Four Postcards from Ancient Nihon

Four Postcards from Ancient Nihon

Four Postcards from Ancient Nihon

for percussion sextet

Program Notes

  1. Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion)
  2. The Rock Garden at Ryoanji
  3. December in Hirosaki Castle Park (Snow on Cherry Trees)
  4. Osaka Castle

This set of four pieces was inspired by a trip I made to Japan in December of 2000. (Nihon is the word many Japanese use for their nation; Nippon is the other.) Like many visitors to Japan I was fascinated by the close juxtaposition of the ancient and modern. The train station in Kyoto, for example, seems like something from a science-fiction movie, but it is just a few minutes away from temples and gardens that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

While in Japan I met some of the members of Falsa, a percussion ensemble based in Hirosaki, Aomori prefecture. When they asked me to write a piece for them, it seemed natural to base it on my impressions of Japan. I chose four of the ancient sites I had visited to portray musically (although, ironically, two of the sites are actually modern reconstructions of the old originals). The word “postcard” was chosen because after just one brief visit to Japan, I cannot pretend to represent anything but relatively superficial first impressions.

Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most famous sights in Kyoto. The upper floors of the pavilion are covered in brilliant gold leaf, and the peak of the roof is decorated by a bronze phoenix. Dating to the 14th century, the temple was burned down by a mentally-ill student monk in 1950 and subsequently reconstructed. Although the pond and gardens that surround it are very tranquil, this movement represents the first dazzling impression of the gold shining in the bright sun.

Equally famous is the rock garden at the Ryoanji Temple, just a short walk from the Golden Pavilion. Consisting of 15 irregularly shaped rocks placed in a field of raked gravel, surrounded by a clay wall and a wooden veranda, this is a place for peace and meditation. The music uses static ostinato patterns to represent the unvarying nature of the layout, while the melodies represent the constantly changing thoughts of a person contemplating the garden.

While in Hirosaki our hosts took us on a walk through the park surrounding the old ruined castle at the center of town. The park is famous for its more than 5000 cherry trees (the cherry trees in Washington, DC, were a gift from the people of Hirosaki, incidentally). Although we were there in winter, the snow on the tree branches made it easy to imagine how beautiful the trees must be when they are blossoming in the spring.

Osaka Castle was originally built in the 1580s, and has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once. The current castle was built in 1931. Its origin as a military stronghold is obvious as you approach it, and that is the aspect portrayed in the music for this movement. Drums and metallic instruments play martial rhythms in the outer sections, while pitched instruments dominate the middle part of the movement.

Four Postcards from Ancient Nihon was premiered by Percussion Group Falsa in Hirosaki in August of 2002. It has subsequently been performed by them in various places in Japan and the United States, as well as by several American percussion ensembles.

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