The sho is an ancient Japanese mouth organ with 17 bamboo pipes, and we’ve come across it before on these pages in some of John Cage’s work (see reviews here and here).
Born in Hiroshima, composer Toshio Hosokawa was initially inspired by Western music, coming to Germany in the 1970s to study with Isang Yun and Klaus Huber. As he became more established he also developed his roots in Japanese traditional music, his work becoming something of a dialogue between the disparate expressive worlds of the archaic East and the modern West, and between music with ceremonial significance and art music created for the concert hall.
Presented chronologically, the earliest of the pieces here is Landscape V, a largely quiet and introspective canvas which describes the mostly gentle undulations of a landscape of the imagination. The sho has an ethereally high range, and Hosokawa deliberately absorbs its tones into high chords from the strings. Paul Griffiths’ booklet notes go into mystic realms when dealing with this music, but on hearing it there are few other ways of putting these sounds other than as the “faint shadow of a celestial light almost entirely beyond our hearing... a miraculous visitant.” The original of this piece was for string quartet, but the increase in numbers creates a rich sonority and a fine sense of almost infinite scale.
In the words of the composer, Ceremonial Dance is related to “the slow deliberate movements of gagaku”, which is the formal music and dance of the imperial Japanese court. Silence and space are a big feature of the music, with more emphatic gestures a strong descriptive element of movement, between the now familiar higher textures from the violins.
‘Sakura’ is a traditional Japanese song about cherry blossoms and the precious delights of spring. Sakura für Otto Tomek is a solo for sho to celebrate the eightieth birthday of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk’s former director. Hearing the instrument alone gives a good sense of its qualities, and Hosokawa’s almost conventional harmonies and suspensions in this adaptation of the song make this sound like a miniature harmonium heard from afar or from above the clouds.
Talking of clouds, Cloud and Light brings us back to the exploration of the interaction between the sho and strings, but also with the added element of sparkling percussion and muted brass. As the title suggests, this is a score of constantly shifting shapes and timbres, the enigmatic world of clouds seen both in terms of stillness and translucency, as well as in brief passages which suggest weight, shadow, turbulence and even a degree of threat with the more urgent and dynamic section about halfway through the piece.
This is the kind of music which will undoubtedly appeal if you are at all attuned with Zen philosophy or Buddhism, both spiritual standpoints which Hosokawa consciously applies in his life and work. The Western orchestra is transformed here into something which has elements of familiarity, but is entirely removed from the established conventions of ‘classical’ composing. Fascinating sonorities and the interaction of orchestra and soloist create new worlds, which will either bring you to undiscovered chambers of the imagination, or have you reaching for the ‘off’ switch or your handiest Beethoven box set. This is the kind of music which, like Cage, requires a different set of expectations to what one might be used to. In fact it’s best to ditch expectations as much as possible and allow the music to be your guide. If you can drop any barriers you may have the music on this CD is like entering a strange and inspiring church with the most remarkable stained-glass windows and an invisible ceiling.
All of the sho works here were written for Mayumi Miyata. She has become well known in the west, already having appeared on the ECM label in Helmut Lachenmann’s “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern”. I have no doubt the sho is an instrument which will insinuate its celestial tones ever further into our bottom-heavy Western consciousness in the years to come. This is another very nicely recorded and highly exotic release from ECM, with fine performances from all concerned.