Haru no Umi, Michiyo Miyagi (1894-1956)

String Quartet in F Major, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)


The Floating Bridge of Heaven, Donald Reid Womack (1966-)

The Distance of the Moon, Takuma Itoh (1984-)

Window Seat, Thomas Osborne (1978-)



Michiyo Miyagi, Haru no Umi

In many lands, and in many times, a strong and deep association has existed in popular perception between musical ability and blindness. In the last generations, we’ve had Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli, Nobuyuki Tsuji. In nineteenth-century Ukraine, blind bards known as kobzari were performers of traditional music and important repositories and conduits of cultural knowledge. Similar bardic traditions existed among the blind in Ireland. The association between musicality and blindness may be no more than the result of circumstance, with certain musical roles being seen as particularly well-suited for the blind (historically, a disproportionate number of church organists and piano tuners have been blind, for example.) Speculation exists, too, about other factors which might contribute in specific cases to enhanced musical ability among the blind: according to Oliver Sacks, for those who have lost their sight, “the massive visual cortex, far from remaining functionless, is reallocated to other sensory inputs, especially hearing and touch …”

In any case … nowhere has the association between blindness and music been stronger than in Japan. For hundreds of years, the principal performers of the epic Heike Monogatari were biwa hoshi, often-blind performers on the lute-like biwa who, with their shaved heads, were known as “priests,” despite a lack of any actual religious role. (This appears to be a continuation of sorts of a Buddhist-linked tradition of blind musicians originating in India and China.) The shakuhachi was similarly associated with blind beggar-priests, while the largest variety of shamisen, known as tsugaru, was a particular specialty of blind female musicians. In addition, there was the seventeenth-century “Father of the Modern Koto,” Yatsuhashi Kengyō: the kengyō in his name is simply the highest rank to be achieved among blind musicians and masseurs.

A late heir to this long tradition was Michiyo Miyagi (1894-1956) who, losing his sight at the age of eight, was guided toward study of the koto and shamisen. At age eighteen, he reached the rank of kengyō, establishing his mastery of traditional Japanese musical style and technique. Meanwhile, however, spending his first years in the very international city of Kobe, Miyagi also became familiar with Western music. Then, in his teens, he lived in Korea; there, according to ethnomusicologist Bonnie Wade, “Residing beyond the constraints of the traditional music practices … in which he would have had to continue had he remained in Japan, the young man began to compose music, even a little nontraditionally, that is, leaning toward Western music.” Back in Japan, Miyagi proceeded to study “European music theory, composition, violin, and piano,” and at thirty-six joined the faculty of the Tokyo School of Music, where he continued to write fusion works in a style that came to be known as shin nihon ongaku (new Japanese music.)

Haru no Umi, for shakuhachi and koto, was written the year before Miyagi began teaching at the Tokyo School of Music. It was, from the standpoint of reception, the most successful work of shin nihon ongaku, and even became an international hit in 1932, when Miyagi recorded it with French violinist Renée Chemet (who transcribed the shakuhachi part for violin.) The name means “Spring Sea.” The sea in question is Japan’s Inland Sea, which Miyagi saw as a child, before losing his sight.

Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F

Miyagi seems to have had affinities for both French music (he was a fan of Claude Debussy’s music) and water: he wrote other pieces called Mizu no Hentai (“Transformations of Water”) and Seoto (“Rippling Waves.”) It is thus entirely logical to follow his Haru no Umi with a work of Ravel, who is famous for his own watery Jeux d’eau and Ondine, and whose quartet opens with a theme that hints at the pentatonicism found abundantly in Miyagi’s piece: an early critic of the Ravel Quartet compared this theme to “one of those tunes one may hear in a Chinese theater, shrieked out by an ear-splitting clarinet.”

This negative assessment was par for the course for the young Ravel: by the time he completed this string quartet, as a twenty-eight year old Paris Conservatoire student, he had been expelled from the Conservatoire twice, and been rejected for multiple prizes and honors there. The quartet met with a similar reaction: its entry for a prize resulted in Ravel’s third and final expulsion.

Vindication was to be Ravel’s, however, in both the short and near term. This last rejection provoked a scandal leading to regime change at the Conservatoire, with Ravel’s own teacher, the great composer Gabriel Fauré, taking over as director there; while Ravel’s Quartet has subsequently become an indispensable and beloved component of the standard string quartet repertoire.

