An Introduction to Jo Kondo’s Sen no Ongaku Music of 1973 to 1980
The composer Jo Kondo has a very special position in contemporary music, not just in his home country but internationally. Along with teaching in Japan (at present, he holds a professorship at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, and continues to teach a composition class at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music). He has taught in England, Canada and the United States and he is a prolific writer, author of five books and over one hundred publications on topics covering all musical matters ranging from his own music and music aesthetics, to interviews with important contemporary composers. While Kondo's music has been discussed in various publications, an examination of his entire body of work has not yet been attempted.
An examination of Kondo’s entire oeuvre shows a surprising consistency of style in works from 1973 to the present. Kondo refers to this style as "sen no ongaku" which he translates into English as "linear music". One of the main objectives of this study is to show how Kondo is able to adapt the essential elements of sen no ongaku to compositions of various instrumental combinations and scale, from solo and chamber works, to compositions for much larger ensembles and orchestral pieces. The year 1973 is significant as it was the year Kondo started overtly composing with sen no ongaku, and the year 1980 represents a change in style in which vertical relations became emphasized over horizontal relations. Thus, examining in detail the pieces from 1973 to 1980 it will be possible to contextualize the origin and particular points of development of sen no ongaku in Kondo’s music.
Another of the decisions made at the onset of this study was to limit the discussion to a concrete examination of his scores and recordings. While some aesthetic and philosophical problems are touched on, this enquiry is concerned in no way with any extra‑musical or philosophical concerns outside the music itself. Thus wherever possible, an attempt will be made to rely on aural confirmation in recordings and to avoid both claims based on score analysis without connection to the concrete sound, and the search for obscure and impalpable theoretical connections.
The Earliest Definition of 'Sen no ongaku '
Chronologically, the first mention of the term 'sen no ongaku' in the composer's writings is found in the liner notes of the album of the same name released in 1974. These were written to briefly introduce his new theory and to explain the compositional methodology of Orient Orientation (1973), Standing (1973), Falling (1973), Click Crack (1973), and Pass (1974) recorded on this album.
Kondo begins the explanation of the his new theory as follows:
"Sen no ongaku" can be roughly translated as "linear music". At first this music will sound to most people like a row of endless tones that proceed without interruption, always wrapped out in a kind of simple artlessness.
Let us begin examining Kondo's description of sen no ongaku as "a row of endless tones," a phrase which aptly applies to the first sen no ongaku work Orient Orientation written for any two melody instruments of the same kind (Example 1).
Example 1: Orient Orientation: page 1, first system
If we glance at an excerpt from a stylistically quite different work from the same year as Orient Orientation we can see the manner of working with a "row of endless tones" expressed in a slightly different way (Example 2).
Example 2: Falling: page 2, first system Dynamics of the sounds of electric piano are always free between ppp and mp.
Here, in Falling for 2 violas, double bass and electric piano, we have a four-part texture of four rows of tones. The row of tones of the electric piano part, which is very similar in character to the Orient Orientation rows, is combined with the three rows of tones written for the two violas and contrabass. In this example the slanting lines in the string instruments represent glissandi. Due to the consistent use of glissandi throughout the composition, these string instrument parts, while incorporating visibly linear note rows, have a very different sound quality from the rows of the electric piano part. In this context, due to the absence of a clearly articulated series of individual attacks, the rows written for the three string instruments have the quality of continuous undulating waves of sound. In Falling, Kondo is experimenting with "a time lag shift in the mobility of a sound that keeps neither fixed pitch nor dynamics." 
The following two lines from Click Crack for solo piano present another slightly different treatment of a row of tones (Example 3).
Example 3: Click Crack: page 1, first 2 systems
In this example the row of tones in the upper staff is combined with an extremely subtle chordal accompaniment of barely audible piano string harmonics in the lower staff. By silently depressing the keys of the piano (the diamond shaped pitches) while playing the upper line, these harmonics are made audible through the sympathetic resonance of the undampened strings. Due to the incorporation of rapid groupings of thirty‑second notes, the note row in the upper staff is more florid and gestural than the note rows of the two previous examples.
