Toshi Ichiyanagi, avant-garde composer and pianist, dies at 89

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Toshi Ichiyanagi, avant-garde composer and pianist, dies at 89
A former protégé of John Cage who was once married to Yoko Ono, he was part of a lively experimental music scene in New York and became a leading modern composer in Japan.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Toshi Ichiyanagi, an avant-garde pianist and composer whose works mixed international influences, made unusual use of musicians and instruments, and combined music with other media, died Oct. 7 in Tokyo. He was 89.

The Kanagawa Arts Foundation, where he was general artistic director from 1996 until last year, said he died in a hospital. No cause was given.

Ichiyanagi came to New York from Japan in the 1950s to study at the Juilliard School. While there he met Yoko Ono, whose parents had moved the family from Japan to Scarsdale, New York, in the early 1950s. Ono was also interested in experimental music and had studied briefly at Sarah Lawrence College.

She and Ichiyanagi eloped in 1956 and immersed themselves in the experimental art and music scenes of the era, including the radical Fluxus movement. Ichiyanagi took a course taught by composer John Cage at the New School (with Ono sitting in on the sessions), absorbing many of his minimalist ideas.

Ichiyanagi and Cage toured together, sometimes with Ono, and Ichiyanagi was instrumental in bringing Cage to Japan in 1962, introducing his music there. In the same period, Ono and Ichiyanagi hosted performances at their loft in TriBeCa that included music, dance and poetry. (“THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT,” an announcement for one program said.)

The marriage lasted until 1962, and Ono later married John Lennon of the Beatles.

In the early years of his career, Ichiyanagi staked out his claim as one of the most adventurous composers and performers of the day.

In May 1961, he played a recital at Carnegie Hall. His program included works by Cage, Morton Feldman and others, as well as one of his own pieces. Eric Salzman, describing Ichiyanagi’s performance of his work in a review for The New York Times, wrote that “a high, distant, cold glissando rubbed somehow out of the innards of the piano and a furious rumble of elbows and fists on the keyboard.”

He was gaining attention beyond New York as well.

“Tokyo music circles are buzzing about a recent concert which featured Toshi Ichiyanagi’s ‘IBM,’” The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported in February 1962, “an electronic composition which had several novelties: a boy striking matches and dropping them into a bowl which he proceeded to smash with a hammer, a man kicking a chair and scraping it on the floor, and finally another man stringing paper tape about the stage and into the audience, making a giant spider web.”

Later that year, The Honolulu Star-Bulletin covered his performance at the University of Hawaii.

“Toshi Ichiyanagi’s ‘Music for Piano No. 4’ explored the harmonics of hand-stroked piano strings,” the report said, “and apparently, though frequently inaudible, the sounds to be derived from thrumming on the instrument’s wooden framework.”

In 1966, Ichiyanagi joined with conductor Seiji Ozawa and composer Toru Takemitsu to create Orchestral Space, an annual festival that introduced new, mostly experimental works in Japan.

“The experience called ‘Orchestral Space ’68’ mapped some new territory for the audiences,” Edmund C. Wilkes of The San Francisco Examiner wrote of that year’s festival in Tokyo. “Not all of it is habitable, but there were prospects that pleased.”

Ichiyanagi’s works were not all experimental. As his career advanced, he wrote operas, orchestral and chamber pieces and other more conventional works. He also took an interest in traditional Japanese music, and in 1989 began touring with his Tokyo International Music Ensemble — the New Tradition, a group that performed contemporary compositions played at least in part on instruments such as the koto, an ancient member of the string family.

The group became less active as its members aged and gave its last performance in about 2000, according to Tokyo Concerts, Ichiyanagi’s management agency.

He continued to create new works into his 80s. His Ninth Symphony, which had its premiere in 2015 in Tokyo, was a meditation on the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan in 2011 and on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Ichiyanagi was born into a musical family on Feb. 4, 1933, in Kobe, Japan, and grew up in Tokyo. His father, Shinji Ichiyanagi, was a cellist, and his mother, Mitsuko, gave piano lessons in their home and was Toshi’s first piano teacher.

He later studied composition in Japan and then at Juilliard.

After several years in New York, Ichiyanagi returned to Japan in 1961 and stayed there for most of his life.

In 1963, he married Sumiko, a writer, and they had a son, Kei, in 1964, who survives him. Ichiyanagi died in 1993.

Ichiyanagi composed more than 200 works and made a number of recordings for Japanese record labels.

He often composed with his own notation system, spurning the traditional five-line Western sheets, and his imaginative scores could be considered artwork. Several are collected in the Museum of Modern Art.

Having studied piano as a child, he first turned to composition as an inadvertent consequence of World War II.

The family had to evacuate Tokyo when it was under bombardment, and young Toshi did not touch a piano for three years. When the family returned to the city after the war ended, they found much of their property had burned down but the piano was still standing.

“We had virtually nothing else left — no scores, nor anything else for studying music,” Ichiyanagi said in a 2016 interview for an oral history project conducted by the Kyoto City University of Arts. “So I just played it on my own in whatever way and that turned my interest to music composition. It wasn’t like I started it with any clear ideas or plans.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Timea.

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