Sunao Isaji – His Style and Motto –

written by Fujimoto Koki
translated by Shimizu Chatori

 In some cases where Japanese composers are interpreted in languages other than in Japanese, their portrayal of the composer must be, to a certain extent, held unified with words distant from the innate signification. To give an example, Toru Takemitsu has successfully won the hearts of European and American audiences by explaining his concept as “using Japanese instruments and incorporating the Japanese sense of time and expressions into Western music”. However, from a Japanese perspective, Takemitsu’s concepts are not limited to the above mentioned, and his usage of Japanese instruments in his works represents only a minute slice of his musicality. There are surprisingly few Japanese publications that explores and analyses Takemitsu’s works, and many which exist are essays, dialogues, and relatively simple discussions of his works. We are able to observe many instances on the differences on how Japanese and non-Japanese people viewed Takemitsu. Perhaps Takemitsu himself was aware of this, and it seems as though his guitar works are notated differently when the premiere was to be done by a Japanese or a non-Japanese person. 

  The composer of the work I would like to introduce in this article, Sunao Isaji, is a composer similar to that of the diverse perception Takemitsu had on his portrayal. Moreover, I have a difficult time to interpret his pieces with words, even more so than that of Takemitsu’s. It is so because when we experience his works, we are unable to grasp it with “reason and emotion”, a commonly heard term in European music. His intention is to capture something more ambiguous through his music, and by translating them into words, there is a possibility that the process reduces its true value. 

  Sunao Isaji was born in 1968, and studied composition under Akira Nishimura at Tokyo College of Music. In his career, he has won numerous composition competitions, as well as been awarded various prizes. His style ranges from the so-called contemporary music to ones with a tint of tonality, and also uses reminiscent of the medieval era. He designates his styles freely within his work, often having two styles contradicting each other in a piece. Additionally, he uses non-conventional instruments and toys into his works, as well as improvisational and performative aspects in the style, and Isaji himself has been seen performing in his own works too. His wide range of interests span from Japanese history to folklore, soccer to Brazilian music, and historical dramas to films, and those interests are often revealed and depicted in one form or another within his expressions.

  I have premiered “Noche Dorada”, a piece composed by Isaji for a guitar solo, at the Tokyo Opera City Recital Hall, back in 2019. The program notes on the day of the premiere are as follows.

  Gold has always fascinated human beings, regardless of time and location. It is not only the charm as a mineral, but also a charm of the desire which stems out of the possessor of gold. Moreover, it’s a charm of beauty, of which the color transforms with the amount of light shown on the mineral. During the so-called Age of Discovery, rumors have suggested that there exists a golden village of ‘El Dorado’ in the swamps of Amazon. The Age of Discovery, put in other words, is also an era of aggression. Until the end of the 18th Century (or around the birth year of Bach), Westerners’ maps depicted the location of ‘El Dorado’. To where did the people in search of this golden village sail, and what have they seen? 

  In Japan in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (15th Century), Toyotomi Hideyoshi set up a golden tearoom during. In recent years, researchers believe that it was an embodiment of his perspective of the universe. Going back in time to the 14th Century, Kinkakuji was built, which was set on fire by a young monk in the 20th Century.

  Isaji constantly tries to grasp the “something” through music that cannot be captured in the habitual and accustomed way. His program notes often refer to stories rather than his explanation of the structure of the composition. By not directly describing the music himself, he attempts to give a special meaning to the act of “listening” in a dimension distinct from music.

  “Noche Dorada” is comprised of six movements *1, and each of them has a subtitle noted only as symbols, such as a star or a circle. Consequently, the performer must decide the order of performance herself/himself. Along with the word “golden” of various ages and lands, the performer and the audience are encouraged to interpret the music in connection with their respective knowledge and experiences. At times, the piece may be interpreted by the audience in ways that the composer had not considered when composing. However, such elements of interpretations could also have been anticipated by the composer. We are able to witness these cycles of intentions by the composer and the interpretations by the audience, interconnected with one another.

  His works encompass tonality to some extent, which from the ears familiar to “contemporary music”, might sound quite harmonious. However, there are many other instances where this is not the case, and no clear distinction can be made in between the two. It is also unclear whether there exists a fixed composition system of his works. One obvious point is that he intentionally avoids repetitive motifs, and each musical element is deliberately blurred out and obscured. This analysis of Isaji, however, often fails to grasp the true meanings of his works. In fact, I believe that the fact that his works cannot be analyzed in conventional methods is a great hint to truly understanding his music.

  In “Noche Dorada”, he introduces extended techniques not conventional to many of the common works for guitar. In some movements, bends are used to distort chords in order to create a peculiar atmosphere. Moreover, the bend is almost improvised in a sense that the spectrum of the bend is left to the performer’s discretion. For other techniques, Isaji uses a performance technique of lightly touching or rubbing the nails on the strings, in which the performer must continuously produce the appropriate noise in a very sensitive, soft sound. This section blurs the line between the act of playing the guitar, and the act of not playing it. 

According to the composer himself, the noise produced by the nail is an imagery of delicate bubbles that appear when sake is fermented. 

  In music, distorting sounds and producing noise is a common phenomenon. He intelligently limits using these techniques in order to give a significant effect on the passage of time. In many of his works, there are instances which makes us feel as if we are traveling to another world, and it is in these instances where he introduces the above-mentioned techniques. For example, in his work “Spy and Dancer” for recorder flute and xylophone, the xylophone player suddenly starts circulating in his position, and the musicality diverges into the next dimension. In his orchestral work “A Tightrope Walker, a Violet Flower”, the act of playing an instrument gradually shifts to the act of deep breathing, and the melody reminiscent of a nursery rhyme is quietly sung by the orchestral instrumentalists.

  We are able to explore what Isaji aims in his expressions by studying the commentary on “A Tightrope Walker, a Violet Flower”, recorded in his CD “Teatro Saudade”. 

  I am interested in things that aren’t clearly distinguishable, such as the boundaries between “heaven and earth”, something unexplainable like walking right on top of a border, or the feeling of going back and forth between a boundary. Also, I think that creating music is to (thoroughly) sharpen one’s physical sensibilities and acquire such “things ineffable with words” in oneself. 

(Sunao Isaji, Teatro Saudade, Fontec, 2008, FOCD2565)

  Unlike some of the American avant-garde music, Isaji’s music does not rely on chance operations. He also does not have a clear system for composition, and eclecticly merges existing composition techniques with the unknown. It is his essence in his music, that he wanders around the boundaries of things not belonging to any categorization, and that he continues the search for “things we cannot express with words”. If we are to say that Western art music is based on the balance of “reason and emotion”, I would say that the “emotion” in Isaji’s music wraps up the “reason”. 

  The music itself does not hold any clear structures, and the balance is carefully molded one by one by hand. To put it simply, the sound of chaos to one’s ears have also been picked by the composer in an extremely delicate manner, and furthermore, is carefully composed. Only those who have deeply experienced and connected with the music are able to feel the invisible compositional structures of the works, and can grasp the “reason” aspect of the music.  There are several other chamber works by Sunao Isaji, and the score of his “Tropical Count” for guitar solo is published from Zen-On Music.

*1 The piece comprised five moments at the time of premiere, however, a new movement was added later on.