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Playlist: Music from and about Japan and Finland

by Lasse Lehtonen

This Special Feature introduces several musicians and composers who have contributed to the musical connection between Japan and Finland. Our playlist highlights these connections between the two countries, focusing on musicians and composers discussed in this Special Feature, as well as some other works of contemporary music.

In this Special Feature, Seppo Kimanen writes: “Izumi Tateno’s connections, we brought a number of excellent Japanese musicians to Kuhmo. Having Michio Mamiya as Composer of the Year in the late 1970s was such a huge success that on the back of it we were able to present a large Japan-themed festival a couple of years later.”

This visit inspired the composition of Five Finnish Folk Songs (1977), which Mamiya wrote for Tateno and cellist Erkki Rautio – who also contributed to Mamiya’s work by searching up the folk song melodies from Finnish archives. The third piece, Miero vuotti uutta kuuta (A Houseless Beggar) has also become a standard piece for cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

A different aspect of folk music from Japan and Finland is represented by kantele player Eva Alkula’s and koto player Tomoya Nakai’s arrangements of folk songs from both countries. These two takes introduce new viewpoints to songs that practically every Japanese and Finnish person is familiar with. One may even notice something “Finnish” in their version of the Japanese Takeda Lullaby – and something “Japanese” in the Finnish Humma.

As we could read in Kimanen’s article, Izumi Tateno now performs only on the left hand. Takashi Yoshimatsu’s left-hand piano suite Tapiola Visions (2004), commissioned by Tateno and here performed by Yumiko Oshima-Ryan, takes its inspiration from the Finnish forest – the kingdom of the forest god, Tapio, in Finnish mythology. The 5/4 time signature in the first piece, Vignette in Twilight, recalls traditional rune singing.

Tapiola is also the title of Jean Sibelius’s tone poem from 1926. In this recording, the current chair of the Sibelius Society of Japan, Yuri Nitta, who writes about Sibelius’s popularity in Japan in this Special Feature, conducts another work by Sibelius: Romance in C for string orchestra.

Speaking of Sibelius, the contemporary composer Jōji Yuasa composed his orchestral work, The Midnight Sun, as a homage to the Finnish national composer. One may even notice subtle references to Sibelius’s orchestral writing in this work.

When I met Yuasa in Tokyo some years ago, he told me that he considered the Finnish YL Male Voice Choir to be one of the best choirs in the world. Indeed, apart from writing a homage to Sibelius, Yuasa also has another connection to music in Finland: he composed 4 Seasons from Basho’s Haiku for the YL Male Voice Choir. In the first song, Yuasa combines melodious writing with fascinating timbral explorations – as well as a nod to Buddhist chant, shōmyō, in the opening.

Another composer that has been impressed by music in Finland is the late chair of the Japan Finland Contemporary Music Society, Toshi Ichiyanagi. In an interview in this Special Feature, Ichiyanagi tells about his piano concerto, Finland (2012), which is based on his positive impressions of the country. The concerto is yet to be recorded, but Ichiyanagi’s complex writing for the piano can be observed in Time Sequence (1976) in this performance by pianist Izumi Shimura.

Likewise, several Finnish composers have been fascinated with Japan. One of them was Pehr-Henrik Nordgren, the first Finn to study in Japan with a scholarship from the Japanese government in the early 1970s. His Kwaidan Ballads draw on a collection of Japanese ghost stories – a context one can certainly recognise in Izumi Tateno’s performance of Mimi-nashi Hoichi (Earless Hoichi)!

To not close our playlist with horror, let us listen to a more soothing tune. The Finnish group Barlast toured Japan to much acclaim in March 2023. The light-hearted Ayham Waltz combines nice melodic expression with unrivalled musicianship.

The whole playlist: