Scott Johnson Composer

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Up And Back (2005) 16.00

  Wind On The Mountain  
  Breath In My Throat

shamisen, electric guitar, cello, pian

Commissioned by the Japan Society for Hiromitsu Agatsuma. 
Premiered Feb 8/06, Japan Society, NYC

Notes on the Music

Like many Western composers, I had an early exposure to a range of Japanese instrumental sounds through hearing Gagaku court music, but have little real knowledge of Japanese music.  When Yoko Shioya of the Japan Society in New York brought up the idea of writing a piece pairing electric guitar with the 3-stringed Japanese shamisen, I listened to a recording of shamisen virtuoso Hiromitsu Agatsuma playing traditional music in the propulsive tsugaru style -- and I experienced a surprising sense of familiarity.  Many electric guitarists of my generation were influenced by related stringed instruments found around the world, often tuned in open fourths and fifths, and designed to play a virtuosic single line against resonating open strings.  And here was a highly rhythmic style, filled with “bent” notes, percussive picking, and ornamental gestures similar to those I have used on guitar.  Only later did Agatsuma tell me that tsuguru shamisen has been called “Japanese jazz”, and that he personally had listened to many of the same virtuosic rock guitarists that I had grown up with.  So it seemed a natural blend to put our instruments together, in the presence of two European instruments that have been fairly constant companions in my life as a composer.  Most natural to me is the idea of importing new instruments into “classical” music, particularly an instrument which, like my own electric guitar, has a place in living popular culture.  I have always felt that classical music needs to be saved from its purity; having devoted so much of my career to injecting the vernacular American sounds I grew up on, why not someone else’s vernacular as well? 

The titles and immediate inspiration for the piece came during some wilderness hiking in New Mexico.  The first phrase of Part I, “Wind on the Mountain”, popped into my head in a canyon, induced by the CD of tsuguru music that I had been listening to on the drive to the trailhead.  Soon after, during a solitary week camping in the Pecos Wilderness, a wonderful day spent high above my lakeside campsite gave me the idea of making a piece in the shape of that day: the long hard trek up ridges and a steep cirque; then a pocket of stillness at the peak, sheltered from the wind by one of the rock cairns that hikers typically build at particularly beautiful high points; and finally my dash back down to the treeline, chased by the hail of an oncoming storm.

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