by Daryl Jamieson
Jo Kondo is a composer who, from the earliest stages of his career, has cultivated fruitful relationships with composers, performers, and audiences across Europe, North America, and beyond. He is, in fact, rather better known – and his music more widely performed – outside of his home country of Japan than inside it. This is especially remarkable for a composer who, barring a year living in New York, USA and a few short guest lectureships at universities in Canada, the USA, and the UK, has lived almost his entire life among the hills surrounding Kamakura, a tranquil, seaside city an hour’s train-ride south of Tokyo. Despite the relative prominence of his music and the high regard in which it is held – Morton Feldman was a particularly strong advocate, praising its originality and predicting in the eighties that Kondo would come to be thought of as ‘the Webern of the nineties’1 – Kondo’s parallel vocation as a writer about music and aesthetics is almost unknown in the non-Japanese-speaking world.
Born in 1947, Kondo attended Tokyo University of the Arts as a composition student, studying the basics of western music with Hasegawa Yoshio and Minami Hiroaki. Arguably more important for the development of his compositional voice was simply being in Tokyo and being a part of the avant-garde music and art scene which was flourishing in the city in those heady, revolutionary years at the end of the sixties. Takemitsu Toru and Yuasa Joji (respectively seventeen and eighteen years Kondo’s senior) had in the fifties been a part of the interdisciplinary collective Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), and had helped to introduce a new spirit of freedom and rejection of academicism among Kondo’s generation. It was in this fertile and experimental milieu that Kondo received his most formative education in contemporary music, not only as a composer but also as a writer. Throughout the seventies, Kondo regularly worked as a music critic, honing both his ear and his pen, making the case for the new freedoms of the American avant-garde over the strictures of the previous generations’ academic formalism.
It was also during these early years that he first came across, and began to champion, the ideas of John Cage. This set in motion a series of events which would culminate in his spending a year in New York from 1977 to 1978 during which he would get to know Cage, Feldman, Tom Johnson, and other leading members of the late-seventies New York experimental music scene. During the late seventies, he began to theorise about his own deeply personal and unique compositional style that he called sen no ongaku (linear music) and which he had been developing in practice since 1973. Sen no Ongaku also became the title of his first book, which he published in 1979 (the key elements of which are summarised in this volume in Appendix 1).
That was to be the first of – to date – seven books (a figure which excludes his great volume of articles, contributions to edited volumes, co-authored texts, and translations from English to Japanese of writers such as John Cage [collected essays], David Hughes [A History of European Music], and Mark Evan Bonds [Music as Thought], among others). These books range widely in topic, from reflections on his own music and detailed discussions of contemporary music to music history in general (including his most recent, 2019’s Monogatari seiyo¯ ongakushi [The Story of Western Music], an award- winning history of music from the Middle ages to the nineteen seventies aimed at young readers). An overriding concern throughout his musical life – and the principal focus of Homo audiens – has been the aesthetics of music. Since his student days at Tokyo University of the Arts, Kondo has read extensively in the western philosophical canon and his approach to the composition of, listening to, and writing about music is strongly marked by this lifelong intellectual engagement. His aesthetic thinking inclines towards relativism and subjectivism, and in this text in particular Friedrich Schlegel – a German Romantic philosopher and critic who was born in 1772 and died in 1829, making him an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven – plays an important role. The Romantic thinker’s writing is quoted liberally through the text to come and the influence of his thought permeates the text. Though I have only highlighted Schlegel, Kondo’s range of reference is temporally wide, reflecting his voracious and intellectually engaged reading; it encompasses writing on music and aesthetics from the mediaeval period to the present day in the western tradition, as well as aesthetics and philosophy from the Japanese tradition.
In both his music and his texts, Kondo productively explores, exploits, and transcends the tensions inherent in binary, contradictory, relationships. One such point of tension is the old, problematic East/West dichotomy. Kondo self-identifies as a ‘composer’ full-stop, rejecting the qualifying adjective ‘Japanese’ as limiting and nationalistic: born into a defeated and occupied nation and coming of age amidst the international revolutionary fervour of 1968, he has never been comfortable with the insular ideology of patriotism. He has written conspicuously little music for traditional Japanese instruments, and has, as mentioned above, pursued musical opportunities in Europe and North America more actively than he has in Japan. His musical and aesthetic thought is also primarily rooted in the European tradition. In the present volume, aside from a few autobiographical pages, you will find few references to Japan, and none at all to Japanese philosophy. That does not mean that there are no influences from the Japanese tradition in his writing,2 simply that they are more deeply buried and, in the end, less crucial to his theses than those from the western European tradition. The influences of Japanese philosophy and culture, however, cannot help but be present in his music and thought; they are, to appropriate a phrase of Mark Evan Bonds that is prominently used in Homo audiens, among ‘the broader premises that shape listening’ – and writing, and interpretation – of anyone who grows up, or even lives for a significant time, in Japan.
