Transcendent Buddhist Chant
North American Premiere of “Life in an Autumn”
by Composer Ushio Torikai
Thursday March 6, 2014
7:30pm at St. Bartholomew’s Church
Japan Society, in conjunction with the Mid-Manhattan Performing Arts Foundation, is proud to present the North American debut of Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years on March 6 at St. Bartholomew’s Church in midtown Manhattan.
The ritual choral chanting of Japanese Buddhist scripture known as shomyo boasts a history of over 1300 years, placing it alongside Gregorian chant as among the world’s oldest continually performed musical forms. Shomyo (literally meaning “voice clarity”) is believed to have originated in India before traveling along the Silk Road and entering Japan in the sixth century, where it has been practiced ever since. Seldom heard outside of Buddhist temples, live performances of shomyo in the Western world by traditional practitioners are noteworthy.
Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years comprises priests from two of Japan’s major Buddhist sects, the Shingon and Tendai sects. With a mission to preserve and develop the art of shomyo, the group has been actively performing this song form for over twenty years to audiences in concert halls across the world. The group, originally called Shomyo Yonin no Kai, was founded in 1997 by modern shomyo pioneers Rev. Yusho Kojima and Rev. Kojun Arai (Shingon sect) and Rev. Koshin Ebihara and Rev. Jiko Kyoto (Tendai sect). On March 6, Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years will perform the North American premiere of the contemporary shomyo work Life in an Autumn, written by New York and Tokyo-based composer Ushio Torikai. Clad in brightly colored monastic robes, the choir alternates between monotone stillness and ecstatic polyphony. The ethereal voices of Shomyo no Kai swell in powerful harmony, enrapturing the listener into a transcendent meditative state. Set in the exceptional acoustics and grand sacred space of St. Bartholomew’s Church, this concert offers a rare opportunity to hear these ancient ritual songs come to vibrant life.
Borrowing some of its text from a Japanese translation of American poet Nancy Wood’s interpretation of Native American healing prayers, Torikai’s Life in an Autumn is a modern meditation on mortality, inspired by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. The piece premiered in 2002 in Japan and was restaged in Tokyo in 2012 as a requiem for the victims of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. “Since September 11, 2001, I have been preoccupied with thoughts about the nature of human life, of ethnicity and of human civilization,” says Torikai. “Music and religion in particular are very closely related. Music constitutes the ethnic identity of people all over the world, an expression of the beauty of wonderfully varied lives. Religious music is the most positive eulogy of life.” With Life in an Autumn, now to be performed around the third anniversary of the 3/11 Japanese disaster, Torikai and Shomyo no Kai present a palliative prayer that is at once contemporary and immemorial, superseding the dividing lines of Christianity and Buddhism, American or Japanese, natural or manmade disaster.
On the day of the performance, composer Ushio Torikai will lead a pre-performance lecture on the history and musical form of shomyo at St. Bart’s Chapel one hour before the performance. This lecture is free and open to Shomyo no Kai ticket holders but is limited to only the first 120 attendees; first come, first served.
Japan Society is partnering with The Mid-Manhattan Performing Arts Foundation to present this concert at MMPAF’s home for live performance, St. Bart’s. “We are excited to showcase this sacred music in a sacred space,” says Japan Society Artistic Director Yoko Shioya. “St. Bartholomew Church offers unparalleled resonance and beautifully engaging architecture. It also offers the opportunity for a broader, larger audience to connect with the venerable shomyo tradition. The juxtaposition of Christianity and Buddhism is further leavened by the non-secular nature of the work being performed, resulting in a performance that is truly universal.”
Japan Society’s produced and organized tour of Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years includes stops at Haverford College in Haverford, PA (March 2) and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC (March 8).
Tickets for the New York event are $30 ($24 for Japan Society and St. Bartholomew’s Church / Friends of Great Music members) . All seats are general admission. Tickets are available now on the Japan Society website, in person at the Japan Society Box Office, by phone via Japan Society’s Box Office at 212-715-1258. Tickets are available at St. Bartholomew’s Church on the day of the performance from 5:00pm until showtime, subject to availability.
Japan Society invites two experts in the field of Buddhist teaching and shomyo for a special discussion and staged demonstration at Japan Society on Tuesday March 4th at 6:30pm. Columbia UniversityProfessor Robert A.F. Thurman, a leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism and the first Westerner to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk by H.H. the Dalai Lama, has been instrumental in popularizing the Buddha’s teachings in the West. In this lecture, Prof. Thurman explores connections between Japanese and Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and joins in a discussion with Kojun Arai, priest of Japan’s Shingon Buddhist sect and leading member of Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years, which culminates with an on-stage demonstration of what is considered one of the oldest forms of vocal music. Tickets to this lecture are available through the Japan Society website:
Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years actively presents traditional shomyo performances to audiences at such prestigious venues as the National Theatre of Japan. Shomyo no Kai is one of the field’s predominant performers of contemporary shomyo works, regularly premiering pieces written for the group by leading Japanese composers such as Yuji Takahashi’s Ooinaru Shi no Monogatari, Atsuhiko Gondai’sSacred Fire/Sacred Light, Rikuya Terashima’s Muichimotsu no Sho – Ryokan ni Yosete, Mamoru Fujieda’s Wind Chant and Night Chant, and Kazuo Kikkawa’s Rongi Grand Vegetarian Festival. These contemporary works have been introduced under The Spiral Shomyo Concert Series at Tokyo’s foremost contemporary arts center, Spiral Hall, since 1998, directed by Director of the National Theatre of Japan Hiromi Tamuro and produced by Junko Hanamitsu of Kaibun-sha. Last year, this series celebrated its 20th concert. Shomyo no Kai - Voices of a Thousand Years has released CDs (produced by Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation) featuring A UN and Life in an Autumn, both compositions by Ushio Torikai.
