. Landscape V was first performed by Mayumi Miyata and the Sibelius Quartet in Kitakyushu, Japan, on 4 November 1993.

Urbilder (Primordial images, 1980), premiered in Tokyo on 3 April 1981, is the first string quartet that Hosokawa published. Its five movements reveal a clear sectional division: the focus on the initial note – at first sallow, muted and without vibrato, later with a semitone glissando as a concluding vowel sound – followed by a pizzicato, a contrasting sostenuto section, a dramatic escalation and finally a return to silence (molto calmo, religioso).

The string quartet Blossoming (2006/07) was commissioned for the Tokyo String Quartet by the Cologne Philharmonie. The piece elaborates the metaphor of flowering using the image of a lotus, the symbol of purity emerging from ooze, growing toward the light above the surface of the water and bursting into flower. “The pitch B-flat that opens the piece stands for the gentle movements on the surface of the water. The lower registers symbolise the subaqueous processes, the still lower ones the bottom of the pond. Once the bud has reached the surface – the B-flat – it is warmed by the rays of the morning sun and sings of its longing to blossom. The flower and I are one: the blossoming also stands for my inner evolution.” – “In this piece I have used a canonic form of melody derived from gagaku music. It is useful for depicting the melodic process of blossoming, but there is always a backdrop of sustained lines or sonorities.”

Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer
Translation: J. Bradford Robinson

Quotes translated from Toshio Hosokawa: Stille und Klang, Schatten und Licht
Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag, 2012

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