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Composer Portraits: Misato Mochizuki

“My artistic practice is served by curiosity and thought about realms outside my own —photography, genetics, popular music, astronomy, cooking — which is to say that I borrow principles and adapt to music systems that speak to my imagination.” -Misato Mochizuki

Born in Tokyo in 1969, Misato Mochizuki went on from the Tokyo University of the Arts to complete her studies in Paris, first with Paul Méfano and Emanuel Nunes at the Conservatoire and then, in 1996-97, with Tristan Murail at IRCAM. Like Toshio Hosokawa, half a generation her senior, she gained from years abroad a dual positioning, Japanese and European. Her early commissions included pieces for the Witten Chamber Music Days (Chimera for ensemble, 2000) and the NHK Symphony Orchestra (Cloud Nine, 2004). In 2007, the Suntory Foundation presented a portrait concert in Tokyo; two years later, her chamber opera The Great Bakery Attack, after two stories by Haruki Murakami, had its première in Lucerne.

A lot of her music reflects an appreciation of nature, but of nature mediated by scientific and philosophical investigation. Natural patterns and cycles will occur —often patterns of repetition and growth, measured by a regular yet subtle pulse — but the starting point is more likely to be a book on genetics than a walk in the forest. Photography, too, for how it renders and alters nature, has been important to her thinking.

Occasionally she has written for Japanese instruments — alone in a score for a classic of the Japanese silent cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Taki no shiraito (The Water Magician), or with western instruments in Silent Circle for flute, koto, and sextet (2006) — but most of her works are for fully western resources, usually instrumental, and show no particular national traits. In drawing alongside great works of the European tradition, as in her Pré-Echo (2005), a prelude for Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite, or Intermezzi IV (2011), intended similarly to come before Brahms’s F minor Clarinet Sonata, or Nirai (2012), designed as an intermezzo between Beethoven’s Second and Sixth symphonies, she comes as no stranger.

Spending time in both geographical domains, she teaches regularly at courses in western Europe besides holding a position at Meiji Gakuin University. Her most recent works include a second string quartet, Brains, introduced by the Quatuor Diotima in Paris last month.


Quark – Intermezzi III (2010) for solo percussion

“What does it mean to have a sequence consisting exclusively of interruptions?”

In writing about her Intermezzi, a series of instrumental pieces she began in 1998, Mochizuki has quoted abundantly from Roland Barthes’s thinking on the fragment, each of these compositions being a succession of brief moments, linked but separate.

“There is an ideal type to the fragment: a high degree of condensedness, not of thought or wisdom or truth (as in the maxim) but of musicality.”

This third piece in her Intermezzi series is a thirteen-minute solo for percussionist. The player enters in darkness swinging buzz bows, the buzz bow being a modern form of one of the most ancient instruments, the bull roarer. Out of this prelude comes the first intermezzo or section, where the player continues on buzz bow while making sounds by rubbing a small ball on a bass drum and a tam tam. The second intermezzo brings in a spring drum and whistling, and eventually recalls the first. It is rather the same with the remaining six sections, that there is a continuous flow from one to the next, change coming from introducing new instruments or shifting the rhythmic profile. The spring drum remains in the sixth section,  joined in turn by energetic tam tam and timpani, a swung hose, bass drum in a soft toccata, and Japanese cup bells (rin). The final two intermezzi, respectively wild and conclusive, are centered on gongs or like instruments.

“The fragments are like boulders lined up on the circumference of the circle…and at the center: what?”


Moebius-Ring (2003) for solo piano

Mochizuki wrote what is, so far, her only solo piano piece in 2003 for the Klangspuren festival in Innsbruck. Referring to the image of the paradoxically single-sided Möbius strip, the composition offers another example of Mochizuki’s chain form, being, as she puts it, “a sequence of variations based on repetitive pulsations. In each cycle, the piano tries to escape these pulsations, but invariably it returns, as in an experience of ‘déjà vu’ or a prophetic dream. The tempo relaxes or tightens each time.”

