20. August 2019

Ryoko Aoki and Noh Theatre

Peter Eötvös in conversation with Martina Seeber about Secret Kiss (2018) which will be premiered at Musikfest Berlin on September 8th.

Japan is more than just a faraway place of longing in the oeuvre of the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös. The culture has fascinated him since he traveled with Karlheinz Stockhausen to the World Exhibition in 1970. That he once again looks to the East in Secret Kiss, however, has to do with the initiative of a young artist who wasn’t even born at the time of Expo. Secret Kiss was commissioned by the actress and singer Ryoko Aoki. Not only is she an anomaly as a female Noh actress in the traditional male theater form, but she also seeks to renew the genre by encouraging contemporary composers to create new works within the framework of her Noh x Contemporary project.

Peter Eötvös, as a composer, you are in the fortunate position of being able to choose your commissions. Why did you agree to Ryoko Aoki’s request?

I’ve known Ryoko Aoki since she first performed my music theater piece Harakiri. We have been in constant contact ever since. Her voice and character are unmistakable and unique, as is her way of combining Noh theater with singing and contemporary music. It’s her invention. Since I knew her very well, I knew what I could write for her. And that is how Secret Kiss was created based on Alessandro Baricco’s novella, Silk.

Ryoko Aoki studied Noh theater at the University of Tokyo as the only female student in her class, then wrote a doctoral thesis in London on women in Noh theater. You can see her in stage photos in plain black designer dress or in opulent new kimono designs, often with the traditional mask. So what kind of an artist is Ryoko Aoki?

She’s incredibly disciplined. This discipline actually comes from the tradition of Noh theater. The performers learn to practice and maintain this discipline not only on stage but also in daily life. In conversations, Royko Aoki speaks extremely sparingly, yet she always formulates very precisely. While working with her, one notices that she is as well-trained musically as she is in the field of theater. This dual function, being a musician as well as a Noh theater performer, is her special, unique quality.

The Japanese Noh theater is an art form that has not changed for a long time. What fascinates you as a composer about it?

Noh is one of the oldest known theater forms in the world. It was developed in the 14th century by Master Zeami, the first great dramatist. I saw my first Noh theater performance in 1970, the year of the World’s Exposition in Osaka. At that time, I was a member of the Stockhausen Ensemble and spent six months with them in Japan. Those long months influenced me very much, also artistically. I am interested in many topics as an artist, but Japanese culture is an area that I have been exploring for a long time.

Your creative exploration with Harakiri began shortly after the Expo in Osaka.

In 1972 I wrote my first scenic work on behalf of WDR. Two years earlier, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima had committed suicide. In Harakiri, I addressed a Japanese theme for the first time, using a Japanese text and Japanese instruments. It is written for two Shakuhachi, the flutes of Zen Buddhism. That was my first compositional involvement with Japan. Years later, I delved into the famous diary of the Japanese court lady Sarashina. Her 1000-year-old texts are a treasure of Japanese cultural heritage. Every Japanese person knows her. Using these texts, I composed As I crossed a bridge of dreams for the Donaueschinger Musiktage 1999.

The same texts were the basis for creating your music theater piece Lady Sarashina in 2008. Do you return to Japan every 10 to 20 years?

Yes, [laughs] and when my first opera The Three Sisters by Anton Tschechov was premiered in Lyon in 1998, the director was Japanese, Ushio Amagatsu. It was a Russian text, staged by a Japanese director for a French audience, composed by a Hungarian. That was world music back then. The first Russian performance just took place in Ekaterinburg.

In Secret Kiss, the paths are equally intertwined. The Italian Alessandro Baricco writes a novella about a Frenchman who travels to Japan in the 19th century. As a Hungarian, you will compose a melodrama in the 21st century for a young Japanese Noh theater actress who tries to renew traditional theater and tours the world with her commissioned works. A very complex jumble. How do you deal with it as a composer?

It is a contemporary occurrence, typical of our time, although the phenomenon is of course not new. Even in Mozart’s day, Western culture absorbed Turkish and Arab influences. But in Secret Kiss, my wife, a Hungarian, also worked on the text, which was then translated into Japanese. The text by Alessandro Baricco deals with the connection between two cultures: French and Japanese. In the 19th century, a Frenchman wants to discover the secret of silk production. He travels to Japan and experiences crazy things there. I only use a small part of the story for Secret Kiss. The Frenchman sees a girl at a meeting with the boss of the Japanese silk industry. The girl, who is obviously not Asian, lies on the lap of the silk producer. I think the scene is beautiful. These two Europeans have a silent contact with each other, they only communicate through glances and by turning the teacup so that they drink from it at the same place. There, where the lips touch the teacup, the “secret kiss” is created, which is conveyed by the small teacup alone.

How do you deal with this wordless encounter in your composition?

I let the scene be told. Ryoko Aoki declaims Alessandro Barrico’s words in Japanese. This means that there is no sung dialogue, but rather a narrative. And I wrote some nice music to go with it. A melodrama spoken in the style of Japanese Noh theater. The text is declaimed, sung and spoken, slower and faster. A very special style has emerged.

You composed Harakiri for Japanese instruments. Now there are five European instruments: Flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and percussion. Does Japanese music still have an echo here?

Harakiri was very Japanese at the time, not only concerning the instruments but also musically.  For this new piece, I have found my own style, one that solely belongs to this melodrama. You could say that I compose each opera in a different musical language. My musical language is always related to the particular topic and the question of how I want to tell something. I don’t have my own language. The Eötvös language is characterized by the fact that it is always the language of a single piece.

And in this case, gestures also belong to the language?

The percussionist is in a central position. The big drum stands in the middle at the back, frontally to the audience. When Ryoko Aoki tells us that the Frenchman has drunk from the teacup at a particular place, the percussionist applies a piece of red tape to the drumhead, then the girl comes, she drinks at the same place, and the percussionist sticks a second red line over it so that a red cross can be seen. A bit of theatricality is present. However, it has nothing to do with the Japanese tradition of Noh theater. It’s more my own fun to portray the story a tad visually.

Alessandro Baricco, who began his career as a music critic, has described his language as “white music,” as a “voice without color”. How do you hear his works?

I take that statement to refer to all of his books. I have read a lot of his works in Hungarian translation, the Silk text also in the Italian original. All his books have an incredible silence. The way he tells stories isn’t loud. It’s very noble. He lets a shy person appear who only tells her stories very quietly, that’s fantastic.

Do you see this reduction as a connection to the Noh theater?

I found it very easy to combine this text with the Noh theater. It’s not enough that the story is set in Japan. That would be too little for me. Alessandro Baricco’s style and my way of writing music to this text are very close, very related.

Translation: Christine Chapman