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Composer Toshi Ichiyanagi (1933–2022): “Being in Finland calms my mind”

by Lasse Lehtonen

Toshi Ichiyanagi, who passed away in October 2022, was one of the most influential and internationally acclaimed Japanese composers of contemporary music. Possibly somewhat less known is that he also had a strong connection to Finland. As the founder and chair of the Japan Finland Contemporary Music Society, Ichiyanagi became a focal figure in fostering musical exchange and collaboration between the two countries. In this interview, conducted in Tokyo in 2018, Ichiyanagi talks about the contemporary music scene in Japan, the importance of cross-cultural collaboration – and his appreciation of Finnish cultural life.

It is not an exaggeration to state that Toshi Ichiyanagi is one of the focal figures in the development of Japanese music after World War II. After studying in the United States and working with John Cage in Fluxus, he caused what became known as the “Cage shock” by introducing Cage’s compositional philosophy to Japan in the 1960s. Ever since then, Ichiyanagi has been actively involved in the development of the cultural life in the country. In autumn 2018, he was awarded the most prestigious Japanese cultural honour, the Order of Culture, by Emperor Akihito

Apart from domestic recognition, he is also one of the most internationally acclaimed Japanese composers, having been awarded numerous notable prizes all over the world. It comes as no surprise, then, that he constantly receives commissions for new works. So many, in fact, that he cannot accept them all.

“I’m already over 80, but for some reason my work doesn’t seem to end at all – lately the amount of work has rather increased again,” Ichiyanagi reveals with a laugh. “I have to turn down about half of the commissions.”

Ichiyanagi’s work has never been limited to only composing, however. He earned several awards as a pianist in the prestigious Mainichi Music Competition as a teenager and has been an active and sought-after speaker at prominent cultural events. Apart from these activities, he also runs an artist exchange programme and produces concerts of contemporary music. At the moment, for example, Ichiyanagi is planning the upcoming Suntory Summer Festival – a major cultural event in Japan. While Japanese organisers of music festivals tend to invite Western composers to their festivals, Ichiyanagi decided to follow a different approach.

“I want to highlight what is happening in Japan today. The arts and the economy are facing various problems, and life has become much more complicated than when I was younger. On the other hand, we are also living in a very interesting time. Many new phenomena have been introduced to Japan, and I am interested in knowing how younger composers are dealing with them. That’s why I want to focus on Japanese composers this time.”

Ichiyanagi is particularly fascinated by the versatility of the younger generation’s activities: “For example, composers conduct orchestras and perform contemporary music on the piano. In this way, they engage with music from a broader perspective than just as composers. These kinds of diverse activities are becoming increasingly common among young composers again.”

Considering that Ichiyanagi himself has been actively following the Japanese musical life for several decades, is there anything that he particularly expects from these young composers?

“Rather, I wish they would teach me,” says Ichiyanagi with a smile. “They are very inventive in discovering new methods of expression for instruments and sounds. It’s also important that many of them not only focus on music but also expand the possibilities of expression through cross-artistic collaboration. They represent a different generation from me, and society has changed considerably from the time I was young. This gives rise to completely new ways of thinking.”


Between East and West

Ichiyanagi has explored the differences and similarities between East Asia and the Euro-American sphere in countless musical works and writings. He has keenly adopted various methods of expression from premodern Japanese musical genres to his works of contemporary music, and has argued that the differences between East and West will always remain an important theme for Japanese composers. But how does he see the situation today?

“The question has changed slightly from what it was before, but the theme is still important,” says Ichiyanagi. He points out that although he is Japanese, his educational background is in “Western” music – which has effectively become the music that most Japanese know the best.

“I have not adopted Japanese or East Asian music naturally but have had to study it consciously. I think there is also this conception in Western countries that we should address our own cultural heritage in a new way. Both cultural spheres now share an understanding that we need to open our eyes to the value of all the world’s cultures instead of just developing our own from its own premises.”

This is something that has changed from the older days: “For a long time, Japan just tried to emulate other countries, and many composers went to study in Europe and America. But as a downside, the ability to emulate became the main goal. For the next generation, however, this was no longer so important. For them, it has been more important to think about their own expression.”

Today, science and technology are advancing at a tremendous pace, often in tandem with economic development. Ichiyanagi points out, however, that cultural heritage should be considered at least as important. “The human world will be impoverished without an appreciation of cultural heritage. It is great how much science and technology have advanced, but they need to be accompanied by cultural and intellectual development. I think art is the key to such a development.”

When Ichiyanagi studied in America, John Cage did not teach him as much about compositional techniques as he did about compositional philosophy. Ichiyanagi recalls that Cage encouraged him to constantly think about why he composes music. For example, Ichiyanagi’s works in recent years have addressed complex social issues, such as the 2011 tsunami, nuclear disaster and environmental crisis in Symphony No. 8, Revelation (2012), and war and migration in Symphony No. 9, Diaspora (2014).

