2013 – the year of the repeat...repeat...repeat...repeat...

In 2012 classical music dutifully celebrated John Cage’s centenary but resolutely ignored his creative credo of ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones’. Which means that in 2013 there will be at least twenty-three different Ring cycles around the world and twenty-four productions of Aida, while a search of the Britten anniversary performance database returns no less than one hundred and twenty results for ‘Peter Grimes’. Predictably, BBC Radio 3 has been leading the charge by drip-feeding the Ring at the rate of one act a day over Christmas - a piecemeal approach adopted presumably because the station's fickle audience will decamp wholesale back to Classic FM if confronted with a complete Wagner opera – while Munich also jumped the gun with a Verdi gala on December 26th.

With social media functioning as a massive echo chamber, mediated repetition has become the new black at the expense of the vitally important activity of unmediated exploration. Which is ironic as I am certain that Wagner, Britten and even Verdi would have agreed with Edwin Rothschild's observation that "We want the artist to scratch our backs in the old familiar places, when we should be eager to mount behind him on his Pegasus, that we might see the world from his many points of vantage. We do not realise that the old familiar things were once new, spontaneous, even shocking, and therein lay the force and meaning of the spiritual energy which they embodied".

In his preface to Essential Zen Kazuaki Tanahashi talks of the "dynamic of non-possession which is an essential part of the creative process in the Zen world", whereas, by contrast, contemporary Western culture seeks possession by repetition. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and an illuminating case study of the dynamics of non-possession is provided by the career of avant-garde percussionist and composer Stomu Yamash'ta. Born in 1947 in Kyoto, Japan, Yamash'ta studied at the Juilliard and his breakthrough came with the premiere performance of Heuwell Tircuit's Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra with Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969. He went on to work with many leading figures in contemporary music including Toru Takemitsu, Peter Maxwell Davies and Hans Werner Henze, and appeared at the Aldeburgh Festival, while his movie credits include playing Maxwell Davies' score for Ken Russell's film The Devils and John William's early score for Robert Altman's 1972 Images, and he contributed music to David Bowie's movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. He also formed the Red Buddha Theatre which brought a mix of jazz fusion, Noh theatre, kabuki and mime to sold out venues in the West.

But at the end of the 1970s Yamasht'ta became disillusioned with the commercial imperative of Western music, and he withdrew to his native Kyoto to study at the Daitokuji Temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism - this was the temple where Beat poet Gary Snyder had sat sesshin ten years earlier. Yamasht'ta has developed a new career expressing Buddhist values through his compositions by providing liturgical music for the Daitokuji Temple where he is seen in the photo above, while also continuing to work on new lower profile electronica/ambient projects. The percussionist/composer explained his dramatic change in career direction in these words "Record companies are too demanding - I want to make music when I'm ready", an explanation his colleagues in Los Angeles and elsewhere would do well to take note of.

While classical music was embarking on a two year orgy of Mahler repeats in 2010, the CD seen below on Radio France's Ocora label slipped out into the market unannounced and unnoticed, despite being - and I use the words advisedly - a contemporary masterpiece. Zen Hoyo is a liturgical sequence alternating percussion sequences scored and played by Stomu Yamasht'ta with Buddhist sutras and prayers. Atmospherically recorded in the Daitokuji Temple, Yamash'ta combines traditional instruments with lithophones - prepared volcanic rocks voiced with micro-contact transducers and added reverberation - to create a truly esoteric soundworld. Philip Glass, another composer with Buddhist tendencies, once said 'I don't mind repeating failures until I get them right, but I am not interested in repeating successes'. Wise words that classical music would do well to heed as it moves into 2013 – the year of the repeat…repeat…repeat…repeat…repeat…repeat…

* There is an excellent profile of Stomu Yamash’ta at Perfect Sound Forever. No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Anonymous said…
I listened to this "contemporary masterpiece." As Zen music it might be great, but the problem with calling this classical music is that it has zero continuity with the great Western tradition. All of the pieces of classical music that are today considered classics may have had new elements or style, but there was a continuity with the past. There are MANY opportunities for composers today to contribute, if they would stop trying to discard the past, demonize Western history and culture, and incorporate Buddhism or Hinduism or some other religious or philosophical system which is foreign to us.
Pliable said…
Southern Violinist, there is a response to your comment here - https://www.overgrownpath.com/2019/02/todays-koan-what-is-classical-music.html

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