Toshio Hosokawa: This World and the Beyond

“A ritual is meant to allow Claudia to see the soul of her dead child, for she cannot set him free. However, the image disintegrates in her arms. “Let us go home, each to our own home,” she says. To Toshio Hosokawa, nature is reflected in audible symbolic forms. Thus, each tone, each silence holds spiritual evidence.” ( about Stilles Meer)

On occasion of the return of his 2016 opera Stilles Meer (silent ocean) at Staatsoper Hamburg (Hamburg State Opera), I had the opportunity to meet Toshio Hosokawa in the Hanseatic city and talk to him about Spell Song, his solo piece for oboe. Like the 90-minute opera on the Fukushima catastrophe, Spell Song deals with one of the central topics in Hosokawa’s creative work: shamanism. Hosokawa believes there to be parallels between a musician’s concert situation and a ritual of spiritual character: the actor goes on stage, creates a connection with a realm that is otherworldly to us and steps down again. In order to overcome the boundaries between this world and the beyond, a “sorcery song”, the Spell Song, is needed. It can open these portals through its universal musical language. His operas, too, talk of central characters descending from the beyond, reporting on it and disappearing again. Thus, Spell Song represents such an event in an extremely concentrated space. It is a music theatre in roughly seven minutes.
Born in Hiroshima in 1955, Hosokawa came to Berlin as a young man in the seventies in order to study at the Berlin University of the Arts with Isang Yun. It was only in faraway Europe that he discovered the major influence of the Japanese musical tradition for his own artistic identity. Later, he continued his studies with Klaus Huber in Freiburg, where he became acquainted with Heinz Holliger, who became an important mentor for him. Hosokawa is a bridge builder between east and west, who always incorporates Japanese art forms in his compositions for western instruments. 
Thus, also Spell Song is shaped by traditional Japanese music: Especially the sound of the shakuhachi, which is a Japanese bamboo flute, influences his writing for oboe decisively. He never uses special playing techniques as an end in themselves but always embedded in the aesthetic concept. For us “western” interpreters, this becomes as comprehensible as possible when listening to this instrument’s original recordings. For this, Hosokawa recommended the shakuhachi master Tadashi Tajima to me:


The second Japanese art form essentially shaping the composition is calligraphy. Like the musical performance, calligraphy thrives on a one-time moment. Hosokawa forms structure and melodic lines of his phrases as if carried out with a brush: Every section of the piece (1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 5-6, 6 until the end) is circling around a designated central tone and can be thought of as a finalised calligraphic gesture. Several of this art form’s central aspects, like (brush) pressure, posture or movement admittedly cannot be discerned from the finished painting, yet they constitute a substantial part of the artistic process. Also, albeit invisible, the same topics are crucial for the oboist’s interpretation of this music.

two calligraphies from Toshio Hosokawa’s privatee collection: “Haiku of Basho” and “Heart” by Masanori Taki.