Toshi Ichiyanagi, experimental composer who married Yoko Ono, dies at 89


Toshi Ichiyanagi, a Japanese composer who explored non-traditional musical forms in the New York art scene of the 1950s while married to an avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, who became an influential innovator whose work blended Japanese and Western instruments and let musicians control notes and rhythm, died Oct. 7 in Tokyo. He was 89 years old.

The death was announced in Japan by the Kanagawa Arts Foundation, where Mr. Ichiyanagi served as general art director. The statement did not give a cause of death or specific location.

Mr. Ichiyanagi has created an extensive catalog – over 200 works including piano solos, percussion sets, operas, and pieces for strings and winds – which have been performed around the world and celebrated as significant contributions to frontiers. musicals with contemporaries such as David Tudor, Steve Reich and Mr. Ichiyanagi’s mentor, John Cage.

Mr. Ichiyanagi’s influence also extended to Ono’s artistic vision during their marriage from 1956 to 1962 as she experimented with sound, including an early 1960s dance piece in which she used microphones to amplify the breathing of the performers.

Mr. Ichiyanagi could leave critics perplexed and disappointed, but he was widely acclaimed for his boundless creativity, especially his use of chance in performance and the musical dialogue between Western and Japanese traditions.

“Japan has a long history of adapting practices from Western culture and blending [them] in themselves,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015.

In 1989, Mr. Inchiyanagi formed the Tokyo International Music Ensemble—the New Tradition, an orchestral group that used traditional instruments such as the zither-shaped gaku-biwa. and Buddhist ritual songs called shomyo. His 1960 composition, “Kaiki [Recurrence] for Koto for John Cage”, combining Japanese instruments, the mouth organ known as the sho and the string koto, with the harmonica and saxophone.

In a nod to Western influences, he created operatic pieces that included “Based on the works of Tadanori Yokoo” in 1969 which included electronic openings and drew on the Flower Power spirit of the psychedelic images of the graphic artist Yokoo.

Death of avant-garde composer John Cage at 79

Mr. Ichiyanagi also pushed in many other directions. “Piano Music No. 4” (1968) includes a series of squeaks that one reviewer describes as similar to turkey squeals. “Another work, Distance” (1961) requires performers to use rods or other devices so that they can play their instruments at least three meters away. “Music for Tinguely” (1963) was made from objects by the kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely.

Mr. Ichiyanagi’s written scores have become works of art in themselves, some in the collection of New York’s modern Art Museumwith Mr. Ichiyanagi adding his own swirls, curls, geometric patterns and instructions for musicians.

In “Music for Electric Metronome” (1960), he asked each musician to start anywhere in the piece they liked, then explore improvisational options for the rest of the piece. In 2016 in Tokyo, he performed his “Piano Concerto No. 6, ‘Zen'” a play in six parts without any definite order.

“Ichiyanagi’s contributions to experimental practice and tradition are broad and comprehensive,” Nomi Epstein, who composes and studies non-traditional music as a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, wrote in an email. at the Washington Post.

“As an innovator in notation (with graphic and textual scores), he has worked to bridge the gap between performer and composer,” she wrote, noting that Mr. Ichiyanagi urged performers to do “good more than interpreting a score, but rather making decisions about structure, pitch, density, color and sound activity.

Toshi Ichiyanagi was born in Kobe, Japan on February 4, 1933, and raised in Tokyo by parents involved in music: a father who played the cello and a mother who was a pianist.

After Japan surrendered in World War II, his mother helped him get a job as a pianist on a US military base, performing songs from Broadway musicals as well as waltzes by Johann Strauss. The soldiers also gave him a taste of jazz and its stylistic freedoms.

He won music competitions in Japan and enrolled in 1952 at the University of Minnesota to continue his studies. During the summers, he takes classes at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts with composer Aaron Copland.

Mr. Ichiyanagi was accepted in 1954 at the Juilliard School in Manhattan, but he increasingly lost interest in traditional composition. The underground art world of New York offered an alternative. There he met Ono, who was studying at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY They ran away in 1956 after Ono dropped out of college, furious that her cosmopolitan, wealthy parents disapproved of Mr. Ichiyanagi’s more humble roots.

The couple found inspiration in New York’s Fluxus movement, a loose association of artists, musicians, writers and others. which emphasized experimental work and collaboration across creative fields.

Mr Ichiyanagi said he found musical “liberation” when he was asked to perform in a piece for three pianos created by Stefan Wolpe. Also in the group was Tudor, a famous pianist and composer of experimental music. Tudor then introduced Mr. Ichiyanagi to Cage, a leading figure in Fluxus groups.

It was a bond for life. In 1958, Mr. Ichiyanagi began his studies as one of Cage’s proteges at the New School for Social Research. Cage also helped Mr. Ichiyanagi land a job as a pianist at choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance studio and opened doors to meet visual artists like Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns as well as the futurist R. Buckminster Fuller.

At the time, Mr. Ichiyanagi’s marriage to Ono was unraveling. They lived separately. Mr. Ichiyanagi returned to his home country in 1960, inviting Cage and Tudor to perform in Tokyo in a revolutionary moment for experimental music in Japan.

Ono performed some of her musical pieces in conjunction with Cage’s concerts, but she was austere. “Who was I”, she later said, “but Toshi’s wife and John Cage’s friend?” They divorced in 1962 and Ono had what was described as a “nervous breakdown” as their marriage fell apart. She remained in Tokyo, marrying film producer Tony Cox who had come to visit her. (Ono later married John Lennon of The Beatles in 1969.)

Mr. Ichiyanagi has not remarried. Full details of the survivors were not immediately available. His awards included top cultural honors from France and Japan.

In 2018 Seattle’s Eye Music ensemble released an album with a 50-minute rendition of 1963 by Mr. Ichiyanagi “Sapporo”, a piece for up to 15 musicians that has no fixed score and allows performers to stop, start and riff at will.

“A good rendition of ‘Sapporo’ has no real beginning or end,” wrote composer and music journalist Michael Schell. in a blog for classical music station KING in Seattle. “It starts and stops, gently emerging from its surroundings like a Japanese garden.”

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