By Barry Wiener
The substance of sound is central to Japanese composer Akemi Naito’s compositional thinking. She asserts that the structure of a work “follows the sound,” which has “energy of direction.” Naito feels that “writing for percussion gives the composer space for possibilities.”<1> As a young student in Tokyo during the 1960s and 70s, Naito learned about the classics of Western music but had no exposure to contemporary music or her own musical traditions. She was inspired to become a composer by hearing Toru Takemitsu’s exploration of timbre and texture in The Dorian Horizon for Strings (1966). Takemitsu’s film score for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film, The Woman in the Dunes (based on Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel), served as a source for parts of The Dorian Horizon.
Naito’s The Woman in the Dunes was first conceived as a half-hour long multimedia theater work, premiered in 2009 in New York and at Northern Illinois University. In 2012, she transformed it into a piece for solo percussion. Percussionist Gregory Beyer presented the world premiere in October 2012 at Northern Illinois University. A week later, Mizuki Aita gave the first Japanese performance in Tokyo at a concert devoted to the music of her late husband, Japanese composer Yoshio Hachimura (1938–85). The Woman in the Dunes<2> is one of several pieces in which Naito expresses her artistic roots in Japanese literature, art and music, including Months–Spaceship for Zodiac for Biwa and Electronics (2005), Ryusuimon Study for Piano and Video Images (2011) and Five Waka by Saigyõ (2010-11) for Marimba and Chorus. For The Woman in the Dunes, Naito also found inspiration in the photography of Edward Weston (1886–1958).
The Woman in the Dunes is a composition that depicts psychological states and evokes key events in Abe’s novel and Teshigahara’s eponymous film, in which a teacher from Tokyo is captured and imprisoned by villagers in an area of barren sand dunes. The protagonist is compelled to become the companion and helper of a young woman, working with her night and day to shovel sand that would otherwise engulf them both. In the end, he discovers a way to draw water from the damp sand and abandons his efforts to escape from his captivity. The novel and film are examples of Sartre’s “theater of situations,” documenting the evolving relationship between a man and woman who are nameless throughout their lengthy encounter.
Naito constructs her piece by employing a wide spectrum of contrasting sonorities: pitched and non-pitched instruments, sounds with and without resonance, varied attacks, and regular pulse and free rhythm. Naito employs three types of instruments: metals, including twenty tuned Thai chromatic gongs, vibraphone, crotales, brass chimes, Japanese temple bowls, cymbals and tam-tams; drums, including congas, bongos, bass drum and timpani; and non-pitched instruments without resonance, including wood blocks and two types of rattles, the maracas and caxixi. The caxixi, a Brazilian instrument, consists of a closed basket with a flat bottom, cut from a gourd and filled with seeds or other small particles.
The shaking of the rattles evokes the barren world of the dunes. Naito connects the metallic sounds and the drum sounds to the protagonists of Abe’s novel: the metallic sounds to the woman’s emotions, and the drum sounds to the man’s efforts to escape from the dunes, where he is held prisoner by the villagers.
Naito divides The Woman in the Dunes into ten sections. It can, however, be divided into two large parts, sections one to four and five to ten, demarcated by the double bar at the end of m. 106. The piece begins with arrhythmic whispered sounds for bass drum, cymbal and timpani that evoke the whistling wind of the desolate dunes. Naito displays a special sensitivity to timbre, directing the performer alternately to strike the bass drum with soft timpani mallets, rub it with a superball and play glissandi. In section one, Naito alternates between these delicate sounds and mysterious, undulating sextuplet figures for the bongos and congas. In section two, Naito introduces the music for metals, dividing lyrical, modal motives between the chromatic gongs and the vibraphone (see Ex. 1) before developing them in a series of brief variations.
In mm. 283–84, Naito presents two melodic patterns. The pattern in m. 283 spans a +10, from G#3–F#4, and is symmetric around its first pitch, C#4. In m. 284, Naito employs a wider compass, the +14, A3–B4, and shifts the axis of symmetry to E4 (see Ex. 2b).
Coupled with Naito’s avoidance of clear tonal centricity (from a Western perspective), her use of melodic circularity, pattern repetition and axial symmetry in the music for metals generates a sense of timelessness that reflects the woman’s role within the novel and counteracts the developmental nature of the man’s music.
The main source of structural contrast in part I is the music for rattles. In section three, Naito depicts the flowing sand and the insects, first by employing the maracas alone, then by using both the caxixi and the maracas (see Ex. 3).
Naito employs a variety of beaters to produce progressively more forceful percussion attacks in order to symbolize the man’s strenuous efforts to escape: first the hands, then wire brushes, wooden timpani mallets, and, at the climax, wooden sticks. For example, in section seven, the percussionist first plays the bongos and congas with his hands, then with wooden timpani mallets, and follows with rapid fortissimo bass drum strokes (see Ex. 5).
Naito employs imagery similar to that in The Woman in the Dunes in other compositions as well. In Ryusuimon Study for Piano and Video Images she presents the image of flowing water. Both flowing sand and water evoke for Naito what she has described as a desire to “express the eternity from the distant past into the unknown future. A query from myself, here and now, to [infinity].”
<1>Barry Wiener, interview with Akemi Naito, June 7, 2017.
<2>For more information about the music of Akemi Naito, please see her web site, https://www.akeminaito.com/, which provides detailed information about her works and includes several videos of performances of her music, including Mizuki Aita’s 2012 premiere of the complete version of The Woman in the Dunes in Tokyo. Recordings of many of Naito’s pieces are available on YouTube as well. The web site also includes information about recordings, including two portrait CDs, CRI CD 771, Akemi Naito: Strings and Time, and Bridge 9204, Mindscape: Music of Akemi Naito.
Barry Wiener is the author of Ralph Shapey and the Search for a New Concept of Musical Continuity (in preparation, Peter Lang). His interests include American modernism, Scandinavian music, women composers, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Wiener has published articles about Sibelius and Shapey, and coedited the Shapey special issue of Contemporary Music Review (Vol. 27, Nos. 4/5, 2008). He worked with Ursula Mamlok from 1998 to 2012, assisting her in the preparation of many scores now published by Boosey & Hawkes/Bote & Bock and writing liner notes for six CDs on CRI and Bridge Records.