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SEED 2021: Virtual Composition Academy

This article has been translated from the original Japanese publication dated January 3, 2022, on Gagaku Dayori Vol. 68.

  Emerging composers studying various composition styles across 21st Century Western art music generally receive individual guidance from their teachers in conservatories and universities. Apart from learning music theory, harmony and counterpoint, standard courses focus on score study, instrumentation, and orchestration. Furthermore, in order to understand the characteristics of each instrument, it is crucial for composers to accumulate knowledge of the correlations between notation and sound. This is achieved by listening to instrumentalists performing notated motifs.

  Nonetheless, composers are constantly searching for fresh ways of creating musical expressions. At times, this is presented as the concept of the work in and of itself, and, at other times, this is demonstrated through the sounding materials. Like the German composer Helmut Lachenmann (1935-) who incorporated the Gagaku shō in his opera “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern”, many other Western art music composers are pursuing sounds that are not conventional to the performance techniques of European orchestral instruments.

  Although it has been over fifty years since Japanese traditional instruments have first appeared in the context of Western art music, there are still numerous challenges for composers who wish to incorporate non-European/East Asian instruments into their works. Namely, opportunities to be exposed to East Asian musical cultures and instruments are rare in conservatories, as the curriculums are specifically designed to train expertise in Western music literature. Secondly, the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a common topic of discussion among artists in countries such as the United States and Canada. I feel that many composers are reluctant to incorporate unfamiliar cultural elements with only a superficial approach.


  In my opinion, the clue to finding solutions to the aforementioned challenges can be found in offering composers opportunities to learn the compositional techniques and musical heritages of East Asian instruments from mentors who are deeply engaged with them. Due to advancements in communication technologies, the cost of sharing information and knowledge has dramatically degreased, and it has become possible for students to take lessons and seminars from the most renowned mentors, regardless of time and place. In the midst of the pandemic in summer 2020, I decided to set up a composition academy which differed in focus and approach from conventional models: “SEED 2021: Virtual Composition Academy”.


  As mentioned above, most conservatories lack opportunities to encounter music and instruments originating from East Asia. In universities in the United States, I have also seen non-ideal situations in which researchers of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean traditional music are all scrambling to secure the limited budget and course slots allotted by the university for “Music of East Asia” curriculums. To put an end to this unfavorable competition between East Asian cultures, I decided to incorporate not only Japanese traditional instruments, but also instruments originating from the region as a whole. Consequently, I welcomed JunYi Chow, co-author of “TENG Guide to Chinese Orchestra”, to lead the project with me. Together, we decided to focus on the Japanese and Chinese mouth organs, and invited Mayumi Miyata and Remi Miura (Japanese shō) and Wu Wei (Chinese sheng) as our guest mentors. We knew we would gain a thorough insight into the instruments with them, from both the traditional and contemporary perspectives.


  Upon opening the submission period, we received 172 strong applications from over thirty countries and regions. The committee reviewed each submission carefully, and through comprehensive consideration of each applicant’s past compositions, profile, letter of intent, and work plan, ten applicants who presented the strongest applications were admitted to the academy. The ten participants ranged from an emerging to established composers, and their locations spanned from Sydney in Australia to San Francisco in the United States – a span of 18 hours in time difference (during the academy, Chow moved to Honolulu, HI, further widening the span of time difference to 21 hours). Furthermore, as there were many other applicants curious about the course, we were able to take advantage of the online format and have released the lecture archives to those who wanted to participate in the academy as auditors.


  SEED 2021 was supported by Asian Cultural Council (ACC) and fiscally sponsored by New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Because of this, we were able to provide all participants with full-tuition scholarships. The course language was taught in English.


  As composers ourselves, Chow and I strongly feel the need to not only study the instrumentation and performance techniques of an instrument, but to also be aware of how the instrument is used in the context of traditional and classical repertoires. In addition, it is important for composers to listen to what they notate in their scores, and, when necessary, change their ideas. We decided to reflect our values on the course design as much as possible.


  The academy was held from April 1st to September 30th. During the six-month long course, the guest mentors devoted the first two months to intensive sessions introducing traditional music, as well as to the analysis of contemporary works, compositional techniques, extended techniques, and notation. The participants were given the next two months to compose a piece for either shō or sheng, and the academy provided online reading sessions of their scores and composition lessons. In the final two months, we scheduled several online rehearsals, and the guest mentors recorded the newly composed music in professional recording studios. In the closing session on September 30th, the participants presented their scores alongside the recordings, and gave constructive peer-critiques of each other’s works.

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“Analysis of Contemporary Repertoires for Shō” by Mayumi Miyata (May 2021)

  A total of ten new pieces for shō and sheng were composed by the participants. Each piece was distinctive in its own way, with the participants searching for fresh and innovative techniques together with our guest mentors. Andrew Chen and Rachel C. Walker both called for light modifications of the instruments in “Selfsame” for sheng and “Sifting, surface, silence” for shō, using preparations on the top-end holes of the instruments with objects such as gummy and foam earplugs. Using recorded sound materials of the sheng by Wu Wei, Tomislav Oliver created an electronics layer in his piece “Idíōma II” for sheng, where he used both conventional and graphic notation systems for his score. In Thomas Metcalf’s “Breath” for shō, Remi Miura was instructed to place tapes on the finger holes of pipes ya and mō. By doing so, the performer was able to play chords initially not possible due to fingering restrictions.


  All participants were given a questionnaire upon finishing the academy. We were thus able to receive feedback on the benefits of SEED from the participants’ own perspectives. Participant 3 said, “We were able to directly ask our mentors about the connotation between notation and sound. It was extremely helpful for us to not just receive explanation with words, but hear actual ‘sounds’ of the instruments.” For Participant 8, “…having six-months to discuss ideas and hear about the personal experiences and compositional ideas for shō from other composers was a great way to gain deeper knowledge about composition and music.” On the other hand, as so much of the necessary information used to compose for the instruments was crammed into the first two months of the academy, voices for improvements in the scheduling were heard. As Participant 2 mentioned, “I did feel the initial sessions with technical information were jam-packed (…) maybe these could be shorter sessions but happening over more days, so that the information can be digested more easily.”


  Based on the experiences from running this course, Chow and I are aiming to hold a second course for this academy in 2023. There are many factors to decide on, such as whether to put together an “in-person” academy for the potential post-pandemic world; to continue with our online platform, so as to deliver our content regardless of where the participants live; or to create a blend of both face-to-face and online sessions for the course. Of course, we must also select the instruments to focus on this time, and to appoint guest mentors who are established in the fields of both traditional and contemporary music.


  As the globalization of the world ever accelerates, unconscious assumptions, such as the idea that ‘composition means creating works for Western musical instruments’, should be abandoned. Needless to say, we must acknowledge that, as the name suggests, ‘21st Century Western art music’ is heavily influenced by and primarily follows the lineage of the Western musical traditions. With that in mind, I grin at the thought of having the possibility to respectfully and creatively integrate ‘non-Western’ sounds into today’s compositions, something which will no doubt push the boundaries of new music to new heights.

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