Ma: A Japanese Aesthetic

The members of the Damocles Trio met as students in the Doctoral Program at The Juilliard School in 1996, and the ensemble's name is in fact a play on D.M.A., or the Doctor of Musical Arts degree. Sibylle Johner and Adam Kent completed their doctorates in 1999, and Airi Yoshioka joined their ranks this past May. She provides below an introduction to her doctoral document entitled "Resonating Culture: Sound of Japan in the Music of Maki Ishii, Karen Tanaka, and Toshio Hosokawa."
Does music reflect a composer's cultural heritage? If so, is there a general compositional and aesthetic trend in the works of composers from a given culture or nationality? Over two years ago, I started researching the music of contemporary Japanese composers in the hope of finding a unique and original voice in their Western musical forms.
Like many other Asian countries, Japan had developed its own musical idioms independently of the West for hundreds of years. Under the Tokugawa reign (1603-1867), Japan remained closed to the rest of the world for almost two hundred sixty years. With the fall of the shogunate and the arrival of the European and North American emissaries at Japanese ports, the nation began its gradual assimilation of Western values. Incorporation of Western music into Japanese society began around 1880, when the government began including Occidental music in the educational curriculum. Cultural exchange commenced with an assured footing.
Although contemporary Japanese culture has absorbed numerous Western influences, I believe that certain indigenous sensibilities and aesthetics can never be forgotten or lost. As I looked into works by contemporary Japanese composers, I responded to an elusive but distinct quality that gave a national flavor to the music. In some cases, the use of traditional Japanese instruments provided an obvious explanation, but even in works reliant on such Western compositional techniques as serialism, minimalism, or pre-recorded sounds, I discerned the same distinctive voice. I wanted to find the thread that tied together the cultural fabric of these Japanese composers.
Of course, one cannot neatly generalize or categorize the musical manifestations of Japanese culture in the works of all native composers, since there are as many distinct cultural influences as there are composers. Nevertheless, in sifting through the work of numerous Japanese composers, I repeatedly experienced a vividly recognizable sensibility, an awareness of time and space called ma.
The meaning behind the Chinese character ma might shed light on how the Japanese perceive and understand the underlying concept. The outer character on its own signifies "gate," "the inner chararacter," or "sun." The enclosure, the treasuring, or the layering of something that gives light and nurtures lies at the foundation of its meaning. It is the act of recognizing a space, giving it an emphasis and expanding upon it, and exploring all the possible ways of perceiving what that space means.The Japanese/English dictionary defines the term as “between space, room, free time, passing, distance,” allowing for interpretations of ma as a preposition, noun, verb, and adjective, all with varied nuances.
The concept of ma can be found in any art form—music, dance, theater, painting, architecture—or in any structure in which two parts create a visual, aural or temporal space. One may find manifestations of ma in more indigenous cultural offering such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, stone gardens, or sports such as kendo, judo, and sumo wrestling. In most instances, the ma recognizes the space or time between the two parts, or between the first and the second steps in a sequence of events. In essence, ma is a part of daily life and, because of its ubiquity, can be perceived in many diverse forms.
I admit that these are not ideas original to the Japanese. The sensitivity to silence and its pertinence in Western music is one of the ways in which the West recognizes ma. Many Western composers would agree that silences or pauses are an important part of their music and that they take care in how and where they place them. However, as I encountered music by Japanese composers and also spoke to them about the idea of ma, I discovered various permutations of how one understands the “space.”
Here are a few different ways of understanding ma in music:
• Many Japanese performers consider ma as the underlying force that determines phrasing. For them, how one places each note is the ma itself.
• Shomyo, a Buddhist ceremony, continues to influence the works of contemporary Japanese composers. Maki Ishii (1936-) finds the idea of “vocal multiplicity,” in which the unison-like flow and refinement in the chanting of the shomyo sutra create a sense of diversity within unity, particularly applicable to how the Japanese perceive a sense of space.
• Ishii also talks about how ma can be created by successive climactic peaks. He deliberately juxtaposes strings of build-ups with no end in sight, so that one experiences prolonged time.
• Repetitions and echoes lead to an awareness of two separate spatial concepts and therefore highlight ma.
• Karen Tanaka (1961-) defines ma as “...sense of silence. Sense of space. The best timing and the best measuring the sound comes in.”
• Ma can be also the distance between the composer and the performer. It is the process by which the music written by a composer comes to life through a performer(s).
Toshio Hosokawa, another prominent Japanese composer, suggests that Western music is more concerned with how groups of notes function together. Western music has a momentum that moves towards the end of a piece. He claims that Japanese music on the other hand focuses on each note’s tone color, its birth and termination and, because of this, exalts the space that each note occupies.
When Japanese composers embraced the Western musical tradition and began contributing to its evolution, they brought with them a new set of cultural hallmarks. In "Resonating Culture: Sound of Japan in the Music of Maki Ishii, Karen Tanaka, and Toshio Hosokawa," I address only one aesthetic element and its possible interpretations in the context of Western music but presume that there are other ways of indentifying a Japanese voice. Instead of attempting to isolate uniquely Japanese features, however, it is ultimately more rewarding to appreciate how West and East can come together to create new sounds.

Shomyo Buddhist Ritual: Dai Hannya Ceremony Shingon Sect from Anthology of Traditional Musics. Unesco, 1999.
Messages for the 21st Century Volume 2: Music of Keiko Fujie, Joji Yuasa, Karen Tanaka and Toshiro Saruya. Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Hiroyuki Iwaki, conductor. Deutche Grammophon, 1995.
Messages for the 21st Century Volume 4: Music of Toru Takemitsu. Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Hiroyuki Iwaki, conductor, Masafumi Hori, violin , Christian Lindberg, trombone. Deutche Grammophon, 1997.

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updated: 8/11/2011