Much has been made of the parallels between music and the visual arts: Debussy’s love of Turner's seascapes, Rauchenberg’s White Paintings providing the inspiration for Cage's 4’33. Such was the case with the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ recent Rimpa Reimagined concert at the Japan Society. The program took its name from the Rimpa School of Japanese painting and, more specifically, the work of Sakai Hōitsu—a samurai-turned-monk who was responsible for the form’s resurgence during the 19th century. (The Japan Society's Rimpa retrospective Silver Wind will be on display until January 6, 2013.)
Japanese post-minimalist Mamoru Fujieda's "Gamelan Cherry" was composed with the curious method of recording the surface electric potential charges of a cherry tree, then taking that data and translating it into melodic patterns. Exploring a wide range of tonal extremes, the work’s two movements were knit together by a melodic refrain played by bassist Robert Black and cellist Felix Fan (filling in for Ashley Bathgate, who recently underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon in her finger).
“Gamelan Cherry,” part of a larger set called Patterns of Plants, employed a pentatonic scale reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan music, which was a good starting point for developing the work’s logic. I took issue, however, when Fujieda scored a percussion passage for kempul gongs, an instrument whose deep beauty relies partially from its non-Western tuning system. I found its brief insertion in the piece, for lack of a better discription, Eurocentrically normative.
The Bang On A Can All-Stars
The second premiere of the evening, Vijay Iyer's Rimpa Ephemera, was a three-movement work very characteristically Iyer, filled with interrelated cycling polyrhythms, cyclical tempo transformations, and a sprinkling of spectral harmonies. In the concert program, Iyer described the work as an attempt at “direct translation of a visual experience into a musical experience," which came across in the work's broad melodic strokes. The writing for guitar and percussion was particularly beautiful, although I was surprised by his restraint in the parts for his own instrument, the piano (played here by Vicky Chow).
After intermission, the work SHU (Spells) for Six Players, by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, was performed in its entirety. The work, originally commissioned by BOAC and premiered at the Japan Society in 2004, was accompanied by a video created by the motion-graphic artist Nobuyuki Hanabusa. While the work had its high points, it was a tad underwhelming as a second half. Hanabusa's video was lush and fantastical, a perfect complement to Satoh's ethereal music. Using Rimpa paintings as the base material, the images moved in a way that felt like a pop-up book.
Japan Society Artistic Director Yoko Shioya deserves praise for developing the commissioning project that made this concert possible. One can only hope to see more of the city’s arts institutions engaging in such cross-disciplinary collaborations.