Composer interview- Victoria Bond on “Rashomon”
On Sunday, the 23rd of February, Ensemble Epomeo and shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer will give the world premiere of composer Victoria Bond‘s new work for shakuhachi and string trio, “Rashomon.” We asked Maestra Bond a few questions about her new work and her distinguished career.
EE Your new quartet is titled Rashomon. Most people will recognize the title from the iconic Kurosawa film. Can you tell us a little bit about your use of the title- is the piece based on the film, and if so, how?
VB: I have actually based my composition on two short stories by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa; “Rashomon,” and “In a Bamboo Grove.” These, in turn, were taken from Konjaku Monogatarishū’s Anthology of Tales from the Past, also known as the Konjaku Monogatari, a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period (794-1185). The volumes cover various tales from India, China and Japan. The subject-matter is largely drawn from Buddhist and secular folklore. The folkloric tales mostly depict encounters between human beings and the supernatural. The typical characters are drawn from Japanese society of the time — nobility, warriors, monks, scholars, doctors, peasant farmers, fishermen, merchants, prostitutes, bandits, beggars. Their supernatural counterparts are oni and tengu. The work is anonymous. The date of the work is also uncertain. From the events depicted in some of the tales it seems likely that it was written down at some point during the early half of the 12th century, after the year 1120. Many of the tales which appear in the Konjaku are also found in other collections, such as ghost story collections; having passed into the common consciousness, they have been retold many times over the succeeding centuries. Modern writers too have adapted tales from the Konjaku Monogatarishū: a famous example is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke‘s In a Grove, well known in the West from Kurosawa‘s film Rashomon.
EE- Rashomon is structured as a theme and variations, one of the oldest Western musical forms. What is the appeal for you of this formal structure as composer working today? Is your approach to variation form in this work based on any existing formal models?
VB: theme and Variations is one of my favorite musical forms and I have written many throughout my compositional career. It was this convergence of musical and literary forms that drew me to the story of Rashomon in the first place, and I was struck by the implications of this abstract musical form in a dramatic context. Within each of the four movements, each being a variation of the theme presented in the first movement, is another form, as follows:
I. The Gate – Theme
II. The Murder: A Crime of Violence – Variations
III. The Murder: A Cold Calculation – Passacaglia
IV. The Murder: A Crime of Passion – Rondo
EE- The Rashomon story suggests a strong Japanese influence on the piece. Did you feel like the sound of the shakuhachi almost mandated some Japanese element in either the musical language or programmatic structure of the piece?
VB: The theme itself has a Japanese character, being a descending pentatonic scale with an ambiguous chromatic element. In addition to the shakuhachi, I also wanted to imply the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments in the string parts.
EE-Does the piece have any typically Japanese melodies or stylistic traits?
VB: The melodic material is original, though influenced by traditional Japanese melodies and timbres.
EE- If so, had you ever written in a cross-cultural style before?
VB: I have been influenced by many cultures, having travelled extensively as part of my life as a conductor. Some of those cultural influences are: Chinese, Brazilian, Irish, Puerto Rican, English, French, German, and Italian.
EE-Are there different challenges working with material from a non-Western musical tradition?
VB: The challenge of working with materials from other cultures is to maintain one’s musical identity and not to simply adapt folkloric influences. My desire is to absorb these influences and make them my own, so that they become part of the musical fabric of my creative world.
EE- You’ve managed to maintain a diverse and successful career as both a conductor and composer- that’s quite an achievement. How has composing shaped your work on and off the podium? Do feel you study scores or rehearse differently because of your experience as composer?
VB: Having a double life as composer and conductor has many advantages, the principal one being an intimate and working knowledge of the literature and of performers. I approach the study of a score looking for clues, and asking myself “why has the composer made these decisions?” These insights become an important component in shaping my interpretation of a work. Conducting instrumentalists and singers gives me valuable insight into what works technically and dramatically for each artist in the context of a given work, and especially what doesn’t work. This information becomes an essential part of my own compositions. I often feel as though I have had the opportunity to be my own “Composer-in-Residence” during a rehearsal period with an orchestra, opera company or chamber music ensemble. The one great challenge of maintaining a conducting and composing career is that of time, and in that regard, I have decided that composing is more important to me, and I am devoting the majority of my time to it, cutting back on all of my conducting activities.
EE- What are your conducting and compositional ambitions for the future?
VB: I am completing work on an opera about Clara Schumann, called “Clara” which will have a concert reading next season, and a Hanukkah opera called “Miracle!” which will premiere next December. I am also completing two concertos, one for violin and string orchestra and one for trumpet and brass ensemble as part of a project for Albany Records and Roosevelt University. This project is called “Four Presidents” and celebrates George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt with works for narrator and a variety of ensembles, the text being adapted from the writings and speeches of each of the presidents by historian Dr. Myles Lee. In addition, each work features a solo instrument and pays homage to the music of the period as follows:
Pater Patriae, a concerto for flute and wind ensemble, using material adapted from fife and drum tunes of the revolutionary period.
The Indispensable Man, a concerto for clarinet and wind ensemble, using material from the big band era of the 1940’s
The Soul of a Nation, a concerto for violin and string orchestra, using material that Jefferson actually played on the violin
Title TBD, a concerto for trumpet and brass ensemble, using material from the time
EE– What music excites you these days? Have there been any “wow” moments in the last year or two where you discovered a new piece, a new work or a new insight into a familiar one that really made a huge impression.
VB: I produce a new music series called Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival each year in New York, and present a wide variety of composers and performers throughout the month of April at Symphony Space in Manhattan. This allows me to be in touch with established as well as emerging composers, and I have so many positive impressions of what is being written today, that the list would be very long!
Ensemble Epomeo – Diane Pascal, violin; David Yang, viola; and Kenneth Wods, cello with James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. And exciting combo os shakuhachi and strings featuring two new KSA premieres: Rashomon by Victoria Bond, for shakuhachi and string trio and Sidewalk Dances by James Nyoraku Schlefer for shakuhachi and cello. Plus Beethoven, Kurtág and Weinberg.
Tenri Cultural Institute
43A West 13 Street
New York, NY
Tickets $25 and $15 for students. Advance purchase with priority seating at brownpapertickets.com or 1-800-838-3006
Beethoven – Trio in C minor Op.9, no. 3
Victoria Bond – Shakuhachi Quartet – World Premiere (a Kyo-Shin-An Arts Commission)
György Kurtág – Signs, Games and Messages (String Trio)
James Nyoraku Schlefer – Duo for Shakuhachi and Cello
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – String Trio