In Standing, written for three instruments of different families, we recognize a degree of complexity not encountered in the previous examples (Example 4). Complexity in this example arises from three conditions. First, the rows of tones in this composition are distributed among three, rather than one or two voices. Second, most of the composition is made up of two independent lines moving in tandem, creating harmony in the form of two‑note chords, which has the effect of blurring the boundaries between the two lines. Third, the direct note repetitions distributed among the three lines continuously vary in number, creating very irregular rhythmic patterns.
Example 4: Standing: page 15, first system
After explaining the outward appearance of the new sen no ongaku style as a "row of endless tones," Kondo moves on to discuss the specific functions of sound groupings which "enable the listener simply to gaze at each sound dispassionately¼." It is important to note this first mention of Kondo's concern with the relationship between sound groupings and listening as it forms such an important role in subsequent writings.
The next important point in Kondo's introduction to sen no ongaku style is his concern with the "spatialization" and "positionings" of tones in a sound‑space. He writes:
Each single tone we deal with is not a self‑sufficient, indivisible particle, but one that has been spatialized ¼ each spatialized single tone ¼ endlessly uncovers manifold positionings in that sound‑space.
Kondo's idea of "manifold positionings" can best be explained with reference to the formation of melody. A “melodic grouping” is a collection of tones grouped in a relatively tight unit in which each individual tone contributes in some way to the perception of the whole as a single entity. If single tones are grouped too far apart, the tones are not perceived as being connected to each other, and consequently, the sense of these tones forming a melody is weakened, or even non‑existent, depending on the distance between individual tones. In the case of conventional melody the individual notes must sacrifice some of their individual identity in order to form a grouping which can be registered by the listener as a single entity. In this sense, a note within a melody has a relatively restricted "positioning" in relation to the notes surrounding it. To cite a rather obvious example, if the notes of any well‑known melody are slightly re‑arranged, the tune is rendered incomprehensible. Or if a melody's tempo is altered considerably it might not be perceived as melody, but rather as “figuration”, or even “texture”.
Kondo's note rows of sen no ongaku works are very close in character to conventional melodies in terms of their continuity and general contour. But they lack the specific fixed "positionings" of individual notes grouped in such a way that a clear melody is perceived. The main aspect of melodic tone grouping that Kondo is interested in preserving is the manner “of note‑binding”, or a note's potential for connection with other notes. If the note rows stray too far from conventional melody, with too few or no connections between tones, the groupings tend to resemble chance music where a sound's particular positioning in relation to other sounds is redundant.
Because the “binding relations” of sen no ongaku tone rows are not as rigidly fixed as conventional melody, the individual notes have more autonomy, and are capable of being positioned in a great variety of potential groupings or "manifold positionings." Because of the relative looseness of the groupings, a row of a sen no ongaku work may be interpreted in a myriad of ways depending on the particular predilection of each individual listener.
Finally, and most importantly, one of the most definitive aspects of sen no ongaku is the musical continuity which Kondo explains in the following manner: "'Linear Music,’ considered as a row of tones articulated in single note units, acquires a continuity based on an endless pulse." These words of Kondo written in 1974, succinctly define an important aspect of sen no ongaku which we will examine repeatedly and in detail throughout the analyses of this study.
Terminology: “Sound Shadow” and “Sound Grouping”
Two important terms appearing for the first time in the liner notes of 1974, which Kondo used to explain his new theory of sen no ongaku were “sound shadow” and “sound groupings.” Defining Kondo's “sound shadow” in a concise manner is difficult as the only written description of the term by the composer in the liner notes to his first LP album, is somewhat abstruse. The five works on this album however, suggest certain concrete implications of the term. While ‘sound shadows’ can take many forms, one of the more common of these is that of a tone or continuous sound directly following a leading voice, most often in the form of a staggered repetition of a single note. The ‘sound shadow’ technique first appears in the very first work written in sen no ongaku style, Orient Orientation (Example 5).
Example 5: Orient Orientation: page 2, system 7
(The instrumentation of this work is for any two melody instruments of the same kind)
In some works the sound shadow can be likened to a hocket‑like effect as below (Example 6).
