for flute, doubling alto flute and piccolo, Bb clarinet doubling Bb bass clarinet, violin, cello, percussion (1 player) and piano
“Bigaku” is a Japanese word, usually translated as “aesthetics” or sometimes “Japanese aesthetics.” The movement titles are important concepts in Japanese art. Although I don’t pretend to have a deep understanding of Japanese art, and I certainly don’t speak Japanese, I have always been attracted to certain aspects of the Japanese aesthetic outlook.
“Bigaku” implies some fairly specific artistic attitudes, according to Keys to the Japanese Heart and Soul (no author listed), a book given me by a Japanese friend when I was composing a piece to be performed in Japan. Among these are a preference for symbolic rather than realistic representation, an appreciation for the impermanent, and a regard for the simple over the ornate.
“Mono no aware” can be translated literally as “sensitivity to things,” but it is far more than that. The term implies an appreciation of the beauty in fleeting, transient things, as well as a melancholy regret at their passing.
“Okashii” is variously translated as delightful, charming, strange, funny, amusing, laughable and ridiculous. An important Noh actor defined it as simply “that which people laugh at.” Originally it referred to a detached, light-hearted response to scenes and occurrences, but it gradually shifted towards the more broadly comic, especially “amusement with the ludicrous.”
Unusually for me, I had composed the entire piece before I found any of the titles. In searching for something to call my new work I came across the Keys book again after several years and paged through it. I first discovered the terms that became the movement names and then chose “Bigaku” as the overall title. The two movement titles struck me as being close to perfect for the mood and character of this pair of pieces. If I had started with the titles I think I would composed precisely the same work.
Not surprisingly, the first movement is slow and expressive, although with some very dramatic passages. The second movement is fast and fleeting, with several sudden changes in dynamics, register and instrumentation, and, I hope, a great deal of good cheer.
Bigaku was written at the behest of Margaret Brouwer, chair of composition and director of the New Music Ensemble at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She was interested in performing one of my pieces with her group, and wondered what I might have that they could play. For some time I had been wanting to write a piece for this instrumentation (often called “Pierrot plus percussion”), as it has become the more-or-less standard new music ensemble. So, I suggested to her that I compose a new work that they could premiere. She graciously accepted and I wrote the piece that came to be known as Bigaku over the summer of 2006.