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Japanese harpsichord music

Calvert Johnson, Agnes Scott College


Four Pieces for Harpsichord (1994) - Makiko ASAOKA (b. 1956)


Les Tourbillons



(Tokyo: The Japan Federation of Composers, Inc., 1995)

Ancient Cities (1986) - Isaac NAGAO (b. 1938)

(manuscript courtesy of the composer)

Jardin des Herbes (1989) - Karen TANAKA (b. 1961)


Sweet Violet


(London: Chester, 1989)

Sonatina for Harpsichord (2002) - Asako HIRABAYASHI (b. 1960)




(Premiere performance; manuscript courtesy of the composer)

Wolf Instruments: French double harpsichord


Although Western music and organs were introduced to Japan by Portuguese and Italian missionaries in 1579, and Japanese actually constructed organs between 1606-1613, there was no lasting influence after the Tokugawa expelled all foreign missions. Japan opened to the West in many ways in 1868, including musically as Western military marches and Protestant hymns were adopted. The new school curriculum included only Western music. A generation later, Japanese composers were actively composing in Western idioms, and in the 1930s Japanese musicians were abreast of developments in Europe. World War II only temporarily slowed this development, and as early as 1946 contemporary music festivals were celebrated. The exchange of musical ideas has not been a one-way street; Western violin and piano teachers have adopted the methods of Shin'ichi SUZUKI, and Yamaha and Kawai pianos and other musical instruments are highly regarded throughout the world. Today most Japanese music lovers know Western music-classical and popular-better than their own traditional classical and folk musics.

A graduate of Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, Makiko ASAOKA studied with SHISHIDO Matsuo, IKENOUCHI Tomojiro, NAGATOMI Masayuki and UZAKI Koichi. An active singer, she has been recognized in several composition competitions. Her Four Pieces of Harpsichord is a major work influenced by the 18th-century French clavecinistes. The "Prélude" is the most Asian-sounding as it develops two brief ideas. The opening rolled chords recall koto music, while the melodic motif is presented in various transformations, including sequence and inversion. Les "Tourbillons" (whirlwind) is composed in bitonality-one hand playing in A and the other in A-flat (similar to mixolydian mode)-as one hand provides a rocking accompaniment to a syncopated melody that is sometimes presented in parallel fourths or fifths. "Caprice" also plays two musical ideas alternatively. First is a wide-ranging melody filled with fifths (or its inversion), and the second is a succession of short motives whether chordal or melodic, but everything is improvisatory and capriciously unexpected. "Rio" reflects Latin popular rhythms, melodies, and harmonies as the meter constantly shifts from 5/8 (3+2 or 2+3) to 7/8 (3+2+2) to 4/8 (2+2). Cross-cultural influences abound in this charming set of pieces. (Biographical notes found in the 1998 catalogue of the Japan Federation of Composers).

A native of Yonago, Japan, Dr. Isaac NAGAO is professor of music at Naruto University of Education and organist and pianist for Tokushima Baptist Church. He completed his doctorate at Columbia Pacific University, the master's at Tokyo Gakugei University, and the bachelor's in music education at Shimane University. He has written extensively for keyboard instruments (piano, organ, and harpsichord), often on Christian themes. Ancient Cities evokes Japanese music with somewhat pentatonic melodies and harmonies as derived from a koto or shamisen. The overall structure is three-part, with a much more meditative central section contrasting with the quicker and contrapuntal outer sections (Notes from an email from the composer).

Karen TANAKA began to study piano at the age of four and composition at the age of 10. She completed a bachelor's degree in composition (with Miyoshi) at the Toha Gakuin School of Music in Tokyo in 1986, and then studied with Murail at the IRCAM in Paris, and with Berio in Florence. She is active as a composer based in Paris working on technology in music composition. Jardin des Herbes is representative of her writing style: well crafted with attention to detail and attention to the transformation of timbres similar to the effect of light refracting through crystals and prisms. "Rosemary: A Bush with pale blue flowers glowing in the moonlight…" plays with shifting tones alternating, for example, G and G# with rhythms constantly shifting as well (3:2, 5:4, 6:5, 3:5, 10:6, etc.). "Sweet Violet: Early spring flowers with seductive scent" is set in a freely ternary structure providing an attractive melody accompanied by consonant, yet not quite tonal harmonies. "Lavender: with tranquility and purity" sets a shimmering trilling against a double 3:2 pattern in the outer sections and a slower central section with low rolled chords.

Asako HIRABAYASHI earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from the Aichi Art University in Japan, and the Doctor of Musical Arts in harpsichord performance from the Juilliard School. Her harpsichord teachers include Lionel Party, Albert Fuller, Edward Parmentier, and Eiji Hashimoto. She has taught at Aichi Gakusen University, Ichimura College, and the Juilliard School. She has performed as a harpsichord soloist throughout the United States, Japan, and Europe, notably at the International Bach Festival of Sumy, Ukraine, the International Contemporary Music Festival "Contrasts" in Lvov, Ukraine, and the Ars Viva Series at Goucher College. Her Carnegie Hall debut was a result of winning a Special Presentation Award. The New York Concert Review described her performance, "a gifted harpsichordist with genuine … refined sensibilities for phrasing, dynamic gradations and nuanced tonal beauty," and these qualities can also be found in her composition of the Sonatina for Harpsichord, written for and dedicated to Calvert Johnson. "It was inspired by the Sonatina for Solo Harpsichord by Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924). As in Busoni's piece, a simple and quiet motif pervades the work, and is developed in various ways. The piece is more or less polytonal, not quite tonal, and neither polyphonic nor homophonic. In writing this piece, [Hirabayashi] tried to take advantage of the special characteristics of the harpsichord, and so the piece should be most effective on this instrument." She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwestern Historical Keyboard Society and is harpsichordist of the Cincinnati Baroque Orchestra. (Notes from an email from the composer).

Calvert Johnson is Charles A. Dana Professor of Music and College Organist at Agnes Scott College, where he teaches organ, harpsichord, sacred music, music history, and women in music and chairs the music department. Johnson earned the master's and doctorate in organ performance at Northwestern University and the B.A. at Kalamazoo College. Through the Fulbright-Hays program and a French Government Grant, he studied at the Toulouse Conservatoire, from which he was awarded the Premier Prix. He has performed throughout the USA, in Japan, England, Italy, France, Monaco, Switzerland, and Germany. Among his prominent performances are the Piccolo Spoleto Festival of Charleston, South Carolina; the Eighth International Organ Festival of Morelia, Mexico; Guanajuato, Mexico (for the 1993 conference and tour of Mexican Organs sponsored by the Westfield Center for Early Keyboard Studies); programs for Radio-France; The College Music Society's meetings at Santa Fe, Savannah, and Atlanta; the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Kennedy Center, Washington, representing the state of Arkansas in the Bicentennial year. Johnson has performed and lectured on women composers and on early keyboard music at colleges and for numerous chapters of the American Guild of Organists. He has recorded CDs for Calcante Recordings. His books on early Spanish, Italian, and English organ music are published by Wayne Leupold Editions, and his modern editions of works by women composers are published by Vivace Press, ClarNan Editions, Hildegard Publishing, and G. K. Hall. His recording Chicago Renaissance Woman: Florence B. Price Organ Works was awarded the third annual prize by the Sonneck Society for American Music. Past President of the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society and past Dean of the Atlanta and Tulsa chapters of the American Guild of Organists, Johnson is included in the International Who's Who in Music and in Who's Who in Music in America.