In the present book, however, nationalism and other political matters are, in general, bracketed to allow us to concentrate on aesthetic ones. Although it is a book about music written by a prominent composer, Homo audiens is not a manual of composition (though the role of the composer and purpose of composition is one of its central topics), nor an exegesis of his own works (though these are discussed in the afterword and appendices), nor is it a discussion of his compositional method (though his method is undoubtedly anchored in the musical-aesthetic concepts explored in this book). Instead, it focuses on the more widely applicable question of interpretation of music, arguing for the centrality of the act of listening to all aspects of the music-making and -receiving process through the concept of listening out – that is, extracting musical information in reaction to, and thus anchoring interpretation in, the musical sounds themselves. This concept is most fully articulated in Chapter IV, the preceding chapters offering examples and elaborations that demonstrate how listening is the only way to understand music, not only for audiences, but for performers and composers as well. As he states in Chapter II, ‘from the beginning, composition is, and has always been, “listening”’.
The first chapter juxtaposes Beethoven and John Cage, offering a variety of interpretations of their work through the framework of Romantic aesthetics. While seemingly an appropriate lens through which to think about Beethoven, it is likely to be thought a surprising one through which to listen to Cage. Kondo subverts both of those assumptions. Regarding the interpretation of Beethoven, he problematises the idea that we can ever recover the ears (conceptual frameworks) through which an older composer’s contemporaries – or any other listener from any point in time – first heard and interpreted their music. As a contemporary, friend and colleague of Cage, he also re-evaluates the nature of Cage’s radicalism and questions whether Cage really did represent a clean break with the Romantic nineteenth-century legacy of classical music at all. This radical reimagining of the work of major figures of the classical and avant-garde traditions sets the stage for the more general and wide-ranging reflections on musical interpretation to come.
The extent to which music can be considered as a language is a centuries-long debate. Drawing on semioticians such as Umberto Eco, Kondo in Chapter II dissects the common (mis)conception of music as a linguistic (or even language-like) vehicle of communication between composer and listener via the medium of performers. It is a powerful refutation of the communicative model of musical meaning, and a challenge to the nascent field of musical semiotics. Kondo puts forward a view of music as a communal sharing, as opposed to music as a direct communication from a distant, enigmatic composer which listeners ought to be grateful to receive and strive to interpret ‘correctly’. In arguing for this position, he maintains a focus on Cage’s music and thought, especially Cage’s rejection of both traditionalist and structuralist (that is, mid-century avant-garde) conceptions of music, again pointing up the centrality of – indeed the unitary focus on – the act of listening to Cage’s project. By taking Cage’s ego-denying method of composition – his acceptance of ‘sounds themselves’ without imposing human concepts on them, which Kondo calls ‘listening composition’ – as an idealistic template for all aspects of musical interpretation, Kondo argues that the true seat of emotionality or feeling in music is in the mind of each listener (as opposed to coming from the composer or being inherent in the sounds themselves), and reimagines musical compositions as mechanisms for the sounding of sounds.
Building from that conclusion, Chapter III asks, if communication cannot be the purpose of making music, what purpose can there be? ‘No purpose’ comes the answer, in what appears at first glance to _be the most Zen-influenced section in the book, particularly with regard to the concept of purposelessness (however, while logical argument is transcended in traditional Zen, Kondo sets that concept in a logical framework). But far from straying into mysticism, it is at this point that Kondo’s argument is at its most socially concerned, making the case that purposelessness is itself the expression of true human freedom, one which people living under capitalist systems – or any other political systems which seek to control the labour, time, and even thought of its subjects – should embrace. It can be read as a call to resist the late-capitalist instrumentalisation not only of nature but also of time, a still-reverberating echo of the anti-establishment ideas Kondo encountered on the streets outside his university in the late sixties.