Example 6: Standing: page 1, system 1
In other works the “sound shadow” manifests itself as an asymmetrical sound aggregate or “echo”. In Falling (Example 7) the leading first viola line follows the attacks of the electric piano "with a moving shadow that tries to coincide with them." This first viola line is then “shadowed” by the second viola and double bass playing in two‑octave unison.
Example 7: Falling: page 2, system 4
The more thickly textured work Pass, written for a slightly larger ensemble of banjo, two guitars, taisho‑koto, harp and harmonica, displays the freest use of the “sound shadow” technique so far (Example 8).
In this work the “sound shadow” is not readily discernable. Kondo explains this veiled “shadow articulation” in the following way: "Here the shadow is allowed free motion, it is even provided with an independent structure that could almost be called a figure for each instrument." The banjo in this work has the central role of "carrying" the sound shadows of the other instruments. Because the instrumental lines are so rhythmically varied, the resulting articulation of their shadows is quite irregular. This technique of “shadow articulation” is very different in character from that seen in Examples 5 and 6.
Example 8: Pass: page 9, system 2
The function of the “sound shadow” is to draw attention to the note sounding immediately before, in order to reinforce the independence of this note as an entity in and of itself. The reciprocal relationship between sounds and “sound shadows” employed here has the dual function of not only drawing the listener's attention toward the individual tones, but also of discouraging the tendency of the listener to hear the pitches as part of larger conventional melodic groupings.
As we can see from the above explanations, it is clear that for Kondo,”‘sound shadows” have two functions. The first is the framing of individual tones in order to highlight their independence from each other, and the second consists of the "positioning of tones within a compatible succeeding relationship" through the delicate rhythmic placement of the shadow tone. Kondo's conception of a “row of tones” here is far from structural. For him a row of tones is less a collection of material for building and constructing, than a random selection of pitches used for experimenting with “shadow articulation”. The consistent use of “shadow articulation” throughout a work is one method used by Kondo to avoid the formation of conventional note groupings.
The term “sound groupings" refers to the way pitches are arranged in a composition. Stated simply, they can be grouped in one of two ways: vertically (harmonically) or horizontally (melodically). While both methods of grouping are used in Kondo's linear music, in most of the works from the first period horizontal groupings of sounds are more prominent than vertical groupings.
Before moving on to a detailed description of the note rows an important point in the definition of a sen no ongaku row must be clarified, namely that Kondo's definition of a sen no ongaku row should not be confused in any way with a 12‑tone row or a serial row. Kondo later uses the term “pitch gamut” to dispel any connection with the latter two terms. One of the most important distinguishing features of linear music pitch gamuts is their 'non structural' nature.
Kondo's theory of sen no ongaku centered on a new method of grouping sounds. This new method of organization or "spatialization" of pitches avoided strong tonal centers, melodic climaxes and functional harmony. “Pitch gamuts” in linear music can be considered to have a loose correspondence to a “tone row” or melody, but due to the lack of tight groupings of notes, the often rhythmically irregular positioning of sounds in time, and the careful attention given to the self‑sufficiency of each sound in the line, we must consider Kondo's horizontal groupings of tones a radical departure from the idea of melody in the conventional sense.
Kondo's horizontal groupings differ further from traditional melody in their aimlessness or non‑directionality. Because Kondo's “rows of tones” are organized in a non‑hierarchical manner with a clear absence of goal-directed movement, the individual notes of these rows float in time in an often rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous state. The most important objective of this new pitch organization is the maintenance of the self‑sufficiency of each tone when it is sounded. Whil we can consider Kondo's pitch gamuts as a kind of structural foundation of each work, they are not treated in a conventionally structuralist manner. That is to say that the individual pitches of these gamuts are not combined in sound groupings to form a greater whole, but are rather grouped in a manner that encourages their mutual independence, a kind of semi‑autonomous state.
Kondo's intention here is to encourage a different kind of listening ‑ an attention to individual sounds over conventional melodic and harmonic groupings of sounds. This is not to say that Kondo is unconcerned with the relationships between the individual sounds but rather that he wishes to avoid "the problem posed by sound grouping¼centered on the structure of sound aggregates [resulting] from the accumulation of tones" which suggest conventional expressive melodic formations.
