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
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
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
• 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
• 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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