A common complaint among many listeners dipping their toes into the avant garde for the first time is, “I don’t understand why it has to be so ugly!” And it certainly isn’t an easy job explaining to them what led the composer of a piece, say, describing a beautiful landscape, or setting some well-loved lines of verse, has chosen to cram it full of dissonance. Of course, an equally common reply would include arguments somewhere along the lines of “ugliness is relative” and “you can train your ear to find beauty in just about anything”; the validity or otherwise of these responses is perhaps best left for another blog entry!
But what if the “ugliness” has been directly inspired, compelled even, by the composer’s subject-matter? What if it’s only by using such “ugliness” that he or she can even begin to process some immeasurable catastrophe or other? And what if, in doing so, the composer is actually straying outside the confines of what had hitherto been considered his or her “language” in an effort to find one that might hopefully fit 0.00001% of the bill?
Such is was the case with Masao Ohki, a composer originally inspired by Tchaikovsky. Yes, that Tchaikovsky, he of the 1812 Overture and The Nutcracker (as well as a considerable amount of more “serious stuff”). The musicologist Edward Garden memorably coined the phrase “Bellini with a Russian accent” to describe the “singing” lines often found in Tchaikovsky’s music; have a listen to the first track of the following album and see whether you agree that, if anything could be described as “Tchaikovsky with a Japanese accent”, it’s this:
Now listen to the very next track. Hard to believe it’s from the pen of the same composer, isn’t it? Upper strings hover eerily, getting nowhere fast. There are discordant interjections from the brass and woodwind that do likewise, culminating in a desolately aimless wander around the chromatic scale from a solo flute. Cellos and basses are, all of a sudden, allowed the space to spin out something that sounds like a genuine melody…but then, just as suddenly, a real cacophony erupts and, in turn, is cut off.
What could possibly have prompted this drastic stylistic swerve? By way of explanation, here are the words of Doundou Tchil of the Classical Iconoclast blog, which are much better than any I could come up with:
We take Hiroshima for granted but in 1952 Japan was still under military occupation and Japanese people weren’t allowed official news of the bombing. News leaked out as small horrible hints: people who knew people who knew first hand…Ohki’s Hiroshima Symphony is carefully constructed, as if “boxes within boxes” can make sense of the chaos…It’s a bizarrely abstract piece, strikingly modern, particularly when considering how Ohki had been cut off from western mainstream music for a good fifteen years since the Japanese regime, allied to the Nazis, suppressed “modern” music.
So modern is it, in fact, that it often seems ahead of its time. The specific movement of the work that Tchil is referring to in his third sentence is entitled Atomic Desert: Boundless desert with skulls, after one of the Marukis’ Hiroshima Panels from which the work as a whole takes both its inspiration and its structure. At the time it was written, György Ligeti was making his very first forays into the “texture” music for which he would come to earn fame/infamy, due, in part, to the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ohki couldn’t possibly have known this, and yet here are the same tone clusters, glissandi (brilliantly described as “flatlining” by Tchil) and extremes of register that Ligeti counted among his compositional building blocks.
Indeed, as the symphony progresses, more and more seemingly vast acres of music are spent in a kind of stunned dissonance-stasis. Anything “conventionally” emotionally demonstrative is allowed to intrude but rarely, and even then is often callously short-changed. A clear example of this is the climax of the Boys and Girls: Boys and girls died without knowing any joy of human life and calling for their parents movement: the release that the strings have been straining towards seems to come at last in the form of the the work’s one and only unequivocal major cadence, but as it fades out the chord in which they have sought refuge reveals itself to be fatally undermined by minor thirds.
In the work’s concluding Epilogue, the longest movement by far, elements of music we have heard already have the appearance of being trapped on a Moebius band of inexpressible pain: they develop, then are juxtaposed with contrasting material again and again, inching further each time only to be dragged back with an inevitability that makes their efforts seem futile. After the low strings’ melodic “motto” sounds for the final time, what’s this we hear? Is it a low drone, perhaps providing the “closure” that has been kept at bay for over half an hour? No, our ears have deceived us one last time: it’s an agonisingly inconclusive minor second clash, fading out to nothingness, perhaps to indicate the composer’s acknowledgement that even all the “ugliness” he could muster wasn’t enough to depict the unimaginable. And maybe this one-time Tchaikovskian’s riposte if asked why his 5th Symphony had to be this way would be, “How could it be anything other?”