In order to encourage this kind of listening, the particular manner in which sounds are grouped is of the utmost importance. If certain sounds in a pitch gamut are placed closer together than others, the ear naturally groups them as a distinctively identifiable unit setting them apart from other less dense groupings. If, on the other hand, all pitches are placed relatively equidistant from each other, the individual tones lose their self‑sufficiency and are subsumed into a rhythmically static whole. Kondo is interested in creating an ambiguous state in which note groupings of greater or lesser density cannot be readily distinguished from each other. The composition of these early linear music works represents Kondo's first grappling with a delicate balancing act ‑ a searching for a means of grouping sounds to achieve what he later termed "the proper degree of ambiguity and vagueness." He explains his theory of the function of note groupings in the following manner:
¼if the groupings are too vague, the sounds lose their mutual relationships, and the outcome resembles Cage's chance music. If on the other hand, the groupings are too unambiguous, the listener ends up listening only to the resulting structure and falling prey to its expressive effects. It is essential to find the proper balance, an arrangement where sounds are heard as mutually connected by groupings, and yet each sound keeps its own individuality without becoming completely submerged under the upper level structures.
Kondo explains this balance in more concrete terms when speaking about Sight Rhythmics (1975) in the same article:
In short there is a melody‑like structure, but it is never unambiguously established; it is almost a melody, yet not quite. The listener can feel that a melody‑like structure exists (which is precisely the syntactic device I use to bind the individual sounds together), but he is still able to recognize each individual sound in its own right. He perceives the individual sounds through a 'melodic prism' as it were.
As we can see from these two quotations, Kondo's theories regarding sound groupings extend beyond a purely structural concern with how pitches can be ordered or combined in a composition to form a coherent whole as in Schoenberg. It is through the employment of a melody‑like structure that Kondo is able to focus on what interests him most ‑ encouraging of an active kind of listening, from instant to instant, in which the listener groups the individual sounds of the work into various configurations based on their own preferences.
Almost all of the works composed in this period conform to the characteristics of the new, sen no ongaku style in terms of their extremely sparse texture, static quality and the use of a single melodic line as their basic material. From 1973 Kondo had found his voice, and in this year alone wrote no less than six works to outline his new theories. The abrupt shift in style in 1973 was a conscious one as we can see from his desire to explain his new theory in detail in the first two chapters of his book Sen no ongaku. This stylistic shift is even more striking in retrospect when we consider how important the ideas outlined in Sen no ongaku were in the formation of a distinctive style, which can be recognized throughout the composer's entire body of work from the first “linear music” pieces to the present.
There are a few works in this period, however, which do not so easily conform to the characteristics of the new, sen no ongaku style. We will begin this section with a brief discussion of these works. These exceptions are Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing (1973) for string quartet, MINE (1974) for chorus, Ashore (1974) a work of indeterminate duration for tape, flute, piano, electric organ, harp contrabass, percussion and harmonica, Kekai‑Sekai (1976) for mixed chorus and Riverrun (1977) for tape. We will focus on only one of these works, Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing, which retains aspects of both pre‑sen no ongaku and sen no ongaku style.
Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing
Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing, for string quartet and cowbells, is somewhat hard to categorize stylistically. Although it was written after Orient Orientation, and does display some characteristics of sen no ongaku, in terms of its overall sound world and quality of musical gestures, this composition has affinities with the pieces written before 1973. In particular it has a certain likeness to the earlier work Breeze (1970) through its use of graphic notation, labyrinthine instructions for the four performers, its focus on attentive listening, and its experimental atmosphere. It has connections to the new sen no ongaku style in terms of its formal clarity, stark reduction of musical material, and fixation and limitation of musical elements. Perhaps most importantly, this is the first composition to use rhythmic unison which is the most important structural aspect forming the backbone of almost all works written in sen no ongaku style.
Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing was the last piece in Kondo's oeuvre to include extensive detailed instructions for the performer. It is one of only four works by the composer written in graphic notation. From this point on, with only one exception (Jo‑ka), all of Kondo's work is conventionally notated. The score includes five charts with an accompanying page of instructions. One of the five charts (referred to as Chart 1 in Kondo's instructions), is a scordatura and fingering position chart for the four string instruments (Example 9).
The remaining four charts (lettered A, B, C and D in the score), are written in graphic notation. Because all four charts are so similar in appearance, we need only refer to one example. Chart A is shown below (Example 10). Because the instruction sheet explaining this chart is so comprehensive, it is included here in its entirety. A quick glance through this page of instructions is the simplest way of grasping the technical details of the work.
Kondo favors a strict reduction of material and fixation and limitation of musical events to create his musical image. Kondo's directions are very concise with the single parameter of pitch being the only indeterminate element of the composition. Compared to the work Breeze, which also employs indeterminate elements, Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing is a much more tightly controlled work. This control is manifest in the notation, through the very clear treatment of the four parameters of pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre.
The most notable aspect of Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing is that Kondo is able to articulate such a clear musical image through graphic notation. An important aspect of this notation is the careful balancing of indeterminate and determinate elements. If indeterminate elements are too predominant, formal clarity is lost. On the other hand, if every musical parameter of the work is too tightly controlled, the piece loses flexibility and spontaneity, which are both essential qualities contributing to the playful atmosphere and character of the composition.
An unusual feature, which contributes greatly to the character and identity of this work is the inclusion of four cowbells, each of different pitch to be played by the four string players. Kondo uses the cowbells in a structural, rather than coloristic manner, to punctuate pauses at the ends of musical lines, and to amplify breaks in continuity. The inclusion of these unusual non‑pitched instruments into an otherwise conventional ensemble is a device used by Kondo to offset the listener's expectation, by adding an unstable element into an otherwise conventional sound world. We will see this technique in many future compositions.
The clarity of the piece can be seen in the way Kondo organizes large sections of material in a strict formal scheme. In the top right hand side of the sheet of instructions (Example 11) we see a figure designating the particular order in which charts A to D are to be played by each performer. The work is divided into two major sections which Kondo terms "cyles." The partitioning of the work into two contrasting cycles is an important formal stratagem which helps to structure the work in two important ways. First, the re-inclusion of the A and B charts from Cycle 1 in Cycle 2 aids in the comprehension of a quite abstract sound world through repetition. Second, a kind of musical development is suggested through the introduction of new material (charts C and D only) in the second cycle.
Example 9: Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing: Scordatura and Fingering Position Chart (Chart 1)
Example 10: Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing: Chart A
Example 11: Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing: Instructions
The use of rhythmic unison in Cycle 1 should be noted, as it is the first appearance of a technique Kondo will employ in most of the sen no ongaku works to follow. Rhythmic unison is used here to structure sounds not organized in conventional harmonic or melodic groupings. From the listener’s point of view, this aspect of the perception of things sounding together and things sounding apart becomes very important in a work employing few recognizable syntactic devices.
While the jagged gestures, discontinuity and somewhat harsh sound world of Mr. Bloomfield, His Spacing seem far removed from the lightly‑textured sen no ongaku music it bears affinities with the new style in its definition and limitation of musical elements, its simplification of material distinctive formal clarity and most importantly, the first use of the rhythmic unison technique which forms the backbone of virtually all works written in sen no ongaku style.
Sen no ongaku Works: 1973 to 1980
To further aid the discussion of sen no ongaku, the following six essential features of this style are summarized as follows:
1. groupings of tones in order to encourage multiple interpretations
2. vertical formations in no way connected with functional harmony
3. non-teleological continuity
4. single texture throughout a composition
5. consistent use of asymmetrical rhythm throughout a composition
6. uni-sectional static form
It is important to remember, that in spite of the development of sen no ongaku these six features remain constant during the period 1973 – 1980. The flexibility of the sen no ongaku style is revealed here in terms of how it is able to incorporate a wide range of diversity while still adhering to these six principle features. We will begin this examination of Kondo’s sen no ongaku style with a discussion of melodic aspects. This is followed by an explanation of rhythm and meter and vertical formations. Next, structure and form are treated, before concluding with a discussion of mature works of the period.
