Western Musicians Take Note of Eerie Japanese Sounds

IN 1967, at the first rehearsal of Toru Takemitsu's piece for Japanese flute, lute, and Western orchestra, members of the New York Philharmonic burst out laughing as soon as they heard the Japanese instruments.

Stunned, Mr. Takemitsu called off the rehearsal. It was a rocky reception to his first efforts to rediscover his roots - the ancient music eclipsed for nearly 100 years by Japan's rush to Westernize.

In the quarter-century since then, however, modern Japanese musicians and composers have persevered. Their struggles to integrate the eerie, often mournful, sounds of their past with the Western music with which they grew up have blossomed. And these days Westerners aren't laughing - they're taking note.

"It's a very exciting time right now - a chaotic, interesting time," says Mari Kimura, a Japanese composer and violinist studying at the Juilliard School in New York. "Until the '60s, we were trying to catch up to Western traditions. That influence is out."

Western music came to Japan only in the late 19th century, after the country embraced the West following 200 years of isolation. But like other Western ways, it took a fast hold.

The differences between Western and Japanese classical music or hogaku are complex. But simply put, Western classical music is more concerned with melody, harmony, and repetition - the building of sound that the listener can recall.

Hogaku - much like some contemporary Western music - is something you don't follow, but rather lose yourself in.

It revolves around loose timing to diverse sounds, including the imitation of nature or the use of silence.

Today, Western music still prevails in Japan for the budding musician or composer. Toho Gakuen School of Music, for example, considered by many to be the top school in the country, has no courses in hogaku.

But in the contemporary music world, a cacophony of styles has emerged from the blend of West and East - from spicing Western scores with Japanese instruments or musical ideas, to jazzing up hogaku with modern technology.

"It's come full circle," says Hilary Tann, a Welsh composer. "Their heritage has been recognized as valid and full and renewing in itself."

And in the United States, modern musicians and composers are listening. Ironically, two Westerners who were making their own discoveries about Asian music - John Cage and Olivier Messiaen - helped inspire many Japanese to return to their musical roots.

"The cutting edge of modern music wants to study this music," says Ronnie Seldin, a New York-based shakuhachi master who plays in an ensemble mixing Japanese instruments and modern music, along with running a shakuhachi school attended by professional musicians and composers.

The instruments are "fascinating in their own right," Ms. Tann notes. "And composers are always looking for new sounds."

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