Kondo at 60

UYMP is delighted to celebrate Jo Kondo's 60th Birthday this year. Kondo has had a profound influence on music of our time, his work consistently refusing to be labelled as modernist, minimalist, Japanese or western. 

Interest in his work is growing, with recent retrospectives by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and portrait concerts in Germany, Sweden, Canada, the USA, Italy, Korea, Egypt, Turkey and of course Japan, to name but a few. Philip Venables caught up with Jo Kondo to talk about his recent work.

PV: Congratulations on your 60th Birthday year! You've been a prolific writer, working for 4 decades. What made you want to be a composer, and why do you write?

JK: I have kept composing music and I will continue to do so simply because I love writing music.

PV: I have been struck by the variety of media that you've worked in - music theatre, chamber, orchestral, traditional Japanese instruments and orchestral instruments, all jostling side by side. Do you have a single approach to composition or do you tend to find that your approach changes depending on what and who you're writing for?

JK: I think I have been working on a single approach to composition. What interests me is how the single compositional idea can bear different music depending on different media. Since I work mostly on commission these days, I am usually aware whom I write for. But I don't think it influences my composing much. As John Cage said, composition is one thing and performance is another. Although I have my own interpretation of a piece I wrote, of course, I have no desire to impose my interpretation on performer. Every performer has a right to interpret the piece in her/his own way. And, my own interpretation is no more than one of the possible interpretations. In this sense, my composition is not the one that is written aiming at a particular interpretation, or musical behaviorism, characteristic to a particular performer.

PV: Your music has been notoriously difficult for pundits to categorise. You yourself have said that your music is about "the art of being ambiguous". Many have said it comes from the tradition of minimalism, others from impressionism and still others from modernism. Where do you think musicologists will place you in the history books, and why?

JK: I may claim that my music is not about the art of being ambiguous, but is the art of being ambiguous. I never really concern myself with any categorisation. If I am asked how to categorise my own music I say it's category free. When I first played my music to Morton Feldman, he said to me that I ought to live in Hawaii, the place in between America and Japan, or rather, between East and West. But I don't think my music stands in between the eastern and western traditions. Any attempt to locate my music in a category or between categories misses the point. I appreciate that you listen to my music simply as it is without being troubled by conceptual categorisation. In fact, it seems the best way to understand any piece of music.

PV: Do you think that the 'ambiguity' in your music is what makes your music much more complex than its often apparent simplicity on the page? How do performers respond to this?

JK: Yes, my music seems far much harder to play than it looks on the page, probably because, at least to some extent, a performer may sometimes be confused by the structural ambiguity in my music. This structural ambiguity comes from my peculiar compositional attitude of looking at music always from its micro-structure, in other words, from the structural level of each individual sound. There is no doubt that in my music the role of intertonal relationships is also very important, since it is these relationships that give each sound its individual quality. However, in my compositions I do not try to achieve a 'meaningful' whole by working on intertonal relationships, even if some of my pieces might give the impression of being solidly integrated into a 'whole'. Instead, it could be said that my compositions, rather than an integrated sound construction, are a collection of sounds, each with its own musical quality given by its intertonal relationships. I expect performers of my music, as I said, to make their own interpretation. That is to say that a performer must make, out of the notes I write, something that they feel satisfactory, musically. When I attend a rehearsal of one of my pieces, I keep silent as long as the performer seems to be enjoying creating her/his music out of the score. Only when I find the performer to be totally confused or to not know what to do at all, I try to show my own interpretation of the piece as a reference, hoping it helps the performer to create their own 'music'.

PV: Listening to your music, I do hear this intriguing obsession with sounds and isolated gestures, and often entire pieces constructed from very detailed 'examinations' of a single musical gesture, as you have just suggested. You seem to have a real sensitivity to the delicacy of sounds. Do you feel that this sensitivity is typically 'Japanese' or, musically, do you feel more tied to Europe, or somewhere in between?

JK: I do not know if my sensitivity is particularly Japanese or anything else. The music education I received is thoroughly of western sort. In this sense, I am working as a composer based on the western music tradition. The 'Japaneseness' in my music, if any, is something that must be left for studies by the future musicologists.

PV: I've noticed that you seem to carry harmony from one piece to another sometimes. Is this purposeful or do you always start from scratch with each new piece? It certainly sounds very colourful, and traverses lots of different harmonic languages.

JK: I start writing a new piece always from scratch. My way of composing is a kind of 'improvisation', not directly on an instrument, but on paper. Before I actually start writing down notes, I have no plan, no systematic method at all. I do not know even how long the piece will last. When you do improvisation you tend to repeat some material you used in your past improvisations (your routine material). Similarly, you may find the same material appears in another piece of mine, that is an 'improvisation' on paper, which improvisation process (i.e., writing process) goes very, very slowly unlike the real time improvisation on an instrument.

PV: What projects do you dream about doing in the future?

JK: My dream is always tiny. I never have a big dream. My dream, or goal, is to finish the composition I am writing at that moment. When the piece has been finished, my next dream is to write another piece. One of the dreams I had in the past did not come true, i.e., I did not finish a piece because the commission was cancelled when I was about to start writing. It was a piece for large orchestra and mixed choir. I now dream that this cancelled dream comes back as my next real dream.

(1 May 2007)

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