Rethinking Sen no Ongaku (Linear Music)

Jo Kondo’s Subjective Pluralism

written by  HIGUCHI Teppei
translated by Adam Zuckerman


This paper reviews the collection of early writings entitled Sen no Ongaku (Linear Music) by Jo Kondo (1947-), a Japanese composer of international renown. In particular, I am interested in the pluralism of his discourse. The text itself describes Kondo’s “own thinking process and compositional methodology”, for which Kondo coined the term “sen no ongaku”, meaning “linear music” in Japanese1. The writings were first published in 1979 and are widely considered a milestone in the new aesthetic and philosophical thinking in Japanese modern music. Upon republication in 2014 the book was described as

the monumental book Sen no Ongaku, of which first publication in 1979 brought about epoch-making approaches to composition and listening in Japanese contemporary classical music! The first collection of writings by the composer who rejected dodecaphony, total serialism, and tone-cluster music as ‘idiolects’ and stepped forward into “sen no ongaku”. (book cover)

Despite its pronouncement as monumental and epoch-making, rereading Sen no Ongaku today leaves the reader with a distinct sense of the distance in time that separates us from its initial publication. The problems that Kondo was working through in Japan in the 1970s appear entirely different from those problems which I am working through in Japan now in 2021. What ostensibly made the book important appears irrelevant now.

However, Sen no Ongaku also contains a fascinating problem: its discourse is lengthy, contradictory, and even incoherent. This suggests a kind of pluralism which appears not in what Kondo writes about (mostly his sen no ongaku method of composition) but in how he writes about it. This unique pluralism is the most intriguing characteristic of Sen no Ongaku and is very relevant to contemporary music discourse. My analysis will therefore focus on this how of the text, wherein I find what I call Kondo’s plural subjectivity. 

Kondo repeatedly asserts that there are multiple modes of listening; he adds, moreover, that a person gradually conforms to a single mode to the exclusion of the others.

Since people unconsciously discover a single mode of listening, through which they receive a particular musical facet within the spectrum of musical differences, they are not necessarily responding to each music with the mode of listening it requires. (107)

By referring to a “single mode of listening”, Kondo insists on the singularity and exclusivity of one’s listening capacity. He explains that this exclusivity comes from one’s social and cultural environment. This emphasis appears even more clearly when Kondo makes the following geographical distinction:

An ear cultivated by the European tradition seems to emphasize the temporal aspects of music, because its tradition has given prominence to the stability of musical time. [……] On the other hand, an ear cultivated by the American tradition is averse to its own teleology continuing from the European tradition, because it is rooted in a sense of non-time. (238)

This rough mapping of European and American modes of listening does not interest me. Nevertheless, Kondo’s cartographic attempt to delineate them recalls the kind of musical pluralism proposed by Charles Seeger in 1958:2

We have not more than coined a word when we speak of the concept “music” or even “a music”. [……] [W]e may begin to correct our misperception of other musics than our own by cultivating “bi-musicality” [……].  

I understand ‘a music’ to suggest the existence of other music, or other kinds of music. For Seeger, the term “a music” is particularly meant to apply to Western classical music, where it is a way to steep the dominant culture in a pluralism where there is no longer such a thing as “the music”. Any music exists merely as one particular kind among many coexisting ‘musics’. Furthermore, ‘bi-musicality’ starts the conversation between a music and another music……

As we saw earlier, Kondo suggested that people eventually conform to a single mode of listening. Hopefully this mode of listening is within the framework of ‘a music’, with the recognition that there are other musics with other modes of listening.  But, in fact, people mostly conform to a mode of listening within the framework of ‘the music’ — which is to say with a singular, normative mode of listening which is then falsely applied to all music. As opposed to Seeger’s concept of ‘a music’, in our world today music is most often presented within the framework of ‘the music’.  Perhaps the most well-known figure writing within the framework of ‘the music’ is Theodor W. Adorno, particularly in his discussion of jazz music. When Adorno claims that “all the more subtle characteristics of jazz refer back to this style [of Debussy and Delius]” 3, his approach to jazz is well within the framework of ‘the music’. Adorno maps jazz on the same musical plane alongside Beethoven, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and others, and by ignoring the fact that jazz does not so clearly adhere to the normative framework of classical music he is able to conclude that jazz is merely doing what these composers had already done:

Musically, this “modernity” [of jazz] refers primarily to sound and rhythm, without fundamentally breaking the harmonic-melodic convention of traditional dance music.4

Jo Kondo’s argument is different from Adorno’s, because Kondo does not hesitate to contradict his earlier statement about our conformity to a single mode of listening:

“Modes of listening” are cultivated by the cultural/societal environment. Nonetheless, even if one comes across music which may not be adequately perceived by the ear, it would not be too difficult to obtain a “mode of listening” required by the music through the experience of listening to it time and again. (193)

Whereas at first Kondo told us that our becoming ingrained in a single mode of listening rendered us incapable of listening to music which required a different mode of listening, he now makes the opposite assertion, namely that it would not be very difficult at all to adopt a different mode of listening required by another music.

However, the opposition between these two claims is not what I am calling Kondo’s subjective pluralism because these two claims are, despite their opposition, nevertheless operating within the same framework. When Kondo maps two different “modes of listening” – such as between America and Europe or between single and multiple modes of listening – these oppositions co-exist on a spectrum or on the same map, so to speak, and they are easily discernible from their surface differences. In other words, it is possible to indicate these dichotomies schematically – to map America and Europe or to diagram opposed modes of listening. In this sense, rather than “plural”, these oppositions are “contradictory”, “incoherent”, “dialectic” – because regardless of how different one position might be from another, they are ultimately related to one another as points on the same plane, belonging to the same world, just as Adorno mapped jazz according to his conception of “the music” — western classical music.

