From Japan, composer Daryl Jamieson has created is nowhere free of bad tidings?

It’s a setting of Japanese texts from the middle ages, specifically addressing plague, natural disasters and war, and how to respond to them by withdrawing from the world. The piece also won the 3rd Toshi Ichiyanagi Contemporary Prize.

Read more here and watch a performance:

Program note:

The title is nowhere free of bad tidings? is taken from a poem by Saigyō, lamenting that no matter how physically far from society he went, there actually is no escaping the interconnectedness of individuals to the group. Wherever he went, he was still a witness to and a part of their suffering. But that reality enhances, rather than diminishes, the value of retreat. A retreat is not running away from society or the common concerns of mankind in difficult circumstances. What it is is a chance to contemplate and meditate, to examine the universe as a totality, to realise the interconnectedness of human life with nature, and to reassess one’s place in the world.

There are five sections in the piece, each titled with a quote from Chōmei’s Hōjōki. The piece follows a similar emotional journey to Hōjōki, starting with a meditation on ephemerality, moving on to the disasters that have befallen the land, the decision to retreat, a description of the place of retreat, and finally a meditation on the spiritual meaning of retreat. Texts, taken from Latin proverbs, Saigyō, the third Kamakura Shōgun Minamoto Sanetomo, and Hōjōki itself, are sung by the three string players.

The sound world of is nowhere free of bad tidings? is based on those instruments that Kamo no Chōmei had in his hut (koto and biwa), with the addition of a shakuhachi (an instrument principally associated with Buddhism and the practice of meditation through playing) and percussion. Sounds which are connected to nature or imitate nature are one of the main motifs of the piece, from wind sounds, buzzing and scraping, and actual stones and leaves in the percussion. The use of a matsumushi (a small bell which is named after an insect) is both a link to the insect (which has a beautiful call and a short lifespan) and the first part of the trilogy. All three parts of the trilogy also prominently feature the pitch C# (the pitch of the matsumushi’s song, at least in the field recording made as a prelude to the series).

is nowhere free of bad tidings? was conceived as a site-specific work for Ichijō Ekan Sansō, a 400-year-old tea house and garden in Kamakura. The piece makes use of the garden and historical buildings as integral components of both the composition and performance. The background rhythm of the first, third, and fifth sections of the piece is based on transcriptions of insect bites in the pillars of the teahouse – sonifying evidence of the decay and transience of the very building from where part of the performance takes place. The piece is also built around the shakuhachi and percussion using the garden, river, and teahouse as part of their performance space. Their wanderings adding sonic interest as well as unifying the sounds of the wider world and the composed music.

In common with the cycle of retreat from and engagement with society, the musicians alternate between playing with parts (coordinated only through timers – individuals connected through the external forces of the universe) and playing from score (listening to each other and playing in ensemble – individuals actively working together in a collective). At the end, the shakuhachi retreats to the tea house. While he plays to himself, the remaining ensemble comment on what can be heard. He is in his own contemplative world, but still communicating with and influencing the universe.