The quartet’s second movement is particularly famous: it appears in the soundtrack of several movies, including The Royal Tenenbaums, and these days can be heard in commercials for Ancestry.com. The last movement has been considered by some, including Fauré, as too short and inconclusive. Debussy, however, advised Ravel: “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”

Donald Reid Womack, The Floating Bridge of Heaven

Japanese creation mythology speaks of a bridge that connected heaven and earth, a passage by which the gods could access the world below. This floating bridge of heaven, Ame no ukihashi as it was called, presents an evocative image, with myriad mystical possibilities. What would it be like, this bridge whose two ends exist in such utterly different worlds? The idea of standing between two places, not quite existing in either, but sensing both, was the impetus for 天の浮き橋 The Floating Bridge of Heaven. While considering how I might approach the unique ensemble of shakuhachi, shamisen and string quartet — to my knowledge, this is the first-ever piece for this combination — the image struck me as an apt metaphor for combining these instruments from different musical worlds. Evoking both the mystery of the floating bridge and the vastly different realms on either side of it, the piece progresses through sections of widely varying character. Beginning in a shroud of mist, the music seemingly hovers, drifting in and out of focus, as vague wisps of musical ideas float by, forever falling away into the vaporous haze below. As the shamisen begins impelling the music forward, a theme, which will return throughout the remainder of the piece, gradually appears and takes hold. The rhythmic character is interrupted repeatedly, often by a recurring motive that suggests an echo into infinite space. As if passing between earth and heaven, the music shifts between sound worlds, moving in and out of measured time with frequent short, cadenza-like passages for shakuhachi. Eventually, after several climaxes and a driving solo passage for shamisen, the clouds lift briefly to let through a brilliantly luminous glimpse of heaven itself, with time suspended, which just as quickly fades as the opening mist returns and the music quietly evaporates into the ethereal vastitude enveloping the bridge.

Takuma Itoh, The Distance of the Moon

The title of the piece comes from a short story by the Italian writer Italo Calvino from his collection Cosmicomics.  In this imaginative story, Calvino takes a scientific fact – the Earth and the moon have slowly been drifting apart for eons – to beyond the threshold of reality, and imagines a time long ago when the moon was so close to the Earth that people could simply take a long ladder to traverse the two worlds.  The actual story takes place around the time the moon starts drifting just far enough away that the moon-crossing crew begins to have trouble going back and forth, sometimes getting caught hovering between the two worlds, and occasionally even getting stuck on the moon for weeks.

While Calvino’s story is ingenious, my composition is not a retelling of the moon-crossing adventures and mishaps.  Instead, I found the premise of the story to be a great representation of how I could approach a work that used both traditional Japanese instruments (shakuhachi and koto) and the string quartet.  Historically, these two sound worlds have rarely interacted in proximity, but in this work, I wanted to imagine a musical language that would allow me to freely mingle and hover between the two, in the same way the characters in the story are able to freely move from Earth to the moon before the two drifted apart.

Thomas Osborne, Window Seat

There is something both unnatural and transformative in viewing the world from 30,000 feet. Surveying the Earth through the window of a jet, one experiences it from the kind of distance that provides an immense source of perspective. From here, one confronts nature’s beauty and Mankind’s effect on the natural landscape. Window Seat is a series of seven portraits as seen from the air, played without interruption.

Ascent and Acceleration: The strings gradually rise and gain momentum, catapulted into the sky.
Breaking Through: The shakuhachi and koto announce themselves by hammering their way through dense clouds.
Cloud Sculptures: Here the shakuhachi takes a leading role, floating above a sea of clouds that rise up in billowing pillars.
Crop Circles: The landscape of the American West is dotted with circular agricultural fields, their shapes revealed only from above. The strings begin this section, and their circling patterns are traded off to the koto before the entire ensemble joins in.
Endless Blue: A meditation on the immensity of the oceans, the strings swell in and out of harmonies like waves.
Rippling Ranges: The shakuhachi and koto begin with rustling, unsynchronized patterns, rising and falling like mountain peaks.
Descent: The journey completed, instruments echo each other in gently-falling lines, all converging in the end.