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Newer Than the Sum of Its Parts

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Pro Musica Nipponia returns to L.A. with modern works using traditional Japanese instruments.

February 14, 1999|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For musicians who can harness the seemingly divergent energies of preservation and innovation, the crossroads where cultural traditions and personal inspiration meet has proved particularly fertile in the waning years of this century. Few composers have been more active in this area than Minoru Miki, who has written prolifically in every genre from film scores to opera, including a large body of original music for traditional Japanese instruments.

"Both Japanese and European cultures are standing on the wall now," says Miki, 68. "They cannot continue to develop in their independent ways. I believe that a new culture must be created by the collision of different preceding cultures. So I have never refused either Japanese or European elements in my music, although I am always trying to establish my own identity."

Some of that identity will be established for local audiences when the 12-member Pro Musica Nipponia touring ensemble takes the stage tonight at Marsee Auditorium of El Camino College. Founded by Miki in 1964, Pro Musica Nipponia is a chamber orchestra of Japanese instruments, its kimono-clad musicians now conducted by Takuo Tamura.

"The Japanese name that I gave the ensemble is Nihon Ongaku Shudan, which has a double meaning," Miki reports. "One meaning is a group of Japanese traditional instruments; the other is a music ensemble representing Japan. At the beginning, one of my teachers gave us the name Ensemble Nipponia for foreign use, but I didn't like that name. When my 'Symphony for Two Worlds' had its world premiere in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1981, Kurt Masur presented us as Pro Musica Nipponia, which we have kept."

Although the instruments are traditional--shakuhachi and fue (flutes), shamisen and biwa (lutes), kotos (zithers) and many types of drums--their combination in an orchestra is not. Bringing them together was Miki's first innovation, from which his own style evolved naturally.

"At first, when I organized Pro Musica Nipponia, I thought only that I had a duty to create a sort of musical plaza where all our traditional instruments could gather together. Historically, they never had a chance to play as a total ensemble, which was a shame."

In Japan as elsewhere, the 1960s were a decade of extraordinary cultural ferment and opportunity. It was then, for example, that the late composer Toru Takemitsu renewed his interest in traditional Japanese instruments and that drum-based taiko ensembles, such as the Kodo drummers, embarked on the road to their current international popularity.

"My music and Pro Musica Nipponia have no relationship with other movements from that time, and precede that of other composers and groups by several years," Miki says. "But I certainly respect Takemitsu and Kodo. I think all our movements were fortunate to emerge in the Japan of the '60s."

Raised in a family in which Japanese instruments were played, Miki first encountered European music in a high school glee club. He studied piano and composition in the Western style at the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, and after graduation supported himself writing for films. Most of these were documentaries, although his best-known feature film was the controversially explicit "In the Realm of the Senses" from 1976.

Miki also composed choral music, joining the Tokyo Liedertafel in 1961 and taking that group to Europe in 1968. All of this music combines European and Japanese elements to some degree, but it was the creation of Pro Musica Nipponia that concentrated his energies on the traditional music of his homeland.

"It was only in 1968, four years after I founded Pro Musica Nipponia, that I perceived the true beauties of Japanese traditional music through listening to the playing of a koto genius. Then I studied Japanese classical music seriously, and I suppose my music changed to a new direction."

Miki took Pro Musica Nipponia on its first European tour in 1972. The ensemble was last in Los Angeles in 1988, although it made a brief tour of the U.S. in 1994, including performances of Miki's "Symphony for Two Worlds" with Masur and the New York Philharmonic.

In addition to several earlier pieces by Miki and some Japanese folk and classical music, tonight's program features the local premiere of Miki's "Requiem 99," a piece created specially for this tour--which began Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, and included a concert in the Great Performances series at Lincoln Center in New York--and soloist Evelyn Glennie. This piece is a reworking of Miki's "Concerto Requiem," which was dedicated to the victims of World War II and had the 21-string koto as the solo instrument.

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