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On my music and beyond: Engawa, listening out

by Juha T. Koskinen

"During my three-month teaching period [in Japan], I learned greater respect for individuals who build bridges between cultures that are distant from each other, both geographically and mentally," writes composer Juha T. Koskinen. This column is part of the series where composers and musicians write about their music.

The past Year of the Coronavirus had little to offer professional musicians except cancellations and bitter disappointments. As a freelance composer, I have had my share of these, but fortunately one important project went ahead despite everything that was going on. I was invited again to the Aichi University of the Arts in Japan as a visiting professor, and by some miracle I was able to travel there in October 2020.

The time I spent in Japan was fruitful and inspiring, just as it had been on the previous similar occasion in 2016. Before I left for Japan, I asked every student to e-mail me one of their compositions and a brief account of themselves and their areas of interest. A musical score, even if created on a computer, is a sort of “handwriting sample” that reveals a lot about the student’s background and strengths.

As the teaching progresses, I usually bring in an existing score to study alongside composition exercises, to provide what might be called “peer support” in the student’s current situation. Some of the scores I used were works of my own, but more often I drew on works by some of my Finnish colleagues. It felt only natural to juxtapose the works of late 20th-century composers with those of composers who used to be fellow students of mine at the Sibelius Academy. For me, this was a useful way of updating my knowledge of just how diverse Finnish music is in the 2000s.

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Anyone working in a far-off land must keep in mind that our first impressions are not necessarily correct. We tend to latch on to anything that seems familiar, which may lead to a vicious circle of misunderstandings. During my three-month teaching period, I learned greater respect for individuals who build bridges between cultures that are distant from each other, both geographically and mentally. Patient and extended exploration and study are needed to get Japanese people to understand Finland as something other than just an exotic wonderland of Northern lights and herds of reindeer.

Akira Kobayashi, Professor of Composition at the Aichi University of the Arts, is an excellent example of such a bridgebuilder. He studied composition with Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy in the 1990s and continues to follow the Finnish musical scene actively. In conversations with Akira-sensei, I was able to trust that he was familiar with many of the peculiarities of Finnish culture and interactions through personal experience. In this context, I felt safe to make observations of Japanese life and culture by focusing on details that in some other company might only serve to pile up more misunderstandings.

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As the coronavirus pandemic restricted my sphere of physical activity to the immediate vicinity of my Berlin home in spring 2020, I began to explore broader vistas in space and time in my compositions. One of my major composition projects in the first spring of the pandemic was the Hoshi Mandara suite for piano. Pianist Kimihiro Yasaka was meant to premiere the entire suite at the chamber music hall of the Aichi University of the Arts in October 2020, but the concert was postponed. I asked Yasaka, Itaru Ogawa and Kyoko Fukushi to make recordings at home of some of the miniatures, and we released the videos on my website.

Some of the titles I have given – such as EN, TEN, NEN, Mori, Unabara, Seirei – may sound like spells or nursery rhymes. Every listener is of course free to make any associations they like, but the titles have specific meanings in Japanese. Here, I would like to point particularly to the miniature titled EN [relationship or destiny] and Itaru Ogawa’s performance of it. It is a musical interpretation of a constellation in a Star Mandala, embedding quotes from a set of variations by Clara Schumann. It is preceded in the video by two other miniatures, Maa-aria and NEN.

Pianist Itaru Ogawa performs Juha T. Koskinen's Hoshi Mandara No.1-3.

I have been going to Japan to work and study fairly regularly since 2004. Each of my trips has deepened and broadened my horizons as a composer and as a human being in general. Through my studies in Buddhist ritual singing, Shōmyō, I have connected with a living tradition perpetuated in an unbroken continuum since the Middle Ages.

Buddhist temples in Japan are built of wood and are easy to move around in rain or shine, since they are always flanked by porch-like broad, covered walkways known as engawa. These are convenient both for admiring the gardens surrounding the temples and for accessing the rooms inside. In an ideal location, the porch offers a view of the garden close at hand and, through the building, of the landscape beyond, with a mountain dimly visible in the distance. The natural sounds of the garden mingle with the sounds from within the house.

During one of my trips to Kyōtō some years ago, as I was waiting for the start of a performance by the Kanze Noh theatre company, I ended up sheltering from the rain in the engawa walkways of a temple I had not previously visited. It was Shōren-in, surrounded by ancient camphor trees, whose garden contains the Pond of the Nāga Dragon God. The dreamlike atmosphere of this temple, combined with the subsequent powerful Noh theatre performance provided the impulse for a solo work I wrote for koto player Nobutaka Yoshizawa, Usugōri [Thin Ice] (2018). I included in the score a quote from Royall Tyler’s translation of the play I had seen in Kyōtō:

“The tempering of the light and the merging with the dust initiate the link to the enlightenment…”

Nobutaka Yoshizawa performs Juha T. Koskinen's Usugōri on a 17-string bass koto.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Jaakko Kulomaa