Where does your interest in Japanese music come from?
Well, my interest stems from my personal background – my mother is Japanese and I work a lot in Japan too. I see my function in Europe and Japan as being someone between the two cultures. I’m always trying to find out what might be interesting for the Japanese from Europe and vice versa. And I’m also interested in discovering new musical ideas in Japanese culture since classical music in Japan has been imported from the West for such a long time. So I’m now trying to research traditional Japanese music and bring it over to Europe.
Has the reception in Europe been favourable?
Yes, but I’ve found it helps to tell a story with the music. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in the programming. In Prom 10, the first piece is Takemitsu's Ceremonial: An Autumn Ode which starts quite extraordinarily with the traditional Japanese shõ, an 11th-century imperial court instrument. It’ll start the concert and after a couple of phrases, the orchestra will join and play the same music and material in a different style, a European, quite French style; and then at the end the shõ will play once more. Later in the programme we have another piece with this combination of shõ and orchestra, Hosokawa's Cloud and Light, but it’s more like a concerto or a dialogue between the two. Introducing a new sound world to the audience is important to me – I like the idea of taking some traditional imperial court music and searching for a connection with European culture.
So you’re presenting Japanese music to a European audience. How does European music go down in Japan?
Western classical music was introduced to Japan at the end of the 19th century, and the Japanese played it exactly how we would play it, but 20 years behind in terms of development. But now, starting back in the 1980s, they’ve tried to develop their own style, injecting the music with a Japanese flavour. And also I think it’s remarkable that our two featured composers, Takemitsu and Hosokawa, have studied in Europe. Hosokawa has studied in Berlin and has commissions from top European orchestras; while Takemitsu studied in Paris. So I think the cultural exchange is back and forth.
Debussy’s La mer features in this Prom – it will surprise the audience to learn that the composer was very much influenced by Japanese culture, I think.
Debussy learned about Japanese music in one of the Paris World's Fairs in 1889 before which he had already learned about Indonesian gamelan music. When he first wrote his La mer, he always had the wood print of Hokusai’s Great Wave beside his desk – it had a very strong influence on his work. But Debussy was one of those composers who tried to find a new identity but still wanted to work within his own composing style. It was the same when he was trying to introduce Spanish elements into his music – in Iberia, for example. So he doesn’t write Japanese music and he doesn’t write Spanish music either – he’s a very French composer who takes strong elements and builds them into his music.
Clearly Debussy was keen not to compromise the ‘French’ identity in his music. Why do you think that is?
Before Debussy came along, French music was leaning heavily towards a German Wagnerian style – it was so strong and so many composers at the Paris Conservatoire were under the Wagnerian spell. The political situation at the time was that Germany was kind of against the French and the French against the Germans. Debussy thought he had to create a distance between Wagner and France. He didn’t want his music to be a lesser imitation, an epigone if you like, of Wagner’s style. And this thinking carried on through Messiaen and Boulez and so French music developed very differently to that of Germany. Japanese art was a help for Debussy to discover tools to create different sounds. Although he went to Bayreuth twice to see Tristan and Parsifal (and was overwhelmed), Debussy become convinced that he had to separate himself from the German tradition.
Interview by Oliver Condy
Prom 10: Jun Märkl conducts the Orchestre National de Lyon in music by Takemitsu, Debussy, Ravel, Sarasate and Hosokawa at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 July at 7:30pm
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Image: Alex Berger