Jo Kondo – “Chamber Music
Ensemble l’Art pour l’Art (+3):
Matthias Kaul [percussion], Hartmut Leistritz [piano], Nele B. Nelle [clarinet], Eva Pressl [harp], Astrid Schmeling [flute], Michael Schröder [guitar, conductor]
hat [now] art 110. Duration: 63:51

Jo Kondo is a Japanese composer who happened upon the l’Art pour l’Art ensemble in late 1994 in Frankfurt. They were staging – with three additional musicians - a concert with some of Kondo’s lesser pieces. The l’Art pour l’Art ensemble is a trio of percussion, guitar and flute, which amounts to a rather odd instrumentation, with few works to perform. That is why three other musicians had been added, playing piano, clarinet and harp.

Jo Kondo
(Photo: Masaco Kondo)

The pieces on this CD have been written by Kondo between 1976 and 1995. They are all small-scale works, but though not representative of Kondo’s oeuvre as a whole, he believes they may very well show the main characteristics of his compositional style.

First in line is “Walk” (1976), for flute and piano, wherein – Kondo says – “ a quick timbral shifting in a syncopated rhythm between the two instruments” is evident. It starts with a repeated beat reminiscent of the beginning of Terry Riley’s “In C”, but that is cut short right away, and a juggling, step by step tripping, follows, stopping just short of falling over, then again commencing, entangling feet and swirling ahead in a jolly manner with sudden leaps and jumps and jolts. Sudden halts make for an interesting, ear-catching progression of sometimes totally individual melody lines in the flute and the piano, ever so often merging again, somewhat like a not too harmonized couple trotting down the city streets, when the lady stops to look in store windows, holding on to the man’s arm, forcing him to stop – though he’s not at all interested – almost making the lady trip as his bodily weight reluctantly slows down its inertial force… I like these erratic rhythmic advances! Refreshing! Fun!

An Elder’s Hocket” (1979) for flute, clarinet, piano and marimba enters the same hopscotch enterprise… but this time with more instruments. The mixture is serene and beautiful in the midst of all this asymmetric movement forward. This originates as television cartoon music, and as such it must be wonderful. I can also envision it as a fairytale music of nobler causes, skipping the cartoon image and getting into classical fairytale ballet music. Very intriguing and inspiring! Makes you want to move briskly yourself on listening!

Pendulums” (1990) is a solo piece for percussion. However, the soloist is expected to play a number of instruments, in themselves an ensemble of percussion instruments: marimba, vibraphone, steel drum, six cow bells, two bongos, tom tom and a bass drum! Matthias Kaul performs all these instruments in this recording. The title hints at the oscillating, repetitive characteristics of the piece. The work was sort of caught in conflicting forces of the influential drag from serialism, which prohibited repetition, and minimalism, which cherished the same repetitive patterns. It is a pretty shy and forsaken piece of percussionism, I dare say, starting ever so hesitant, trying out its own different properties in terms of timbres and pitches, as if the performer was walking around in the dusk of the performance space by himself on an off day, maybe a September afternoon when the theatre was empty and silent and the curtains drawn, with just a streak of bleak light seeping in from the city park through a crack in the drapery.
Another impression is that of seemingly tired instruments chatting a little about everyday things before going into silence and rest. It is a peculiar piece, which can also serve its duty as a provider of a meditative atmosphere for thoughtful introspection.

Aquarelle” (1990) is a duo for percussion and piano. It is the longest of the presented pieces with its 12 minutes. It is set with a piano, a vibraphone, a gong and five cowbells. The vibraphone, says Kondo, is the main percussive instrument of the piece.
The immediate impression is definitely Feldmanesque. You get reminded of works like “
For Christian Wolff” (hat ART 3-61201/2/3), “For Philip Guston” (hat ART 4-61041/2/3/4) or “Why Patterns?” and “Crippled Symmetry” (hat ART 2-60801/2) – lucid, transparent, introspective worlds of timbres, pitches, durations; a grand hall of mirrors…
Jo Kondo describes how he wanted to investigate “
the subtle differences and similarities between the timbral qualities of vibraphone and piano.” He therefore worked with the two instruments alternately, “creating between them a very slow, rocking rhythm.”

Ensemble l'Art pour l'Art + 3
(Photo: Achim Duwentäster. Adaption: Ingvar Loco Nordin)

Winsen Dance Step” (1995) is a trio for flute, guitar and vibraphone. This work is the most recent on the CD, and represents, says Kondo, his latest manner of composing for chamber ensemble, with “increased complexity in texture, sonority and rhythmic structure”, though striving to retain some of the simplicity from earlier periods. The piece was written especially for the l’Art pour l’Art ensemble, and was in part inspired by a visit the composer made to the ensemble’s studio in Winsen/Luhe, when he discovered the way the musicians rehearsed his works in a way that, to Kondo’s ears, had “a dance-like flavor […] even when the music was not in a regular meter.” Hence the title.
Kondo also indicates that this piece indeed is characterized by a changing meter and irregular rhythm.
You can really feel the contents of the music stretching and pulling in different directions, though the basic forward direction of the entire web of sounds is the same; it sort of sways, bulges… hangs out of the window of the train only to get pulled back in again and thrown in its seat… and in relaxing moments the instruments just sit back like children suddenly overcome by distracting thoughts, as they lick their ice cream cones with blank looks out of their eyes… These compositional – and performing – effects, result in a very intriguing and complex situation, wherein the attention of the listener is sharpened. Everything is slightly “off”, whereas the overall impression lands on its feet, just a little dizzy from the ride!

In connection with the piece “
Duo” (1982) for harp and guitar Jo Kondo describes another musical concept – besides timbral shifting between the members of the ensemble - that he has had, which involves the playing of an identical line throughout a piece, by the whole ensemble. Kondo calls this “unison ensemble”. By having a whole ensemble of different instruments playing the same line, Kondo hopes to reveal the variety that is hidden inside that same line, and which might be obvious with different instruments performing it alongside each other.
In the case of “
Duo” the rhythmic values are in almost perfect unison, while the pitches drag and pull. To a layman ear this piece is Eastern-sounding, making you think of a koto being played in a rock garden of Japan. You’re lulled into this hypnotic feel by these plucking sounds, which spread out like the rings on the surface of water puddles in light rain. You’re in no hurry to get anywhere. You just sit. You’re in the middle of yourself; sounds… …thoughts…

Words” (1986) is written for flute, clarinet, harp, piano and percussion consisting of vibraphone, marimba, whip, two cow bells and two tom toms. All the percussion instruments are played by Matthias Kaul. Kondo says that this piece is yet another example of his use of timbral shifts; here through the utilization of instruments of very varied timbral qualities.
Kondo states: “
I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create.”
However true this may be on an intellectual level, the case probably is that Kondo is simply very careful about the minute details of a piece, but that – anyhow – the whole, final and collected impression – the glare and shine of the body of the piece – is equally important to him, though perhaps on an intuitive level – and I’ve always seen the force of intuition as the final shaper and creator of art and life. “
Words” is a very lively occurrence, twisting and jolting past on the path, head-over-heels towards its jolly destiny!

The final creative act on this Jo Kondo CD is “
An Insular Style” (1980) for flute, clarinet, harp and percussion (vibraphone, glockenspiel, five cow bells and two gongs). Kondo wrote this music at home in Japan after having spent considerable time in Vancouver Island.
The composer says that this is another example of his linear style, but that the melodic properties in this case may be more articulated, making for a traditional melody of almost folk music character.

This concludes this very attractive modern chamber CD with a soft-spoken, easygoing vesper of brilliance and transparency, and you’re left in a serene mood at day’s end…