Ushio Torikai (composer) is known for her highly individual musical voice, developed over many years of research and compositional experience in diverse musical fields including European classical music, traditional Japanese music, ancient Japanese music and computer/electronics. Torikai began a concert series of her own music in 1979 in Tokyo, and was invited to the Paris Biennale in 1982. Her music has been presented in major cities in Europe, North America and Japan, including at Georges Pompidou Center (Paris), the Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco) and Walker Art Center (Minneapolis). Her compositions vary considerably in instrumentation, ranging from Western orchestral instruments to traditional Japanese ones; computer/electronics to reconstructed ancient Asian instruments; and Western Choir to Japanese Buddhist monks’ chants. Torikai has received commissions from Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt), the Modern Art Sextet Berlin, the City of Los Angeles, the Kronos Quartet, the Ensemble Continuum (New York), the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation and The National Theatre of Japan, to name a few. Commissioned pieces range from works for concert music and opera to a permanent music installation in a public park. Her career is also characterized by a diversity of multidisciplinary collaborative activity. She has a long history of involvement as composer, in theater, in dance and in multi-media projects. The New York Times wrote “Torikai has a wide ranging musical imagination….[Her] music was spectacular, exuberant, radical and dense.” She occasionally writes about Japanese social phenomena for Japanese newspapers and magazines. Currently Ms. Torikai is working on a composition Remember for Solo Baritone and Full Orchestra, dedicated to the fallen soldiers. She divides her time between New York and Japan.
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St. Bartholomew’s Church is located at 325 Park Avenue, just off 51st Street, readily accessible from the 6 train via the 51st Street Station or the E / M at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. More information about the history of St. Bart’s and its music programs can be found on their website at http://www.stbarts.org/
Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street, between First and Second Avenues, easily accessible by the 4 / 5 / 6 trains via the 42nd Street-Grand Central Station or the E / M at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. Tickets for performances and related events at Japan Society may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 212-715-1258 or in person at Japan Society (M-F 11:00am – 6:00pm and Sat-Sun 11:00am – 5:00pm).
For more information about shows, questions about the venue or to learn more about the entire Performing Arts season at Japan Society, please call 212-715-1258 or visit us on the web at:
ABOUT JAPAN SOCIETY + THE PERFORMING ARTS PROGRAM
Founded in 1907, Japan Society is a world-class, multidisciplinary hub for both English and Japanese-speaking artists and audiences. At the Society, more than 100 events each year feature sophisticated, topically relevant presentations of Japanese art and culture and open, critical dialogue on issues of vital importance to the U.S., Japan and East Asia. An American nonprofit, nonpolitical organization, the Society cultivates a constructive, resonant and dynamic relationship between the people of the U.S. and Japan.
Since its inception, Japan Society’s Performing Arts Program has presented well over 600 events of the finest Japanese theater, dance, and music from the most stunningly preserved traditional to the genre busting cutting-edge. Today the program continues to push boundaries, educate and make creative visions come to life by presenting and touring works by leading international artists, promoting cross-cultural exchanges, commissioning new works and coordinating artist residencies and public programs. Beginning with its first ambitious presentation in 1953 at Columbia University, the Society has shared the unique arts and culture of Japan with U.S. audiences. In 1957, the Program began actively presenting Japanese musicians of both Eastern and Western traditions through concerts at schools and leading New York City venues. In the years to follow, programs such as gagaku Imperial Court music (1959) and the NY premiere of bunraku (1966) were among Americans’ first tastes of the traditional performing arts of Japan.
In 1971, the completion of the Society’s building (landmarked in 2011) at the current location gave the program a permanent stage of its own and opened its doors for year-round presentations. The space was inaugurated with a concert by the Tokyo String Quartet. Subsequent breakthrough presentations include Awaji Puppet Theater (1971); Eiko & Koma U.S. debut (1976); a two-week-long run of Grand Kabuki (1982) at the Metropolitan Opera House; Tadashi Suzuki’s The Trojan Women/The Bacchae (1982); and Sankai Juku (1990) at New York City Center. In 1992, a major donation from the Lila Acheson Wallace/Japan Society Fund enhanced the Society’s auditorium, enabling the Program to vastly expand its offerings. Highlights in the years following include Yamabushi Kagura (1994); Toru Takemitsu’s memorial concert (1996); Seinendan Theater Company U.S. debut (2000); and Mansaku-no-Kai Kyogen Company (2003), to name a few. In 2006, an exclusive Performing Arts Program endowment was established through a matching grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, allowing the Program to increase the frequency and scale of its commissions to non-Japanese artists for the creation of new works inspired by the culture of Japan. In addition, the Program has collaborated with world-class cultural organizations such as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Public Theater, BAM and the Guggenheim Museum; and the Program’s leadership role in Society-produced North-American tours of Japanese performing artists has earned it recognition among presenters around the world.