Well-Tempered Beauty, Japanese-Style. “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” by Hiromi Yano

Issue #2 • 1586

The article aims to identify national specificity and its impact on the performer’s interpretation of musical pieces, using the example of a composition for balalaika and piano by a young Japanese pianist and composer Hiromi Yano. Instrumental part was implemented by Dmitry Naumov, Hiromi Yano’s husband.

Hiromi Yano, native of Sapporo City (Hokkaido, Japan), graduated from the Toho Gakuen musical college in Tokyo, then the Moscow State Conservatory, and completed her graduate studies at the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music.

Musical Culture of Japan is not yet very well known in Uzbekistan. Among pieces performed in our country one can mention a composition by K. Nakajima “People of the Woods”, a popular tune “Goldfish” arranged for gijak by Shukhrat Yuldashev, and “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” by Hiromi Yano. The music of Japan is mostly known in Uzbekistan through films such as “Woman in the Sand Dunes”, “Love at the Age of Twenty”, “Ran”, “The Samurai Rebellion” (soundtrack by an outstanding composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)), “BareIsland”, and “The Legend of Narayama”…

Over the years of independence the country had new opportunities to study musical aesthetics and performance culture of different nations, including Japan. Discography, the Internet and periodicals, as well as tours of Uzbek artists in the Land of the Rising Sun play an important role in this process. The image of Japan, its art and poetry inspire composers of Uzbekistan, as evidenced by the works of R. Abdullaev, H. Rakhimov, Felix and Dmitriy Yanov-Yanovsky. Enormous respect for Japanese performing traditions was earned by a galaxy of brilliant Japanese pianists, violinists, singers, conductors, such as Sergio Ozawa, Hiderato Suzuki (violin), Hirato Nakamura (piano), the “Nippon” performing company, and others who contributed to a rapid revolution in musical notions and categories.

A lot of valuable information is provided by the Uzbek-Japanese Cultural Centre of Human Resources that offers courses in ikebana, origami, bon-odori (dance) and calligraphy, as well as a library of literature in Russian and Japanese languages; it regularly organizes traditional Japanese shows marking the Day of Children, the Day of Spring, etc. In 2004, the Centre facilitated a visit of folk instrumental performers Yonahu Toru (sanshin) and Takahashi Tikudo (tsugaru-syamisen) to Uzbekistan. In autumn 2011, there was a concert of Japanese neo-folk music performed by the “Hidden Dragon” trio: Kadzuki Kunihiro, Nobuto Yamanaka and Shigeri Kitsu.

A series of 14 “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” by pianist Hiromi Yano was first performed on dutar by Iroda Riskieva in January 2012. The piece provides a valuable material not only for enriching instrumental ensemble performance in Uzbekistan with new audio guides, but also, and, perhaps, more importantly, for identifying and studying the composer’s original ethnic ear, ethnic memory and ethnic thinking.

The present author sees the compositional structure of Hiromi Yano’s variations as a kind of ladder, and its steps might be referred to as makons (Turkic word makon means dwelling, camping, country). The makons or headings in the piece represent a way “down the stairs going up”. I will try to consistently describe my perception of the series:

1) Surprise from the fact that, contrary to the usual practice, the author gives each variation a programmatic title;

2) A sense of “colour diversity” and their broad range;

3) An obvious composer’s familiarity with similar opuses: Paganini variations by Sergei Rachmaninov (for piano and orchestra) and V. Lutoslawski (for two pianos). In Rachmaninov’s opus the nation-specific allusions are implemented through broad and flowing incantations “sprinkled” with romance intoning, while Lutoslawski does it with conventionally standard elements of the mazurka;

4) A shock from the final variation, “Balalaika”.

It becomes immediately clear that the structure of the series as a whole is divided into two parts: 1 to 8, and 10 to 14 (the 9th variation has the Paganini theme again). The first part is a tribute to authors who immortalized the Paganini theme (mazurka; tarantella, the Italian folk dance). The second part, which, in my view, holds all the intrigue, brings rather focused and bold move: “Balalaika”. This traditional instrument of small dimensions is represented by a dense mass of the chord vertical, a desperate urge, a powerful optimism, and truly symphonic sound – something that a conventional mind could never associate with the image and semantics of a balalaika. Amazingly contrasting effect is created by the variation title and its defining tempo – Grandioso. This is deeply symbolic. Everything sounds freshly and vividly, reminding of a similar technique in Ravel’s “Bolero”. In the second half of the series the composer goes “in reverse”. While the first part contains variations proper, the second part is all about arabesques and “flashes”, like a subtext or a hint… The five variations of the second part, 10 to 14, are like five lines of tanka, one of the classical forms of Japanese poetry. It is an enchanting and scintillating parade of picture-images: “Languor”, “Flight”, “Avidity”…

The last two parts, “Violin” and “Balalaika”, could be described differently as “Self” and “Society”. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that violin is traditionally associated with great solo performers, primarily Paganini. Balalaika, however, is usually perceived as “anonymous” traditional instrument, despite a number of remarkable masters of playing the instrument. In this sense, one may find an unexpected affinity between balalaika and the defining premise of oriental art, which, with its cult of appreciating a transient moment, is based on the imperative Do not make, but find and discover”. Discover the other person; this other person is a listener whom you helped to discover this moment and to enjoy it as an artist.

“Through the Looking Glass” the Japanese Way

Makon №1. “Rays” of Japanese Mentality

Japanese people have developed a special mental response to a natural disaster: do not move, look around, focus, make a decision. In the Hiromi Yano’s series the “cataclysm” is the Paganini theme (“Agitation” in variation 1) followed by anticipation and then, after variation 9, “Languor”.