Kondo’s pluralism is – to continue the map metaphor – something similar to the maps of Takayuki Imaizumi. Imaizumi has been making maps of the imaginary (i.e., nonexistent) city of “Nagomuru” for more than 20 years. Rather than merely representing Imaizumi’s ideal place, the Nagomuru city maps are so exquisitely detailed that they appear to be of a real district in Japan.

The city of Nagomuru, so long as it is considered imaginary or nonexistent, is not found on a map of Japan. However, the city could exist in such a way that it alters one’s conception of reality. By making a new map of Japan and placing Nagomuru amongst the other cities, Nagomuru acquires an aspect of reality equal in part to that of the other Japanese cities. Furthermore, the two maps cannot exist side by side: the creation of this new map supplants the old map; its acquired reality cancels the previously accepted reality. In this sense, these two maps — the old map of Japan and the new map of Japan — cannot belong to the same surface; as a result, a new surface is created. 

I am calling Jo Kondo a pluralist because he evokes a new surface in a manner similar to Imaizumi’s new mapping of Japan. This pluralism appears for example in the chapter of Sen no Ongaku entitled “Joseph Love”, in which a new conception emerges that differs entirely from the concepts of single or multiple modes of listening discussed above:

its soma [body] extends    towards the  enormity of a whole, real world,     so that    the soma means not only one’s body   but also    the world   [……]    certainly  this doesn’t mean   one’s identity is erased …    you    clearly know that you exist  but      in a way    have too close contact and conception,   i guess,   so that   such a distinction between subject           object    would stop making sense. (169)  

Here Kondo describes a specific subjectivity that expands towards the magnitude of the universe. But he is also concerned with the disappearance of identity. Rather than intersubjective, then, Kondo’s text is closer to a kind of pan-subjectivity. Pan-subjectivity — as expressed for instance by Kenji Miyazawa’s protagonist Ryōan when he says “Yes, it is me. Also, it is you. Because what my existence is, is also what you are feeling”5; or, in another instance, pan-subjectivity is what Walt Whitman  approaches in Song of Myself  when he continuously expands contours of his being; thus following the opening of the poem (“I celebrate myself, and sing myself”) he reveals the elasticity of his being (“What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me”) until finally disappearing:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

(52nd canto, 5th stanza)

This Kondo-Whitmanian “pan-subjectivity” overturns the conflict between the two opposed conceptions of modes of listening.  The former discussion was about the question of whether people can obtain other modes of listening or not. It was still a matter of what, of choosing either A or B, where A. – the possibility of attaining a way of listening required by the music; and B. – the impossibility of responding to each music with the particular mode of listening it requires. The pan-subjective voice of Kondo and Whitman introduces the matter of how as opposed to what, while its indifference to the question of ‘A’ or ‘B’ nullifies the conflict implicit in their choice, as well as rendering their opposition without sense. The Kondo-Whitmanian voice tells us that such a distinction between subject and object would stop making sense because his being is not only as expansive as the universe; his being is likewise at the smallest, micro scale — such that you might find him under your boot-soles.

Throughout the course of this review we have observed at least three voices in Kondo’s discourse: voice A, voice B which is opposed to A, and a third Whitmanian voice which nullifies the conflict between voices A and B. I attribute all three of these voices to Kondo. This is not, to be sure, a Beethovenian question of what must be, of having to choose either “A or B”. For Kondo keeping this question would be impossible within his pluralistic framework; even when one of Kondo’s voices is Beethovenian, another voice is – as we have observed – the Whitmanian voice which is totally indifferent to the Beethovenian opposition. These plural subjectivities, in terms of how to map A and B, cannot belong to the same world.

The pluralism of how, as examined in Kondo’s discourse, is a working place as well for my group Théâtre Musical Tokyo where we insert the imaginary figure Keiko Yoneda (1912-1992) into Japanese modern history6. It is also found in the work of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), who wrote many works under many different — and in one case also very Whitmanian — “heteronyms”7. Pessoa writes:

Each of my dreams, as soon as I start dreaming it, is immediately incarnated in another person, who is then the one dreaming it, and not I. To create, I’ve destroyed myself…… I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.8

  1 近藤譲[KONDO Jo]、『線の音楽』[Sen no OngakuLinear Music)]、東京:アルテスパブリッシング[Tokyo : Artes Publishing]、2014年、8頁 [ 2014, p. 8]。In this paper, all citations from Kondo’s Sen no Ongaku are my translation. In the following citations only the page numbers are given.

 2 Seeger, Charles. “Prescriptive and Descriptive Music-Writing.” The Musical Quarterly 44, no. 2, 1958, p. 193-195. My emphasis.

 3 Adorno, Theodor W.  “On Jazz.” Trans. by Daniel, James Owen. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture: Vol. 12: Iss. 1, Article 4, 1990, p. 59.

4 Ibid., p. 45.

5  宮沢賢治[MIYAZAWA Kenji]「マグノリアの木」[“Trees of Magnolia”]、『宮沢賢治全集6』[Complete Works of Kenji Miyazawa 6]、東京:筑摩書房[Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō]、1986年、140頁[1986, p. 140]。My translation.

6 Rückspiegel 3.5: Keiko Yoneda [2018] (voice, projector, and piano) – performed by Teppei Higuchi and Jack Dettling, at the CalArts Wild Beast, California, USA, on the 26th of February 2020.

 7 Pessoa insisted on calling his pen-names “heteronyms”. The Whitmanian heteronym I refer to here is Álvaro de Campos which was used when Pessoa wrote “Saudação a Walt Whitman” [Salutation to Walt Whitman].

 8 Pessoa, Fernando. A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems. Trans. by Zenith, Richard. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, xxiii.