Melodic Aspects - Gamut Technique
In the case of the works, Orient Orientation, Standing, and some other compositions written up to 1975, the limitation of pitch content “was decided on the basis of a chart of random numbers assigned to a gamut of sounds purposely chosen beforehand.” These gamuts of sounds, unique to each composition, are arranged in various vertical and horizontal configurations, in an intuitive manner. The two gamuts shown below very closely resemble serial pitch-sets, but they are in no way treated as such, being merely the pitch material of the composition which is organized using a combination of random and intuitive procedures (Example 12)
Example 12: Gamuts Used in the Composition of Orient Orientation and Standing
In the following example, the notes of the gamut “E” from Example 12 are arranged in a line. This is the simplest form of arrangement of the notes of a gamut (Example 13).
Example 13: Orient Orientation: page 3, eighth system
The notes of a gamut may also be combined in vertical aggregates as seen in Standing (Example 14).
Example 14: Vertical Configurations of Notes of the Gamut, Standing: page 13, third system
In Click Crack both horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) elements are merely different configurations of the gamut of tones used in this work (Example 15). The gamut technique was used for a relatively brief span of time as we know from the composer’s writings that after the composition of Sight Rhythmics in 1975, Kondo “stopped using any ‘outside’ help, such as the random charts employed in Standing.” From this point on Kondo composed completely intuitively without using any kind of pre-compositional systems.
Example 15: Click Crack: page 4, systems 5 and 6
Melodic Style Categories
The five sen no ongaku compositions on Kondo’s first record album are stylistically quite contrasting works. While all are based on a single melodic line, the specific treatment of this line varies quite radically from composition to composition. The reader need only compare a few bars of the two works Standing (1973) (Example 16) and Falling (1973) (Example 17) to recognize the range of this contrast. Here we have two completely contrasting treatments of a line of tones, yet both conform to many of the six features outlined at the beginning of this section. Comparing the various treatments of the melodic note groupings in other works of the this period, equally striking variations in style can be seen. To aid comparison these variations are organized into three different stylistic categories: simple melodic style, leaping melodic style and pointillist melodic style.
Example 16: Standing: page 7, fourth system
Example 17: Falling: page 7, first system
Simple Melodic Style
The clearly audible arrangement of tones seen in the first sen no ongaku work Orient Orientation (1973) is representative of the simple melodic style (Example 18).
Example 18: Simple Melodic Style, Orient Orientation: page 4, fifth system
Another example of simple melodic style is seen in Click Crack (1973) (Example 19).
Example 19: Simple Melodic Style, Click Crack: page 9, first system
Leaping Melodic Style
Leaping melodic style lacks the smooth connection between pitches found in simple melodic style due to the frequent occurrence of large melodic leaps (often greater than an octave) and clearly audible breaks in continuity through the occasional use of rests. A clear example of leaping melodic style can be seen in the banjo part of the work Pass (1974) (Example 20).
Example 20: Leaping Melodic Style, Pass: page 1, first and second systems
The extreme melodic leaps throughout Retard (1978) for solo violin fracture the continuity of the line to such a degree that the composition appears to be written in three independent voices. Employing a technique very similar to that found in Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas, Kondo fixes certain tones of the gamut in one of three distinctive registers of the instrument (low range on G string, middle range on the D and A strings and high range played in harmonics, see Example 21).
Example 21: Leaping Melodic Style, Retard: page 4, seventh system
As mentioned above in footnote 28, the line of tones of some sen no ongaku works may fall under more than one category, as in the case of certain sections of Click Crack. While this work for the most part is written in simple melodic style, the leaping melodic style can also be seen (Example 22).
Example 22: Leaping Melodic Style, Click Crack: page 8, first and second systems
This excerpt is close to simple melodic style in terms of the connectedness of most of the tones and the general contour of much of the quasi-melodic line. However, the three rests in the first half of the first system and the leap from the high A# to the low G, along with the repetitive leaping figure at the end of the first system, fall more into the category of leaping style. A return to simple melodic style occurs in the second half of the second system from the G onward.