“I have not adopted Japanese or East Asian music naturally but have had to study it consciously”, says Toshi Ichiyanagi. Photo: Koh Okabe.

Freedom of expression and the composer’s role

What about musical performance – is the question of technique and philosophy also reflected there? According to Ichiyanagi, yes – and here, too, we can observe certain differences between Japan and other countries: “For example, the things European and Japanese conductors and musicians do in orchestral rehearsals are opposite with each other. The Japanese are technically very skilful, but when they rehearse a new work, their first main goal is to get it in a condition where it can be performed from start to finish without problems. This is necessarily not a bad approach as such, but the downside is that from this starting point it is difficult to raise the artistic level any further.”

Ichiyanagi compares the situation to Finland, where he says the focus is more on the different musical components from the beginning. “In Finland, the conductor often stops the music after about 15–20 seconds. After that, he discusses with the orchestra the details of the score and how the section should be performed. The section is rehearsed until it sounds good. This is repeated as the piece progresses. In other words, it takes a longer time to even play the work to the end. I feel that this approach is more concerned with thinking about the musical contents,” Ichiyanagi says.

In his work, Ichiyanagi has explored the concept of freedom in its various forms. He regards this as an important element of premodern Japanese music: for him, “freedom” is a more significant inspiration from Japanese musical heritage than, for example, the quotation of Japanese melodies.

“There is no leader or conductor in traditional Japanese music – not even in ensemble playing. If possible, musicians should not be made to play in a way where they just pedantically follow instructions. Otherwise – to put it bluntly – they become the composer’s slaves. When performing, one should also think more about the philosophical dimension and not just concentrate on playing technically correctly. And, of course, composers should write music that makes this possible.”

For the same reason, Ichiyanagi does not like to give detailed instructions to musicians practising his works before a performance. He has even been characterised as a “nice” composer by musicians, but he denies this characterisation with a laugh. He just views the issue from a different perspective.

“Human beings are not machines, and they also make mistakes. It is important to understand this. In recent years I have also returned towards the freedom of my earlier works, including a move away from fully scored works.”

For example, Ichiyanagi’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Jazz (2009), contains improvised sections, and Symphony No. 9 gives musicians some freedom of choice in the material they perform. In this way, the works combine the freedom of Ichiyanagi’s early output with the fully scored approach of his later works.


Finland as an example

Ichiyanagi believes it is important that young composers continue to search for and express their originality.

“I know people and artists from different fields, and many of them are interested in working with musicians. It would be important to further develop the possibilities of combining different forms of art. If musicians only work with each other, the result will be limited.”

Ichiyanagi believes that Finland in particular currently offers good conditions for artistic activity. The Japan Finland Contemporary Music Society, which Ichiyanagi founded with professor and cellist Seppo Kimanen in 2010, has actively promoted both Finnish and Japanese music by organising concerts and discussion events on Finnish and Japanese contemporary music in Japan. The society has also participated in events such as the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence in 2017. It works closely with the Embassy of Finland, where it has organised several concerts.

Finland has made a deep impression on Ichiyanagi: “I feel that people in Finland hold culture in high esteem. This is evident, for example, in the cooperation with the staff of the Embassy of Finland. Finland may have a small population, but that may actually be its strength. Being in Finland makes me feel relieved.”

The connection between Ichiyanagi and Finland was born thanks to Kimanen: “While working as a cellist, Kimanen also founded and led the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival for a long time. That's fantastic – the festival became famous not only in Finland but also internationally. It’s hard to imagine something like that in Japan. Here, music universities do have their own festivals, but there’s nothing like Kuhmo.”

Finland also inspired Ichiyanagi’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Finland (2012), which was premiered by Izumi Tateno. Despite its title, the work does not contain quintessential “Finnish” elements, such as allusions to Sibelius’s works or Finnish folk songs, but is rather based on Ichiyanagi’s positive images of the country. For example, he is impressed by the ways in which Finland has solved difficult issues, such as supporting cultural life or the disposal of nuclear waste.

“The concerto was born quickly and naturally, without too much thinking – as if it composed itself. It emerged naturally from the images I had of Finland,” Ichiyanagi reminisces about the compositional process. “I am fascinated by the flexibility of the Finns, which is also evident in the work of Finnish contemporary composers. It seems to me that in Finland it is always considered what kind of outcome would make the people as happy as possible and what would be the best environment for the development of art. In other words, there is an awareness of the importance of these things in life.”

This, according to Ichiyanagi, is the essence of something important: “In Finland, life and music belong to the same world. This is the thing that most calms my mind in Finland.”

This interview was originally published as a longer version in Finnish in the book Japanilainen musiikki: Taiko-rumpujen kuminasta J-poppiin (Japanese Music: From the Rumble of the Taiko Drums to J-Pop; Gaudeamus, 2019) by Lasse Lehtonen. It is republished here in English with permission from the publisher.

Translation: Lasse Lehtonen

Featured photo: Koh Okabe