Among my plans, activities and resolutions for the New Year, I have decided that every day I will listen to a new piece that I had never heard before by a living composer. This blog brings my impressions of my favorite ones.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Somei Satoh - Violin Concerto

Somei Satoh’s Violin Concerto is different than any other piece of music I have ever heard. It is music that is “becoming”—a term coined by pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Several pieces in the classical repertoire are similar to this in their beginning, taking some time to form their identity before declaring their argument. Bruckner’s 4th Symphony is a good example. It does not start with a clear statement right away, but lets the music take form and—“become.” The opening of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is like that too. The difference between these and Satoh’s music is that the latter is constantly becoming. It’s similar to how life can feel on occasion. Sometimes, you feel that you’re waiting for something to happen, some sort of event that will change everything so you can finally start living the life that you’ve been imagining for yourself. Until you realize that this is life. Life is not what you are waiting for, but rather what is happening now. Satoh’s Violin Concerto is like that. The music slowly unfolds; prolonged chords change very gradually—like the appearance of the sky at different times of the day—and a sense of infinity is created.

The piece reflects Satoh's identity in its infusion of western instruments, 19th- and 20th-century harmonies, and an old European genre—the concerto—with traditional Japanese percussion instruments. The concerto is my favorite classical music genre, because it is about relationships—a subject that we are all concerned with. In the case of a concerto, the relationship is between the solo and the orchestra. Like in every relationship, the solo and the orchestra can sometimes get into a musical fight, have a discussion, tease each other, or complete each other’s sentences. A concerto is also a piece that aims to highlight the soloist and show off his or her musical and technical skills. However, Satoh’s piece is non-virtuosic, utterly lyrical, and the solo and orchestra are in almost constant agreement. It is the opposite of what you would expect from a normal violin concerto.

Shinto Shrine
In his music, Satoh incorporates philosophical ideas from Shinto, the largest religion in Japan. Shinto promotes a doctrine of acceptance. When a child is born in Japan, he or she is automatically added to a list kept in the Shinto shrine—not as a form of religious imposition, but as a welcome greeting. Shinto does not differentiate between the natural and the supernatural; neither does it dismiss beliefs of other religions simply because they are different. God, or multiple spirits—“Kami” in Shinto—can take the form of humans, animals, trees, places, energies, and universal forces. Shinto is known as the religion of “eternal present,” a beautiful paradox in which the past flows into the present and into the future; where the present embodies the past and future and cannot exist without them. This concept of simultaneously embracing seemingly contradictory periods in time (past, present, and future) also applies to Satoh's music.

"The Profile of Time"
inspired by Salvador Dali's 1931 painting "The Persistence of Memory" 
©Stephen Dawson
Still time, an impossible physical phenomenon, can only exist in art. Time stands still in paintings, statues, or photos. The exceptions are film and music, which are dependent on time. Like film, music requires movement, and therefore cannot live without time. Music is born when a bow is drawn against a string, when air is blown into a pipe, or when a hand hits a drum. When the movement stops, the music vanishes with it, and all that is left is a memory and a feeling that the music evoked in us. In Satoh’s Concerto, however, there is an illusion that time stands still. The music starts with a slow, steady pulse, like the first heartbeats of a baby in its mother’s womb. This rhythm, lasting for a little over than five minutes, is hypnotizing. The music, meditative, mostly quiet and slow, also involves many moments of silence. For Satoh, silence is not the absence of music, but a part of it. In an almost magical way, Satoh manages to create the sensation that the silence itself is vibrating before taking the form of sound.

As you submerge into Satoh’s world, the heartbeat appears again at the end. It looks back to the beginning and recollects the path that the music has taken us through. But at the same time it has its own presence and meaning as it leads us to the end of the piece, simultaneously embracing past, present, and future.

To listen to Somei Satoh's Violin Concerto click here

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