The fourth chapter addresses the social implications of freedom of interpretation. Kondo considers how that freedom – a freedom from tradition and from authority – can both hinder (through excessive individualisation) and enhance cohesion in society. In view of the potential disruptiveness of such a freedom – one which, after all, we nominally have in a pluralistic and democratic society – Kondo concludes by articulating the necessity of a musical (artistic) criticism (critical writing) that explicitly aims to transcend differences in traditions, to speak across traditions: in other words, to engage in the kind of iconoclastic writing that he himself has been engaged in throughout this book, and throughout his career as a writer and critic. In doing so, he also implicitly condemns criticism (interpretation) that lazily relies on authority and tradition to speak to those who are already ‘in the know’.
Chapter V is marked as a coda, and as such brings together the key themes of the four preceding chapters to argue again for the centrality of listening to the entirety of music. Having spent the previous four chapters concentrating on the role of the composer and the interpretations of listeners, in this final chapter of the main text he addresses how performance fits into his conception of music interpretation as an act of listening out and the performer as a homo audiens. He posits that musical performance is itself necessarily a form of the criticism he championed in Chapter IV, and that active listening (that is, listening out) can also be a kind of mental performance, thus finding a unity through the transcendence of seeming opposites.
The Japanese text of Homo audiens concludes with the afterword, but in this English edition two appendices have been included in order to provide some insight into the development of Kondo’s thought leading up to the present volume. These directly address how his aesthetic thought relates to his work as a composer and the musical works he composes, which, in the Japanese edition of Homo audiens, are not mentioned aside from the afterword. While of course they will be of interest to listeners (listeners out) of all persuasions, they will be of special interest to composers.
Throughout Homo audiens Kondo aims to transcend dichotomies, especially, in addition to those already mentioned, the twentieth-century division between formalism and expressionism as well as the form/content binary. He accomplishes this by privileging the creative act of listening out over that of composition or performance. Listening is the common activity that composers, performers, and listeners share; through listening we communally participate in the creation of meaning, that is, the listening of meaning out of sounds which are only sounds. In Kondo’s equalising vision of music, interpretation, and musical aesthetics, all humans are musicians because each of us is homo audiens.
I first came into contact with Jo Kondo in 2005 when he attended the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival as a featured composer. Because I was working part-time at Jo’s music publisher, University of York Music Press (UYMP), I had had some email interaction with him in advance. I showed him some scores, about which he was encouraging, and within a year I had arranged to come to Tokyo to study with him at Tokyo University of the Arts. What began as a somewhat random series of steps ended up altering the course of my life. Some of consequences that grew out of those events include my decision to settle permanently in Japan, learn the language, and eventually take on the challenge of translating the present volume.
Homo audiens was published in Japanese in 2013, but I first read it in 2016 on the plane from Tokyo to Winnipeg. I was in Winnipeg to hear the Quatuor Bozzini (the Montréal-based string quartet who have recorded all of Jo’s string quartets) perform a piece of mine. In the downtime between rehearsals and performances, I told Clemens Merkel (one of the quartet’s violinists) about the book I had been reading on the plane. His immediate reaction was to say that he wanted to help get this published in English and asked if I would be able to translate it. I was taken aback, but that moment began the process which led to this book. It would not have happened without Clemens’ support and encouragement.
In addition, this project would never have gotten off the ground without the support of Kimura Gen from Artes Publishing, the publisher of the original Japanese edition, and Gisela Gronemeyer of MusikTexte for publishing this English translation. I also want to thank Taylor & Francis for permission to republish ‘The art of being ambiguous’, which originally appeared in the journal Contemporary Music Review in 1988. The composer and scholar John Cole of Elisabeth University of Music in Hiroshima must also be thanked for providing access to the drafts of his yet-unpublished study of Jo Kondo’s work; it was an essential resource in compiling the biographical introduction above. Thanks must also go to Christopher Fox, whose careful reading corrected the errors and clarified the convolutions I had inadvertently left in the text.
It would also be remiss of me not to profusely thank Jo Kondo himself, not only for the years of teaching, mentoring, and support well beyond the call of duty as an academic supervisor, but especially for helping this relatively inexperienced translator through the complex passages in the original, and always be available to answer questions and clear up errors in my translation. All of that said, any errors that remain are of course my own.
1Morton Feldman, ‘Current Trends in America’, in Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964–1987, edited by Chris Villars, London: Hyphen Press, 2006, 162.
2His denial of subject/object dualism is one such correlation with Buddhist philosophy, as is his interest in how the intertonal relationship between individual sounds affects listeners’ perception of each sound. Moreover, the valorisation of ambiguity and spontaneity in his compositions and writings could also be productively examined in relation to traditional Japanese aesthetics.