During a symposium Saturday at the Kennedy Center, two eminent American composers, George Crumb and Gunther Schuller, pondered the subject "Japanese Music and Its Impact on American Culture." Each acknowledged having come under its spell, but neither could fully articulate the character of the influence.
Both agreed, though, that there were at least two essential elements. One was extreme variety and delicacy of timbre. The other was the illusion of timelessness, an absence of momentum.
This symposium was part of the 10th annual "Music From Japan" festival. Its principal event was a concert yesterday of four Japanese works, none of them ever played here before. Schuller, an authority in this field, conducted the center's Opera House Orchestra.
Joji Yuasa's "Scenes from Basho" was a triumph very much of the kind that the two composers were trying to describe. It is a haunting expression of stasis in music.
Each of the three movements is a concise, brief tone poem based on a haiku by Basho. The dominant forces in the music's action are the more resonant percussion, the brass and the harp. They are all supported by a sort of suspended cushion in the strings. There is no overt melody as the levels of sounds slowly shift.
Just as pure sonority the music is beautiful. But, more important, the moods of the movements are sharply delineated and matched to their haiku subjects.
Whether this necessarily makes the music any more Japanese than the other works played is subject to dispute. After all, plenty of Westerners have set haiku to music. And Yuasa himself lives in San Diego. In fact, some of the qualities Crumb and Schuller identified as Japanese can be heard in Schuller's own "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee."
The other works sounded more unmistakably western. Yasushi Akutagawa's "Triptyque, Three Movements for String" was a pleasant folkish piece -- sort of like smaller-scale Barto'k, but without the complications. Shin Sato's Piano Concerto is in the three-movement compact 20th-century mold of Barto'k, Prokofiev, Ravel and many others. The bravura piano part was powerfully played by Akira Jinno. The concerto was percussive, dissonant and too predictable for its own good.
Michio Mamiya's "Children's Field for Children's Chorus and Orchestra," settings of five Japanese children's verses, was light and insouciant. The Sidwell Friends Middle School Chorus sounded lovely.