Pointillist Melodic Style
A more sophisticated melodic style involves the shifting of melody between various instruments in a pointillist manner. Sight Rhythmics (1975), (both versions), Strands I (1978), When Wind Blew (1979), An Elder’s Hocket (1979) and An Insular Style (1980) are the six pieces of the period 1973 – 1980 which use this technique. The pointillist melodic effect in the ensemble version of Sight Rhythmics is more prominent than the piano version due to the shifting of the melody between instruments of sharply contrasting color (Example 23). However, in the piano reduction of the work, in spite of the relative homogeneity of the sound of the lines played by only one instrument, the pointillist quality is still clearly audible. This is the first introduction of pointillist piano writing which will recur in much of the composer’s subsequent works for this instrument (Example 24).
Example 24: Pointillist Melodic Style, Sight Rhythmics (piano version): fourth movement, page 4, sixth and seventh systems
Example 23: Pointillist Melodic Style, Sight Rhythmics: fourth movement, page 8, measures 22 – 27
Example 25: Pointillist Melodic Style, Strands I: page 4, second system
Strands I can be considered a sister piece to the ensemble version of Sight Rhythmics due to the use of three of the same rather unconventional instruments (steel drum, electric piano and banjo), and its identical pointillist melodic style (Example 25). When Wind Blew, written for a slightly larger ensemble, also employs pointillist melodic style throughout the composition in the manner shown above (Example 26).
Example 26: Pointillist Melodic Style, When Wind Blew: page 2, measures 4 – 10
The pointillist writing seen in An Insular Style is restricted to the percussion and harp parts, with the upper two voices (flute and clarinet) being written in a more conventional style (Example 27).
One of the most important aspects of Kondo’s pointillist melodic style is how it contributes to the autonomy of single tones. As can be seen in all the examples above, single tones are clearly audible as single entities sounding alone in a completely non-contrapuntal texture. Yet they are also connected to each other in melodic groupings “which is precisely the syntactic device I [Kondo] use to bind the individual sounds together.” These examples above are representative of Kondo’s idea of the “melodic prism” through which the listener perceives the individual sounds within a clear melodic context. The use of a pointillist melody-like structure throughout a work encourages a more active form of listening to individual sounds as the listener is never quite sure how, and in which voice, the melody will proceed.
Example 27: Combination of Pointillist and Simple Melodic Styles, An Insular Style: page 2, measures 9 – 12
Example 28: Falling: page 3, first system
In some sen no ongaku compositions, the line on which the composition is based is masked to varying degrees, making it somewhat difficult to assign it to any specific melodic category. In the work Falling, for example, the extremely elongated line played by the electric piano is overshadowed by the more prominent glissando texture of the three string instruments (Example 28).
In the case of Pass, the banjo line while clearly audible, is also somewhat obscured by the other four instruments which form a pointillist counterpoint to this line. Example 29, which is representative of the work as a whole, is heard more as a four-part texture than a single line with shadow notes. The main line of the banjo is “almost buried” in the texture of the “independent structure that could almost be called a figure for each instrument.”
Example 29: Pass: page 3, second system
In Threadbare Unlimited, as a result of the dense harmonic texture, the original line in the top voice is veiled to such an extent that it cannot be clearly heard at all times (Example 30). In spite of the inaudibility of this line, we know from Kondo’s words that the work is based on a single line as he explains it as his “first timid attempt to apply somehow this kind of compositional methodology [Sen no ongaku] to thicker materials.”
The work An Insular Style is rather exceptional in Kondo’s oeuvre in that it is one of the few compositions to employ conventional sounding melody which the composer describes as “...more clearly articulated and less abstract than in most of my works. Its melodic contour or phrase structure appears to be closer to conventional melodic writing, and therefore more accessible to the listener.”
While the melodic writing in this work most closely conforms to the stylistic category of simple melodic style, it is somewhat different due to its very clear phrase structure with definite points of cadential closure. In order to highlight the difference between the quite similar simple melodic style and conventional melodic style, an excerpt from Orient Orientation (Example 31) is compared with an excerpt from An Insular Style (Example 32).