The first note set pulsing is the A at the bottom of the normal piano keyboard. Gradually, this gathers other notes – beginning with the B flat a minor ninth above – and resonances, released by silently depressed keys. Accelerating and then decelerating, the low A remains present while a high C sharp takes over as foreground repetition. So the thirteen-minute piece continues, through tremulations, waves, and more emphatic ostinatos.


Terres rouges (2005-06) for string quartet

Mochizuki wrote her first string quartet, like her recent second, for the Quatuor Diotima, which gave the first performance at the 2006 Musica festival in Strasbourg. The title – meaning “red earth,” iron-rich soil as found in locations all over the world – provides a fitting image for music that is vivid and intense right through its seventeen-minute duration.

Its energizing starting point is a measured trill from the first violin, fluctuating in speed of iteration and mobile in dynamic level. What is nevertheless single begins to break down, first as the second violin adds a note distant by an eighth-tone (quarter-tone and eighth-tone tunings will recur sporadically), then as the other instruments enter. A brief rupture presages new material: short glissandos and very rapid figuration, followed by a reminiscence of the opening and loud bursts of ostinatos. All this material skids along, toward and through a melodic phrase that has the first violin and the cello moving together but in extreme registers, four octaves and a seventh apart.

As the piece rushes on from these opening minutes, it occasionally re-engages with its past while discovering new territories: flurrying quarter-tones with the violins playing harmonics, noise effects produced by high-pressure bowing, repetitions going to a point of crisis, sounds produced by hammering the strings with fingers or nails, scales in simultaneous different speeds. The original singularity is exploded and found again on other planes, on the way to the state in which all the piece can do is burst away.


Au bleu bois (1998) for solo oboe

One of the earliest pieces Mochizuki has kept in her catalog, this six-minute oboe solo was commissioned by the annual new-music festival Éclat in Stuttgart and first performed by Konrad Zeller. The work extends characteristically through several distinct sections, of which the first loops around a few focal notes and introduces quarter-tones before cadencing in multiphonics. The next two segments, very brief, add scale passages, downward, then upward. A longer episode follows, more lyrical again, bringing in quick reiterations. There is then a reminiscence of the opening, before a finale that relates to almost everything heard so far.

The composer could easily have counted this as one of her Intermezzi, but instead she chose a title that is a play on words concerning the instrument (au…bois = hautbois, the French for “oboe”) and a picture by Van Gogh that, as she puts it, “represents a woodland in blue, a place for mystery, for myths, for madness, for anything one could imagine.”


Le monde des ronds et des carrés (2015) for two percussionists and two pianists

Commissioned by tonight’s musicians for a concert at the 2015 Lincoln Center Festival, this thirteen-minute piece “attempts,” in the composer’s words, “to install, in space and in music, geometric combinations arising from the shapes mentioned in the title – circles and squares – in exploring the relationships possible among the musicians, whether opposed to one another (square) or united (circle).” “I wrote the piece,” she adds, “having in mind the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II and asking myself what leads people to slaughter one another.”

One of Mochizuki’s circular images of union – and, presumably, of peace – is paced out by the percussionists as they begin the performance walking around the two pianos with hand-held instruments: crotales and Japanese cup bells (rin). What they play –B natural in treble-register octaves – also speaks of wholeness, and when the pianos begin to play, they do so in agreement. Union comes with a changeless, ritual aspect.The set-up gains more the geometry of a square when the percussionists arrive at stations defined by a glockenspiel and a vibraphone, and, at the same time, the concurrence begins to break down. A long accelerando also gets going, building through several minutes to a climax. This is not, however, the end, for out of it comes a different oneness and a different breakdown.

In creating a work so theatrical, Mochizuki surely was guided, not least at the end, by how Yarn/Wire, in its personnel, embodies old relationships of cohesion and conflict, antagonism and reciprocity.


Program Notes by Paul Griffiths