Heavenly River for Shakuhachi and String Quartet

In the summer of 2016 I started to sketch Heavenly River for shakuhachi and string quartet after writing Echoes of Dream for shamisen and string quartet in the previous year. The composition of this piece is part of my PhD field research where I am investigating into approaches for integrating different musical aesthetics and particularly the ways in which Takemitsu composed for Japanese instruments. Examining one of his signature works, November Steps for shakuhachi, biwa and orchestra written in 1967, Takemitsu believed that the aesthetics and the timbre of these Japanese instruments were simply incompatible with the western instruments and hence expressed the contrasting gestures to differentiate their qualities. When writing this work, he also experienced issues of expressing Ma or negative space, the incompatibility of the timbre and the way in which the most Japanese music is taught verbally, which leads to issues of notation.

I carefully sketched Heavenly River recalling the difficulties I experienced with Echoes of Dream last year. The title of the composition is based on my experience of a star watching tour I attended during my visit in Gran Canaria this summer where I saw the most impressive night sky ever and the clearest Milky Way in my life. Heavenly River is another name for the Milky Way in Japanese and I felt that this name would match the piece I had perfectly in mind as the words conjure up the universe and the river, which could be compared to what Takemitsu used to call Sea of Tonality as a description of his composition method, where he mentioned that different tonal rivers meet in the same sea to create a unique tonality.

When writing Heavenly River I followed the idea I have been developing from Echoes of Dream where, instead of a piece only consisting of a single movement, I wrote a trilogy, as it would allow me to express different musical ideas clearly in one piece. The first movement – Invisible has several references to the style of Takemitsu’s compositions in that I expressed the traditional shakuhachi sounds without overly using the traditional Japanese scales so that it remains neutral and keeps the avant-garde quality throughout. Also with the limitations of the shakuhachi, I provided the notes that can be played with the natural fingerings at the start of each passage, which consequently produced scales that somewhat sounds like that of Middle-Eastern music.

The strongest inspiration of the second movement – Indefinite came from the later style of Morton Feldman who obsessively wrote organisations of different timbral colours with endlessly repeated patterns in his compositions. I felt that this style would allow me to express two musical directions: First-a Noh theatre like motion where the notes are moving slowly and static with little changes. Second-a clear indication of western avant-gardism with a rather unnatural mechanic tempo that continues throughout the piece. At the end of the movement, a hint of tonality is introduced, which leads onto the opening of the next movement.

The idea of the beginning in the third movement – End to Begin, Begin to End starting with a recitative or a semi-cadenza style, came from the opening of The Lark Ascending by Vaughn Williams, where I felt that the use of the pentatonic scale would not detriment the quality of avant-gardism or with it being too oriental since the pentatonic scale in Williams’ piece also sounds neither overly western or eastern. I also felt that this would allow me to show a different quality to that of Takemitsu’s music, as he avoided writing pentatonic scales. A few references to November Steps are heard in this movement: for example, from the lowest string each player plays one note after another upwards with a little space between them so that in effect it sounds like a very fast arpeggio played on the piano and the same happens from the highest to the lowest strings. Another reference is a semi-canon texture where a few instruments follow each other melodically, which is often heard in the later style of Takemitsu’s works such as Fantasma Cantos I & II. Furthermore, I extensively wrote a few passages in this movement to be contrapuntal, strictly abiding by the western counterpart rules, in order to demonstrate the difference to that of Takemitsu’s style.

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