Part IV: Maja S. K. Ratkje – Gagaku Variations, Ich bin ein Japaner!
Gagaku Variations is a piece for accordion and string quartet composed by the Norwegian composer Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje in 2001. You can find the score at mic.no. It has been recorded by Frode Haltli and Vertavo String Quartet on the CD “Looking on Darkness” released by ECM records.
Listen to it on SoundCloud:
‘Gagaku Variations’ is based on Japanese gagaku music. It was written for Vertavo string quartet and Frode Haltli on accordion.
‘Gagaku Variations’ was formed after a month long travel to Japan in the autumn of 2000. Gagaku is the oldest executive artform existing today in Japan, with a tradition that goes more than 1000 years back in time. Today the term is used to describe all forms of music and dance performed by the Emperor’s ensemble. My interest for gagaku music grew greater as I started to analyse and transcribe some of the authentic music. Time would show that I was building a fundament for my next piece for string quartet and accordion. Although the piece is based upon Japanese harmony and melodic frases, it was never my intention to write a piece in a Japanese style.
The Japanese term ‘wabi sabi’ could have been the subheading for ‘Gagaku Variations’, as a description of how I try to deal with the material. In the words of the author L. Koren it means ‘a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is a beauty of things unconventional.’ He continues: ‘Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.’ Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje – from www.ratkje.com
FH: We can do a short analysis of ‘Gagaku Variations’. Maja didn’t start with the beginning, she doesn’t usually compose from A to Z. The first part in the piece has a lot of really big chords and intense rhythms. We are at the beginning introduced by a modified ‘Japanese’ harmonic build-up of chord material. The density of the first part grows larger and reaches its highpoint after the more “pedagogic” inroduction. Soon, the strings play this hammering chords and the section culminates in a kind of rhythmic development, faster and faster and it ends on a pentatonic chord, ending with this note at bar 131 (6’20” in the recording).
Now we are at the point were she actually started to compose the piece, with a very detailed transcription of original gagaku music. The previous part, the long opening, is a harmonically exploded variation on the music that from this section appears close to its original form. From bar 131 (6’20”) the original instruments are marked in the score: shō first in accodion, hichiriki, wich plays the melody, and the ryūteki. She also states the names of the gagaku tunes used, at this part ‘Hyojo No Netori’, a famous gagaku tune. The instruments are in bold font, the tune titles in normal font. Etenraku is a tune that I believe most Japanese will recognize. Further we have for example the koto, here performed by the violin playing pizzicato extremely soft, and this sounds very Japanese.
Note: The gagaku wind instruments:
This section is a transcription of very old and unique music. It is treated in a free form, like in this short cadenza for accordion in bar 181 (from 11’00”). Here it has hardly anything to do with traditional Japanese music. The section is developed from the same musical material, but the transcriptions of the traditional music are very soon getting mixed with composed material that doesn’t sound like gagaku music. These chords in the strings, for example, from bar 244 (15’14”), are very far from the Japanese origin.
The sound of the ryūteki is said to represent the dragons which ascend the skies between the heavenly lights (represented by the shō) and the people of the Earth (represented by the hichiriki). The hichiriki was designed to mimic the sound of human voice. (from Wikipedia)
The last main part starts in bar 278 (16’50”) and here you have a very clear melody played in quasi unison by the strings. The wind instruments in gagaku music use sometimes a kind of overblow effect wich is with the ryteki. The result is that the octaves are not exact octaves. It’ actually very difficult to play for the strings because it’s sometimes unisone in octaves and sometimes away from each other a little bit. This doesn’t have anything to do with spectral music, the quarter tones here are simply an accurate transcription of the original gagaku music.
Note: Maja S. K. Ratkje, besides the symbols indicating sharp and flat half tones, uses the following symbols for for 1/4 and 1/8 tones.
FH: What happens in this part (from 16’50”) is that the same melody goes in different tempos simultaneously. The accordion part has elements from the melody in the left hand going faster than in the strings, and also a free variation in a very high speed in the right hand, so you have these different tempo layers here. The viola also comes in playing variations together with the accordion (from 18’30”). The rest of the strings arestill playing the original transcribed melodies in quasi unison. And you have a beautiful coda from bar 329 (19’55”) where the sped-up variations leave us with a more transparent version of the gagaku. The tune is here, to some extent, cut up by pauses, breaks and air sounds.
Gagaku is an ancient Japanese music and dance form performed at the imperial court of Kyoto for several centuries. It is the oldest classical music in Japan, played since 7th century. It has been introduced in Japan from China.
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, musicians came to the capital [Tokyo] and their descendants make up most of the current Tokyo Imperial Palace Music Department. By that time, the present ensemble composition had been established, which consists of three wind instruments – hichiriki, ryūteki, and shō (bamboo mouth organ used to provide harmony) – and three percussion instruments – kakko (small drum), shōko (metal percussion), and taiko (drum) or dadaiko (large drum), supplemented by gakubiwa.
