FMP-RECORDS (SAJ-Numbers) 1974 - 1991


Tom Johnson


Yoshi Wada's music is massive. When I first heard Wada in the early 70's, he was playing massive wind instruments that he called "pipe horns". Later I watched him singing with a friend in a massive echoing tunnel he had built. Then came the massive air compressors, blowing air through masses of pipes. All the time the music itself was also massive, and I am not at all sure that this is only a metaphor.

Since music is not tangible, and can't be weighted, it is a little difficult to think of it as having mass. Yet, for the physics, mass and density are essentially the same thing, and it is not too hard to imagine that air, when vibrating to Wada's music, is more dense than it would otherwise be. Certainly the air in his air compressor, or in the bags of his bagpipes, is under pressure, and thus denser than normal. And when I listen to the music, particularly in a live performance, where the volume is quite loud, I have the feeling that the music is extremely dense. The sound seems full of overtones and undertones and reflections and beats and other complications. And "full" is just another way of trying to say that the music seems dense or thick or heavy, that it seems to have mass or substance, that it seems materialistic, almost tangible. And if Wada's music is also long in duration, often going on for an hour or so without interruption, this is simply because its length needs to be in proportion with its thickness. The massiveness goes in several directions.

It may be more accurate to think of Wada as a sculptor than as a composer, because his music seems to be a physical reality, like wood or stone, and also because of the way he treats this material. Most composers work with ideas. Their basic interest is in melodies, harmonies, thematic relationships, tone rows, tonal centers, emotional qualities, and other rather abstract things, all of which can then be conveyed in sound, but none of which really are sound. Wada, on the other hand, works directly with the sound itself. His music would sound silly arranged for church organ, for example. And if he prefers to preserve some improvisatory freedom rather than to notate specific musical ideas, this is at least partly because he is not so interested in the kinds of musical ideas that can be written down on paper. He wants to maintain direct contact with the physical reality of the sound.

All of this runs against the traditions of European classical music, but Wada is not really making European classical music. He comes out of several traditions. Though he left his native Japan in his early 20's, some of the same static ceremonial quality of gagaku, the music of the classical Japanese court orchestra, can be heard in what he does, particularly in these recent works that incorporate drums. He has also studied many types of folk music. We once took a course in Balkan singing, for example, studying together with a woman in New York who had a large Bulgarian repertoire, and I know that Wada has also spent a lot of time listening to African and Asian forms. Especially obvious are the years he spent studying a classical bagpipe style, which is actually quite different from the more military style so often heard in parades.

But despite this mixture of sources, Wada's music must ultimately be considered part of the American minimalist music that developed around New York in the late 60's and in the 70's. It is relatively simple, has a meditative quality, follows modes, rather than the 12-note scale, and remains relatively static from the beginning of a piece to the end. On the other hand, Wada's music never moves in steady eight notes, never repeat exactly, can't be played on Western classical instruments, and thus has little resemblance with much of the best known music of the minimalist group. I would say that Wada's closest colleagues are Phil Niblock, Maryanne Amacher, and Alvin Lucier, because it is these people who have dealt most directly with the phenomenon of sound itself. In this way, their music is perhaps more radical than that of many other experimental composers, probably more significant, and in Wada's case, at least, definitely more massive.

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