In the second variation called “Accent”, the anticipation is followed by a dynamic search for balance between piano and balalaika, reflecting the characteristic Japanese sensitivity to motion in all its forms, including one on a cosmic level.

According to the Buddhist religion, everything in the universe is governed by the law of duality of active and passive elements. This controversial unity is the essence of life, its dialectics. The active and the passive module goes through the entire variations series in a typical tempo ratio: Andante – Allegro.

Three “Noises” of Japan. Traditionally, every nation’s mentality has its own “noises” with special meaning, reflecting the nation-specific perception. For Japanese people these are silence (the tranquillity of parks and mountain peaks), the sound of water (the gentle murmur of a brook, the powerful sound of ocean waves or waterfalls), and the sound of gheta (traditional wooden sandals). The first of these sound-symbols in the Hiromi Yano’s opus is clearly presented in the slow-moving variations and time intervals between them: the performer’s and the listener’s concentration on the qualities of silence as “anticipation” helps create sensations that are in line with the author’s concept.

Hard work and diligence (conventionally embodied in the clatter of gheta shoes), highly developed spiritual culture and focused will, as well as the need to constantly counter the assault of elements – all these factors have made Japan a great power.

Isolated for two centuries from the rest of the world during the Takagava era, the country developed into a strong, monolithic nation. This aesthetic idea of cathedral togetherness in the concept of Hiromi Yano is reflected in her final variation – Grandioso.

Makon № 2. The Measure of Beauty

Sabi, Wabi, Shibui. These three concepts rooted in Shinto religion serve as measures of beauty for the Japanese people. Sabi denotes beauty and naturalness – these concepts are identical in the Japanese culture. It is believed that Time exposes the essence of things. The object’s charm is in the signs of age. The word sabi literally means rust, patina. So, it’s all about the charm of antiquity, the mark of time, traces of hands that touched the picture… As the element of beauty, sabi embodies connection between art and nature, and wabi is a bridge between art and everyday life. Wabi is the beauty of the ordinary, the appeal of simplicity.

Over time, the notions of sabi and wabi merged and turned into one: shibui – the beauty of simplicity plus the beauty of naturalness. More accurately, it is not about beauty in general; it is about beauty inherent in the object’s function, as well as in the material it is made of. One listening to Hiromi Yano’s “Variations” delights in the beauty of romantic music, its natural and unrestrained flow. For the performer, this musical text offers a visually clear and simple way of writing music.

The mystery of Japanese art is to listen to the unspoken and admire the invisible. This is yet another component of beauty: the art of a subtle suggestion, the charm of understatement and muted expression (variations “Flight”, “Avidity”).

Suggest rather than declare – that is the principle of the Japanese art of subtext. Yugen is beauty hidden deeply inside objects and things, the charm of understatement… Hence the expression common among artists: “Blank spaces in a scroll are more meaningful than what is drawn with a brush”. Think about this concept while listening to Hiromi Yano’s variations…

Traditional Japanese aesthetic gravitates to minimalism and small forms: haiku and tanka in poetry, netsuke in applied arts… Haiku is a three-line poem, consisting of a single phrase or a poetic image; its concise and extremely compact form contains boundless subtext. Haiku poems are unique in a way that the image created by the poet triggers reader’s fantasy and prompts him to perceive and experience the image his own way. In Hiromi Yano’s “Variations…” haiku as a canon of thought manifests itself through the pulsating string of allusions that make the “piece – performer – listener” system transform into something new: “the piece, the performer, and the listener are one whole”.

Praising the Shadow. The Principle of “Reversal”. “At the sight of all things shiny the Japanese people experience some kind of anxiety. Europeans use kitchenware made ​​of glass, steel, and nickel, and they polish it to sparkle, while we cannot tolerate this kind of brilliance. I am not saying that we don’t like anything shiny at all. Yet we do prefer a shade of depth to superficial clarity. This is brilliance too, but with a touch of time, or, more precisely, tarnish. Europeans seek to remove all traces of tarnish, putting the object through harsh cleaning. We, on the contrary, seek to carefully preserve and enshrine it as a certain aesthetic principle. Our soul rests in such buildings and among such objects”, says Dzenitiro Tanizaki, the twentieth century Japanese writer. These words help one understand Hiromi Yano’s gravitation towards muted, “pastel” tones conveying the sonic perspective of depth (in contrast to bright, open sound), which characterizes her series.

The composer, developing the Paganini theme, does not follow Rachmaninov or Lutoslawski, but goes “in reverse”: she “weakens” the variations’ form, introducing the nation-specific mentality, and appears to turn them in the direction of a suite architectonics, thus coming to a certain border line that separates the genre of variations from that of a suite. This is the ethos of the Hiromi Yano’s opus.

As noted by V. Ovchinnikov in his book “The Branch of Sakura”, a special gift of assimilation inherent in the Japanese character is applied to the forms of life, but not its content. They eagerly borrow from material culture, but in the spiritual domain they never imitate or copy; on the contrary, they are conservative rather than receptive; reserved rather than open. Ovchinnikov refers to this quality of Japanese mentality as “a rock at the bottom of a stream, which shows its presence through the whirlpools”.

The unique piece written by the Japanese composer Hiromi Yano – the series of variations on the Paganini theme that is probably “built” right at the point of such a “whirlpool” – presents a clear manifestation of this very strategic talent so characteristic of her nation.

Makon №3. Visual Metaphor

For Conclusion

To comprehend a musical piece, or any work of art or idea, an appropriate method is required. The method is simple and effective: introduce the idea in the context of your own culture, ethnic mentality and national reflection. Aesthetic “empiricism” is a powerful claim made by the Japanese art in contemporary culture, and for that we are very grateful – Arigato!

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