Example 30: Threadbare Unlimited: page 9, measures 119 – 127
Example 31: Orient Orientation: page 4, first and second systems
Example 32: An Insular Style: page 4, measures 39 – 42
The melody of Example 31 is continuous, with no clear breaks in phrasing. This melodic fragment can be interpreted in various ways depending on how each individual listener groups these notes into melodic figures. We could call this pseudo-melody. The flute and clarinet lines in Example 32, however, strongly resemble conventional melody as they are articulated in clear melodic phrases.
Looking at another example from An Insular Style we can see that the melodic figuration of the clarinet and flute are clearly independent from the percussion and harp parts, which form an accompaniment to the two upper voices (Example 33).
Example 33: An Insular Style: page 3, measures 22 – 25
Example 33 clearly shows the dual function of the harp and percussion parts, on the one hand as an accompaniment, and on the other hand as independent melodic figures. The melodic aspect here is strengthened by the closeness of the melodic intervals. The accompanying aspect is strengthened by the wide intervallic leaps and the use of low pitches in the harp part. Occasionally, the harp and percussion writing is strongly melodic, on almost equal footing with the upper two voices as in An Insular Style: page 4, measures 39 – 42 (see Example 32 above).
An Insular Style is written in a subtle combination of pointillist and conventional melodic styles with the harp and percussion relegated for the most part to an accompanying role in pointillist melodic style. Conventional melodic style as seen in this piece rarely surfaces in Kondo’s sen no ongaku music. When it is employed, it is always combined with another melodic style.
Rhythm and Meter
As we have seen through the analysis of Orient Orientation, rhythm plays a very important role in contributing to the autonomy of single tones. Asymmetrical rhythm also creates the particular non-teleological, jagged continuity, characteristic of all sen no ongaku works. However, this is not to say that all of Kondo’s sen no ongaku compositions are written using asymmetrical rhythm only. In some pieces, a very symmetrical rhythm is employed in the form of a steady continuous pulse. These works share some affinities with American minimalist music in their continual repetition of small cells of pitch material over the entire composition, their relatively unchanging dynamic texture, and their complete lack of sectional contrast and musical depth.
The three works in the period 1973 to 1980 which conform to some minimalist characteristics include Standing (1973) (Example 34), Luster Gave Her the Hat and He and Ben Went On Across the Backyard (1975) (Example 35) and An Elder’s Hocket (1979) (Example 36). In these three compositions, a generally symmetrical rhythmic pulse is strongly prominent.
Example 34: Standing: page 2, second system
Example 35 employs a single tempo, dynamic and texture throughout the composition. While the eighth-note pulse is more or less constant throughout the entire work, small sections are defined by slightly different rhythmic variations as can be seen in the three systems of this example.
The excerpt from An Elder’s Hocket (Example 36) is representative of the work as a whole. As in the previous two examples, an eighth-note pulse is clearly audible throughout the entire composition. The use of occasional hemiola (the syncopated notes of the first beat of measure 71 and the last beats of measures 87 and 89) adds some slight rhythmic variation at certain points in the composition. But the use of this hemiola here, due to its relative infrequency, has an ornamental function and does not shift attention away from the steady eighth-note pulse.
Another work employing a regular rhythmic pulse, which extends the technique of tied note syncopation seen above even further is Walk for piano (1976) (Example 38). Syncopation is used in Walk in a structural, rather than ornamental manner. It is used so frequently in this work that the eighth-note pulse is almost unrecognizable at times, with the rhythmic stress continually shifting in an irregular manner over the course of the entire work.
In Example 37, within the space of only three systems, a great amount of rhythmic variation can be found. The eighth-note pulse predominates in the first measure of this example, but after entering the second measure, with the introduction of the sixteenth-note on the second half of the second beat, the pulse is interrupted. The eighth-note rest in the beginning of the third measure also interrupts the eighth-note pulse. Syncopation is introduced again in measures 4, 5 and 6. The syncopation in bar 6 is very prominent due to its rather extended duration of a dotted quarter-note. This extended duration has the effect of almost terminating the sense of the eighth-note pulse.
Example 35: Luster Gave Her the Hat and He and Ben Went On Across the Backyard: page 5, measures 48 – 59