Thursday, May 15, 2008

A High Window

Lately I've been working on High Window, a recent piano work by the Japanese composer Jo Kondo. Kondo is somewhat more elusive composer than his predecessor Toru Takemitsu. Although his official biography says that he's written four books on his musical aesthetics, none of them has been translated into English, and I haven't found much else about him in English either. His music is poorly represented in recordings. The Swiss label hat[now]Art released two albums of his music about ten years ago, one of solo piano music and one of chamber music. Violinist and conductor Paul Zukovsky has also released a couple of albums, one of recent orchestral works coupled with an old recording by the Nexus percussion group, and one of an opera. But most of the albums listed at his publisher's discography are on Japanese labels and out of print. None of his music is available for legal downloads as far as I can determine.

Composer/blogger Daniel Wolf includes his early works among the landmarks of minimalism, but it's a very different minimalism than what is ordinarily found under that rubric (and he's not mentioned in any of the books I have on musical minimalism). In an interview posted at his publisher's site, Kondo addresses the perception of minimalism in his compositions. He prefers to consider his music as the art of being ambiguous, which is another perspective on a music that reduces itself to a few bare essentials. It's just that the essentials that Kondo keeps are different from the ones chosen by Glass, Riley, and the other, more famous minimalists.

Nevertheless, I agree with the minimal assessment, especially with the piano piece entitled High Window. Written in 1996 for pianist Satoko Inoue (who has recorded it twice), High Window is a chorale, a series of softly played chords that, as Kondo wrote in the liner notes for the Hat piano album, "exemplify my own procedures concerning chordal formations and their progressions,... the type of 'harmony' best suited to my personal style." Typically chorales have some kind of melody, so one of the challenges of this piece is to decide whether a melody exists, and, if so, where it might be located. It's not as simple as a Bach chorale, which has four voices throughout, voices that can be traced from one chord to the next, and which sometimes depart from the chordal structure to create a separate entity. Kondo's chords typically have between six and nine notes each, almost all tightly packed into a two-octave span. Traditional tonal voice leading seems irrelevant, although the opening chord recurs eleven times at various points in the piece, including five times in the first minute and four times at the end, including the penultimate position, thus providing a point of stability.

He has a couple of techniques to vary the texture. Although all of the chords during the first minute or so have the same duration, about four seconds, enough time for the quiet sound to decay significantly, almost to silence. In the middle of the piece, he alters the pace by shortening the chords to varying degrees. Three times during the piece, he specifies that the pedal should be held for a two or three chords. One time only, he places the same chord twice in succession (and holds the pedal for these two chords). Four times he slows the tempo briefly and creates a more complex sound; these sections have the lowest notes in the piece and use the pedal to hold all of the notes until the end of the section. Three times, he prolongs a chord after a moment with a quiet minor ninth interval. And for the final minute, he adds the same single high note, like a tiny bell, after every chord.

So what am I to make of this piece? I think the title provides a clue, although this is pure speculation on my part and has no bearing whatsoever in any text by Kondo that I can find. A high window lets in light, but apart from a glimpse of sky and clouds, you can't see out of it. From our perspective below the window, we have to look up, at the ceiling, which is usually painted white, and, apart from some fixtures, is undecorated. Passing people and cars outside the window change the light with their reflections, perhaps sending an occasional bright flash across the ceiling. Otherwise, the light changes slowly, with the hours and with the seasons. Like the reflections in the high window, each chord in the piece exists only for itself. I hear no melody connecting one chord to the next. It's like a slideshow of close textured material, such as tree bark, pine needles or sand, where each picture is just slightly different from the ones before and after.

I've considered how the piece would be different if it had been written for strings, or some set of instruments with more sustain than the piano (and in fact, some of his orchestral works use similar techniques). But the slideshow effect would be completely missing with a more continuous sustained sound, and while each chord has a limpid sound hanging by itself, the sequence brings about a sense of wonder and uncertainty in a music as static as any drone piece one might imagine.

I took the photograph of the library at Biosphere 2, which is at the top of a small tower. I didn't have any photos of the kind of high window I imagined for Kondo's piece, so this one will have to do.

Update: During a coaching session with Kondo at SICPP 2008, his interpretation differed considerably from mine. I've put his comments here.


grasprelease said...

Morton Feldman was highly complimentary of Kondo's work, at least toward the end of his (Feldman's life) an interview from, perhaps, 1982 or so, he says Kondo will be the "Webern of the Nineties"! Very happy you posted on this composer; I've been taking a keen interest in him recently, myself.

Caleb Deupree said...

If you're in Boston in mid-June, there will be a number of concerts featuring Kondo's chamber and piano music as part of the New England Conservatory's summer program.

Minji said...

It was interesting to read your blog, because I'm working on the same piece myself. In fact, I'll have a chance to play it for the composer as part of the program mentioned above.