Note: to a very thorough overview of gagaku music and Japanese concepts like Ma, Naru and the Japanese conceptualization of time, visit the dedicated page on stanford.edu and read ‘Japanese Traditional Orchestral Music: The Correlation between Time and Timbre’ by Jaroslaw Kapuscinski and François Rose, extremely interesting.
FH: I think Maja found something in Japanese music that she missed in Western music tradition. She went there at the end of her composition studies. I went there a little later too, and have also discovered things in Japanese music that I have been missing somehow. For my own sake I discovered a new way of playing on free reed instruments (the shō is a free reed instrument, the ryūteki a flute, the hichiriki a double reed instrument like the oboe Ed.) that is very different from Western accordion playing. I liked it very much. There is a very clear focus on the sound, on breathing, whereas in traditional and also modern accordion playing the focus is mainly on the keys, the buttons and not so much on the bellows. There is no bellows on the shō, they use their breath directly, and the reeds sound on both inhale and exhale. It’s very similar to the accordion, you use your own body more directly. This was very inspiring for me, and also for Maja who made the accordion part of her composition based on the sound of the shō, but expanded to fulfil her own, contemporary musical ideas, where meeting the Western string sound is one important aspect.
Note: Demonstration of the shō:
In a more general term we also discovered a lot of the modern Japanese music wich was very interesting. It was a big range of issues that inspired this piece and I think influenced my thinking and playing and also Maja’s performed music: she discovered the Japanese noise scene wich is very unique and special.
There were lots of elements in Japanese culture that inspired us. A lot of things we didn’t know. We talked a lot about the term Wabi-sabi and the term Ma. Wabi-sabi is something you can find in Japanese art and crafts: it’s the perfect in the imperfect. Like in the Japanese pottery, in a tea bowl for example: there is always something that is out of shape, a small detail that is different from object to object. This is in their philosophy and culture, and brings us closer to nature and the origin of all things. The small nuances that must be there. It is neither divine nor human if it’s too perfect, too square.
Of course this piece is much more dense than the traditional gagaku music, it has a lot more information. ‘Ma’ refers to the silence between the played notes, the immanent silence that is an integrated part of the music. It is very difficult to see the patterns in traditional percussion patterns because there is so much time between the beats. But they are very conscious where the next attack should come. That was also an element that inspired both Maja and me, everything from the very noisy electronic music to this traditional, much more calm music, has a focus and an attention to every element exposed, even the silence between.
LP: Did you also played music composed by Toshio Hosokawa before going to Japan?
FH: I don’t think I played it much before I went to Japan. But I played Melodia and the concerto Voyage IV Extasis (from 2000, listen to it Ed.). I also met Hosokawa a couple of times, he even came to a concert in Japan where I performed. His music has also been inspiring to me: I think he really found something unique. He studied in Europe but kind of went back to his Asian roots and tried to incorporate more of the traditional Japanese thinking in his music. And has done so very successfully I think.
‘Gagaku variations’ is probably the chamber piece I have played the most, apart from some pieces written for my trio POING. I have played it with many different string quartets. I recorded it with a very classical quartet with a quite classical approach and sound, and that works fine, but I also performed it with more “contemporary” quartets, which gives a more direct approach to the edgy potential of the material. It’s a special piece to me.
LP: And it’s also composed for you by your wife.
FH: Of course.
LP: Is it a difficult piece for the players?
FH: Yes, it’s very difficult, also for the string quartet. The intonation is probably the most difficult part: going back to the right pitches is very difficult. And the piece is quite intense and loud. You need a lot of concentration in order to keep the intonation and the presence in general, and also it’s rhythmically quite difficult. At least for classical players, for players specialized in contemporary music it’s perhaps not that rhythmically advanced (there are several parts with polyrhythms Ed.). It has this classical form, a grand form, so it takes a lot of concentration. You need to be on top of the music.
LP: The polyrhythmic doesn’t have anything to do with Japanese music. Where does that inspiration come from?
FH: No, they are not Japanese. This is from Maja, those are composed, juxtaposed layers that she creates her own music with. It’s hard to tell, but everything, even in the first part, is derived from edits and modulations of the original Japanese material, even the rhythm structures.
FH: She has actually played gamelan, not Balinese but Javanese, for a period when she was younger. She has always been curious, we both listened a lot to traditional and classical music from other traditions like classical Indian music for example. But in general she hasn’t used a lot of that in her compositions. She is more into the Avantgarde and developing new techniques. This makes this piece a little bit unique also for her because…
It’s dangerous, it can easily end up in exoticism to go into another tradition, just pick what you want and exhibit what you like in your own way, with your Western approach. It can be very superficial. But I think in this case the result is good, it’s a very honest piece.
LP: Honest towards the Japanese culture?
FH: Yes: she is not trying to hide the origins of her inspiration. I think she has incorporated it in her own language in such a way that I would not consider to be exoticism. It’s a good way of using inspiration.
She found something in Japanese music that she felt related to. That has happened a lot the last years, with the globalization: you find some arts wich apparently are very far away from you but suddenly you feel very attached to them. And I think this is beautiful.
