Jo Kondo’s Standing


Soundbites: OpusNovus
Monday, 11 March 2019 @ 12:15pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall

Contributed by Cliff Tan (BMUS1, YST)

Japanese composer Jo Kondo (b. 1947, Tokyo) studied composition at the Tokyo University of Arts in 1972. He stayed in New York City for a year from 1977 to 1978, after receiving a grant from the Rockerfeller Foundation. It was during this trip where he acquainted himself with the American musical avant-garde, namely John Cage and Morton Feldman.

In 1973, Kondo developed the “Linear Music” method, also known in Japanese as sen no ongaku. Kondo developed this method, described by himself as “a row of endless tones that proceed without interruption in a kind of simple artlessness,”2 upon reflection on the nature of his earlier compositions.

He further adds, “I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create.” Kondo’s attention to the boundaries between the succession of sounds is instrumental to how we perceive his music. The continuously unravelling line suggests a Hocket – a rhythmical linear technique that was used mainly in European medieval music. Under this technique, a single melodic line or sequence is alternated between different instruments. When one instrument sounds the other instruments rest. Hence, the attacks of each sound are imbued with a variety of colours.

Standing (1973) is scored for three unspecified instruments that must belong to three different musical families. This chance procedure is applied to the instrumentation and the ordering of pitches as well. A chart of random numbers is assigned to a gamut of pitches that make up the melodic sequence.3 The use of chance procedures in this work closely resembles the compositional techniques used earlier by John Cage in the 1950s. For example, in Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1950), Cage ordered his pitches with a predetermined gamut of sounds.

However, not every compositional element was left to chance procedures. For instance, the duration of melodic events and the patterning of the instrumental Hocket are immutable.4 Listen out for the timbral colors of the individual instruments as they unfold note after note. Kondo redirects our attention constantly with fragments of melodic development and slight rhythmic disturbances as the piece progresses. An active mode of aural awareness would unveil the intricacies of the work, showing us Kondo’s Japanese artistic sensibility integrated with Western minimalism creating a hybrid sound distinct from his contemporaries.

Having an insight into Kondo’s compositional process of Standing may help us to deepen our understanding when listening to the work. In The art of being ambiguous, Kondo discusses his “intuitive approach” to Standing:

“I listened carefully to the pitch row created by individual sounds chosen from a random chart, and simply deleted any portion of the row which in my view was too obvious or too vague in its tonal feeling, so as to obtain the right degree of tonal ambiguity. This tonal feeling will depend largely on how the listener groups the sounds in the row. Depending on the groupings, the tonal character and flow of each portion will be felt different: this character can be strong or weak, have different tonal centers, be tonal or not tonal at all, etc. Another listener may have engineered different groupings of the same row but, be that as it may, while composing the piece I took particular care to listen for its tonal character and flow, and on the basis of such an interpretation I rejected any portion of the row that I felt did not conform with those requirements.”– Jo Kondo


  2. Kondo, liner notes to “Sen no ongaku,” page 6
  3. Kondo, The Art of Being Ambiguous, page 19
  4. Liberatore, John. “Mutual Relationship: An Aesthetic Analysis of Jo Kondo’s “High Window” Page 4
  5. Jo Kondo, The art of being ambiguous, 20


Categories Compositions

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