Ume (2013)

Mikko Ikäheimo, guitar (live performance)

13 min.

Ume forms the second “panel” in a three-part series of solo pieces that began in 2007 with being the pine tree for accordion. The uniting theme is the trio of images of pine tree, plum blossom and bamboo, the “Three Friends of Winter” in Chinese and Japanese art, so called for their aesthetic beauty and resistance to cold, as well as their value as spiritual symbols in a number of Asian traditions. Where the pine stands for longevity, patience and meditative stillness, the plum blossom (ume in Japanese) is thought to represent purity of spirit on the one hand; fortitude, in being one of the first plants to blossom in the snows of late winter; as well as fragile, evanescent beauty, much like the prized sakura (cherry blossom).

The main intent in this series has been to come to “know” an unfamiliar instrument on an essential level by playing it myself as best I can while composing, building a very still, meditative piece for it using its simplest, most basic idiomatic and acoustic means. A side aim has been to pay special attention to the random sonic side effects of learning to play an instrument (badly), sounds performers are generally taught to avoid in the name of achieving a conventionally beautiful tone, and to incorporate this still-idiomatic but generally unloved detritus into the piece. In this way the common – the imperfect, the accidental – becomes beautiful and rarefied.

The specific technique that forms the foundation of Ume, for solo guitar, is the randomized alla campanella arpeggiation. Simple, resonant diatonic chordal patterns are repeated in minimalistic fashion, swelling and receding freely, changing only when the player feels the need to move on from one to the next. Interspersed between these figurations are more spacious passages featuring crystalline harmonics, a snap-and-bend gesture adapted from the Japanese biwa (fretted lute), as well as an exploration of different ways of coaxing sounds from the open low E string. In this way, one can perhaps imagine a delicate flower blooming amid snow, its fragile petals waiting to be scattered by the cold wind.

Ume was composed for Mikko Ikäheimo, my friend and collaborator of many years, and is dedicated to him.

ume ga ka ni
notto hinoderu
yamaji kana

scent of plum blossoms
on the misty mountain path
a big rising sun

– Matsuo Bashō