Improvised Music from Japan / Ryoji Hojito

Liner Notes of Ryoji Hojito's CD Pliocine

by Daisuke Fukuchi
(assistant curator of Kushiro Art Museum, Hokkaido)

Hojito Ryoji is a musician who practices a form of musical expression that makes use of the entire piano, thereby expanding the expressive range of the piano as an instrument. His playing style looks highly eccentric. To obtain a unique sound, he puts various and sundry objects inside the piano--a wooden block, a piece of foam styrene, a bowl of coffee beans, an electric toothbrush, and so on--having predicted their effect on the sound. These objects unite with the strings and frame of the instrument; and then the strange resonance they produce turns into novel and unforgettable harmonic overtones which are conveyed into listeners' ears.

The piano is an instrument which normally is played by hitting the keys on the keyboard. Although it is a very large instrument, players generally use a very limited part of it for musical expression--the keyboard and pedals. But it seems only natural to conceive of extending the instrument's expressive power by manipulating the strings or hammers, which are the actual sound generators. It seems natural, I should say, provided one does not regard the inside of the golden frame, surrounded by the jet black board with its mirror-like reflection, as the forbidden world of a Buddhist family altar.

In fact, in countries where people have never seen or heard of Buddhist altars, there was nothing new about handling the internal structure of the piano. John Cage composed a work for prepared piano 60 years ago. Going further back, Henry Cowell in the 1920s innovated the technique of plucking and tapping the piano strings. Cage's work for prepared piano came into being when he had to use the piano in place of percussion instruments in composing music to accompany performing arts. First he considered various sounds coming out of the prepared piano as substitutions for the tones of percussion instruments; and then he attempted to produce rhythms which would enhance the richness of these tones.

Cage brought an element of uncertainty to music. In the world of music, any form of expresson is OK as long as it is based on a clear theory; and originators are respected. Guided by this way of thinking, which at first glance seems rather rough, Cage broke new ground, making a remarkable contribution to the liberation of music from an area closed in by musical grammar. Ironically, however, the practitioners of academic contemporary music did not take advantage of this newly obtained freedom to move toward the creation of a new world where the range of human sensitivity would be expanded. Rather, it attached greater importance to the verification of the environment in which music comes into existence, and tended toward analytical expression and the exclusion of the composer's and musician's consciousness and subjectivity from the composing and playing processes. Thus, the prepared piano was buried along with most of 20th-century experimental music, lost its life force as a tool of musical expression, and remained in people's consciousness only as a term recalled from musical history.

Such were the prevailing musical conditions when Hojito Ryoji--coming from a completely different background--began his musical activity with a mode of expression making use of the entire piano. He attempts to eliminate traditional tonality and rhythm from his melodies and tone, but at the same time there is a very lyrical side to his playing. This is undoubtedly because he did not create his style via a methodology of pure experimentation with technique and tone; rather, he arrived at his style via the profound emotion which he wants to express, and the motifs which he wants to develop.

For example, in pieces that begin on just the keyboard, there are motifs which convey feelings such as tenderness and nostalgia. In particular, the expression in the first motif of the second tune "My Treasure," with its pentatonic progression, seems very natural for a contemporary Japanese person. This is not an orderly form of expression based on an individual concrete memory or everyday feeling; it is a form of expression that comes from the primordial chaos which exists inherently in the human heart. The substance of Hojito's improvised expression lies in the music which a player reproduces through the filter of sensitivity, by subconsciously capturing outlines of images from the deepest part of the universal human consciousness.

In the fifth tune on this CD, Hojito makes a fat sound (playing a cylindrical instrument(?) with a saxophone mouthpiece). The call of a humpback whale provided him with the inspiration for this sound. The low-pitched, melancholy phrases effectively express the grief that lies deep within the hearts of whales and other living creatures whose habitats have been destroyed. This kind of expression could never be the product of superficial cleverness or a haphazard idea.

Listening to Hojito's performance you will undoubtedly experience many delicate moments that sparkle like jewels, provided you pay attention not to the the unconventional playing style or the power of the performance, but to what can be expressed only in this style, and to the feeling it produces. If you do, you will surely discover the process in which each sparkle--that is, each motif--develops with richness and breadth.

The performance on this CD was recorded at the Tampere Jazz Happening '98 in Finland in October of that year. Hojito played on the final day of the festival. Not only was his performance very well received by the audience, it also made a strong impact on the staff and other musicians who participated in the festival. His music caused such a sensation that the following day the Finnish newspapers gave him extensive coverage; and apparently, many of the people who were taken with his performance at Tampere hurried to go and see the concert held a little later at KIASMA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland).

The Finns have always appreciated the kind of clear-toned, expansive expression exemplified in the works of Sibelius and Palmgren. Hojito's performance in that time and place must have touched the hearts of the Finnish people in a different way than it touches the hearts of Japanese.

February 25, 2000

English translation by Cathy Fishman and Yoshiyuki Suzuki

Last updated: July 8, 2000