LP: Gagaku Variations is a rare pearl, it’s brilliant. It affects the listener from the first notes, those vivid staccatos on the strings, then it captures us with his evocative melodies and finally for the exuberant energy of his ostinatos and harmonies. There is always some latent tension that sometimes explodes, like at 19.30, one of the acmes of the piece: the strings play the Japanese transcribed melody with full sound and the accordion is finally free to liberate all its energy, like a captured wild animal finally freed into the jungle. At the end, the serenity is restored.
Maja Ratkje – Biography
Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, composer and performer (1973, Norway), finished composition studies at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo in 2000. Her music is performed worldwide by performers such as Klangforum Wien, Oslo Sinfonietta, The Norwegian Radio Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Fretwork, TM+, Cikada and Bozzini string quartets, Quatuor Renoir, crashEnsemble, Pearls for Swine Experience, Torben Snekkestad, Marianne Beate Kielland, SPUNK, Frode Haltli, POING and many more. Portrait concerts with her music has been heard in Toronto and Vienna, she has been composer in residence at festivals like Other Minds in San Francisco, Nordland Music Festival in Bodø, Avanti! Summer Festival in Finland, Båstad Chamber Music Festival and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
Ratkje has received awards such as the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris for composers below 30 years of age, the Norwegian Edvard prize (work of the year) twice, second prize at the Russolo Foundation, and in 2001 she was the first composer ever to receive the Norwegian Arne Nordheim prize. Her solo album «Voice», made in collaboration with Jazzkammer, got a Distinction Award at Prix Ars Electronica in 2003. In 2013 she is nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize.
Ratkje is active as a singer/voice user and electronics performer and engineer, as a soloist or in groups such as SPUNK. Other collaborations are with Jaap Blonk, Joëlle Léandre, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Stian Westerhus, Stephen O’Malley, Lasse Marhaug and POING. Ratkje has performed her own music for films, dance and theatre, installations, and numerous other projects. She makes large art installations with SPUNK and deals often with visual arts in her work. She has made music for a radio play by Elfriede Jelinek, and in 2003, she played a leading part in her own opera, based on the texts from the Nag Hammadi Library. In 2005 she performed the voice solo part of her first big work for orchestra, commissioned by Radio France. She has also been soloist with Klangforum Wien, Oslo Sinfonietta and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In 2013 she is nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize for her work as performer.
Her scores are found at the Norwegian Music Information Centre and her records are released on Tzadik, Rune Grammofon, ECM and many others. www.ratkje.com
The interview with Frode Haltli continues.
List of topics
Part I: Introduction to the Scandinavian culture and society
Part II: From the contemporary to the traditional music and back
Part III: Ellegaard and Nordheim, accordion meets Norway
Part IV: A personal experience, New Scandinavian music for accordion
Part V: Maja S. K. Ratkje – ‘Gagaku Variations’, Ich bin ein Japaner!
Part VI: Bent Sørensen – ‘Looking on Darkness’, researching a new sound
Part VII: Atli Ingolfsson – ‘Radioflakes’, new virtuosism
Frode Haltli (b. 1975, Norway) studied at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, then at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, graduating in 2000. In 2001 the Norwegian Concert Institute named him Young Soloist Of The Year, he was also placed second in the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition 1999 in the Netherlands.
Concerts throughout Europe, USA, Canada and Asia. Directing his career into explorations of new music, he became associated with like-minded musicians mainly in Europe where the development of adventurous forms has grown throughout recent years.
Haltli has established links with several composers, notably Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje who is one of several who have written especially for him; others include Bent Sørensen, Rolf Wallin, Atli Ingólfsson, Hans Abrahamsen, Jo Kondo and Sam Hayden.
He has also cooperated with several string quartets, among them the Arditti String Quartet.
His debut CD ‘Looking on Darkness’ was released on the prestigiuos German record label ECM in 2002.
In 2012 Haltli released ‘Arne Nordheim Complete Accordion Works’ (Simax Classics) to great critical acclaim.
He has played regularely with the trio POING, alongside saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm and double bass player Håkon Thelin. They have commissioned more than 60 works from composers all over the world and recorded several albums.
Since the release of the duo album “Yeraz” on ECM in 2008 Haltli has also toured regularly with saxophonist Trygve Seim.
Frode Haltli has developed several transcultural music projects, in India, China, Japan, North Korea, Egypt. He has also played music rooted in Norwegian traditional music, notably with RUSK in which he is teamed with singer Unni Løvlid and violinist Vegar Vårdal.
On his 2007 recording ’Passing Images’ (ECM), Haltli is joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen, viola player Garth Knox, and vocalist Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, for a selection of lyrical explorations of folk themes couched in the form of contemporary improvised music.
This theme and combination of old and new music is further delevoped in duo with Norwegian violinist Gjermund Larsen and in The Snowflake Trio with Irish flute player Nuala Kennedy and Norwegian fiddler Vegar Vårdal.
Frode Haltli teaches accordion at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
To know more about check http://frodehaltli.com/.