Full Circle

In August of 2012, Sumi was one of 38 Jazz composers chosen from a National pool of applicants to attend the Jazz Composers Orchestra Intensive (JCOI) at Columbia University. The selected composers were in various stages of their composing careers, working in jazz, improvised music, and creative music and their work had to demonstrate excellent musicianship, originality, and potential for future growth in orchestral composition.

The week after attending the JCOI, I had a dream about trying to orchestrate the curve in the yin and yang sign. I laughed it off at first, but then I started to wonder what that would actually sound like. Thinking about this led me to explore the ideas in Full Circle.

In this work I wanted to deal musically with the idea of opposing life dynamics, life and death, love and hate, joy and suffering, the sweet and the sour, the yin and the yang.

I wanted to create the feeling of spirals out of circles, experiment with contrasting textures, smooth, linear and legato with jagged, rough and staccato. I imagined the rhythm to have a feeling of unpredictability and surprise, with a sense of flow and various tempos accelerating and slowing down. I heard the harmony as floating with a restless quality. Many of the musical ideas in the piece were built on improvisations.

The program was organized in two phases. The first phase, a study intensive, included many topics such as the culture of working with a symphony, dealing with a conductor as a collaborator, and techniques for structuring improvisation within the orchestral context.

Upon completion of the Intensive, each participant was eligible to apply for inclusion in the Institute’s second phase, the JCOI New Music Readings, which was held in April to September 2013. Up to 18 composers were selected for participation in this second phase and composed an original work for orchestra during the intervening months between the two phases. I count myself fortunate and I am honored to have received a reading of my first orchestral work, Full Circle, by the American Composers Orchestra in NYC in June of 2013.

Taiko Jazz Project

This piece was conceived after I attended a performance by Kenny Endo, a master taiko drummer. Kenny studied many forms of taiko in Japan for a decade. He is the first foreigner to receive a stage name in the Hogaku Hayashi school, a form of Japanese classical drumming. I was impressed by the amount of tradition, but also the openness and experimentation in his work. After hearing him, I felt inspired to compose and collaborate on a project that would feature him, and provide a setting to experiment with the taiko drum in more of a jazz context. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had been a professional jazz drummer before his interest in taiko, and that he could swing. This was an unusual and fertile combination.I wanted this piece to be celebratory in nature and decided to use the I Ching as a springboard for ideas. I have always been fascinated by this ancient book of Chinese philosophy that uses nature to describe and explain life and advises on life’s predicaments. The piece is a suite of eight pieces based on the eight trigrams of the I Ching. The work features a combination of textures, players and instruments. 

Out From The Silence

I composed Out From The Silence 🤐 in an attempt to express and try to come to terms with the experience of my mother and 110,000 others, who because of their Japanese ancestry, were put behind barbed wire and imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II.

The piece premiered December 17th, 1993 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City. and featured Fusako Yoshida (koto), Ronnie “Nyogetsu” Seldin (shakuhachi), Stanton Davis (trumpet), Robin Eubanks (trombone), Bob Kenmotsu (tenor sax), John Blake (violin), Kyoshi Kitagawa (bass), Akira Tana (drums), and Yukio Tsugi (percussion).

It consists of three movements plus an interlude:

I. The Arrest
(shakuhachi, koto, voice)
Based on The Arrest by Sojin Takei

The time has come
For my arrest,
This dark rainy night
I calm myself and listen
To the sound of the shoes

II. Out From The Silence
(koto, shakuhachi, trumpet, tenor sax, trombone,violin, drums, bass, piano, percussion)
Prose taken from an autobiographical work by my mother, Emiko Tonooka

I looked around me; the army had not forgotten any of us Japanese. An unexpected audience gathered to witness the involuntary exodus.My head pounded, my stomach churned, my sense of reality slipped and shifted like a kaleidoscope. I thought about the rumours of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany. In desperation I told myself to pray. If I were a Christian, a God might listen, if I were a Buddhist like my parents this upheaval could be faced with calm. The only belief that might possibly sustain me was the dream of a mystical democracy, nurtured by the patriotic fervor of World War II, and a life long yearning for reconciliation of my two worlds. But moment to moment, unbeknownst to me then, the actual events of my life were stripping away the illusions I cherished. When mother said we were going to a concentration camp, I argued with her until that day when I saw Seattle for the last time.

Interlude: Ancient Feathers
(shakuhachi, koto, bass drums and percussion)

III. Susumu
You are entitled to overhear—
Susumu, my name means prosperity in Japanese,
The progress of prosperity and good fortune.
The dust that seeped through makeshift barracks in Arizona
Wet my parents’ taste for the American Dream.

But my luck will have to be different
I want my wheels to skim like the blades of the wind
Across all ruts.
I want my wheels to spin so fast
That we stand still.
Are you with me?
Then we can say in the summer breeze,