It’s nigh-impossible for one to take an all-encompassing view of our own day-to-day societies (be they online or IRL) and fully gauge just where our culture is going. Radical re-interpretation of the latter decades of the 20th century dominates the aesthetic of the modern, “post-internet” world, but what happens when we exhaust the past and we catch up to where we are now, a fetishised obsolescence?
Turning our attention to other cultures, even those with disparate interpretations of human history, offers us a cornucopia of alternative options for artistic outlooks and expressions, which would hopefully translate into a form applicable to the social. It’s certainly no secret that artists have looked to other worlds of interpretation for not only inspiration but also awareness in their endeavors. The renowned recordings of English folk songs that Percy Grainger amassed spring to mind, but so do the folk re-imaginings of Béla Bartók, himself drawing “samples” not only from his homeland in Hungary but also from neighboring countries Slovakia and Romania, even Algeria.
These crucial musical field-tasks (translated into imposing bodies of work, respectively) bear likeness of sorts to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a work of the same period and also related to “folk” traditions. However, what differs Stravinsky’s effort from the aforementioned is a dedicated attention to the sacred (in his work, it is the pagan traditions of pre-Christianity Russia). The Rite is duly noted for its importance in 20th century music, yet the individual approaches of Stravinsky and his counterparts would be combined in new explorations by later artists.
Cultural immersion, the kind displayed on Gaspar Claus’ Jo Ha Kyu, is the logical step after the formidable efforts of those artists previously mentioned. While countless others have also done so, it’s fair to argue that much of this work is done in less visible spheres, removed from the cultural elitism that Stravinsky bathed in, and so artists take it upon themselves to delve into the depths of a culture and take it to its extremes — bend it, re-interpret it, even those possibly previously unimpeachable.
The cultural divides between Claus and his collaborators (among them Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide, and Eiko Ishibashi) are noticeably grand, but perhaps that’s what is so intriguing about their combination. Claus himself is the son of renowned Flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler, but he was quick to amiably distance himself from that “archaic” world, instead leaning toward an exploratory approach to the cello, drawing parallels to other experimental composer/musicians like Ernst Reijseger. His now impressive handling of his instrument is made clear from the start of Jo Ha Kyu, which gradually reveals itself as an experience of absolute immersion in his selected cultural expedition, that of Japan.
Fragments and features of traditional Japanese arts rear their heads sporadically before being twisted by the ensemble — Noh and Kabuki theatre alongside Gagaku, combined with extended cello technique and electro-acoustic mangling. Noise, distortion, and drones are noticeable from the start, but they meld together with simple musical devices in a compelling, hypnotically sparse atmosphere that builds, ever so gradually, before finally accelerating and exploding — as close as one can get to an outsider’s immersive interpretation of the traditional Japanese art technique, Jo Ha Kyu — “beginning, break, rapid.”
It’s this attention to the sacred, itself so prevalent in contemporary Japanese society, that marks out Claus’ transformation as a previous cultural outsider to relative practitioner, somewhat of a simulacra that exhibits a meaning and form almost entirely new and of itself. Understandably, his collaborators would have a much longer exposure and connection to Japanese spirituality, but this doesn’t detract from the ensemble relationship; in fact, they aid in translating his reconfiguration of all things Shinto-esque into a bold statement.
This work, so concerned with a radical re-reading of a culture within a distinct form of itself, speaks volumes of a dedicated artistic approach to modern music — taking that of the foreign, the alien, and the juxtaposition with oneself amid a combined effort. Claus does wear his influences of those before him in noticeable fashion — the intrigued and optimistic joy of discovery apparent in Grainger and Bartók, the wonderful timbral world of Reijseger, the refined, philosophical Noh writings of Zeami — but that seems only to add to Jo Ha Kyu’s inherent relevance and, above all, striking beauty.