- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
At the time of writing, following six months of COVID-19 related closure, the reopening of the Museum is just a few weeks away, although we have clearly not entered anything approaching a post-pandemic phase. This seems more likely to be the middle of an arc whose destination, we are finally beginning to understand, we cannot know. Many of us continue, nevertheless, to operate as if we believe that sooner or later the path of life will bend back toward normal.
Over the past several years, the Museum has had the good fortune to develop a relationship with violist, composer, and new music curator Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti. Anne has now written three compositions for Noguchi sculptures—not in honor of them, though they do honor them, but treating specific works of Noguchi’s as instruments and collaborators.
The first of these pieces, birth, death (2017), was written for two of Noguchi’s obsidian Sounding Stones (designed, in fact, as instruments), strings, and voice (or flute). Postcards II: Akari (2018), a composition for flute, viola, harp (or guitar), and Akari lantern components, took as its premise the collapsibility of the craft-industrial universe of Akari into sound. beyond the accident of time (2019), for percussion and voices, was a full-scale imaginative realization of how it might have sounded, and felt, to stand inside Noguchi’s unbuilt Bell Tower for Hiroshima (1951), which was to have tolled unceasingly and cacophonously in commemoration of the incomprehensibility of the scale of the crime against life represented by the use of atomic weapons by the United States against Japanese civilians.
Neither of the works on the program presented here was written specifically for the Museum. Invited to spend some time alone at the Museum while it has been closed, Anne chose to perform two solo pieces by way of engaging this imaginary landscape of Noguchi’s in a cosmic conversation about not trying too hard to find or be found.
Anne’s own koʻu inoa (2017) for viola (or violin or cello) is a gently desperate and transporting thing full of seeking, casting, and yearning: like a breeze that swells from nowhere and then dies away without a forwarding address. In her usual understated, conceptually potent way, Anne describes the piece as a homesick bariolage. Bariolage is a sound effect achieved on a violin (or viola) through different kinds of string-crossing bowing techniques that produce oscillating, open-ended juxtapositions of tone-colors. It is, taking some metaphorical liberty, the technical equivalent of small boats in open water searching for more certain routes to faraway places. As a performance site for the piece, Noguchi’s The Big Bang, which is both a model of the first space-time-matter moment in our Universe’s journey into being, as well as a materialization of the threat to its existence represented by a nuclear bomb-broken atoll, could not be more appropriate. Throughout much of my now several dozen viewings of this lovely, lonely recital, I have found myself simply and contentedly lost in the ripple of light on its weathered granite surface.
Several other performances of koʻu inoa can be viewed on Anne’s website. I highly recommend watching and listening to them all.
In the matter of anguished longing, Dai Fujikura’s Star Compass (2020), the second piece on the program, which was adapted from the cadenza of his latest viola concerto, Wayfinder (2020) takes a long view. It was written for Anne, and as a result of the COVID-19 related postponements and cancellations currently ravaging the performing arts, its presentation here is a world premiere.
koʻu inoa (2017) by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti performed hand in hand with Isamu Noguchi’s The Illusion of the Fifth Stone (1970), The Big Bang (1978), Unmei (1970)
koʻu inoa is a homesick bariolage based on the anthem Hawaiʻi Aloha. It is usually sung at the end of large concerts or gatherings, with everyone joining hands and swaying side to side as they sing. The final lyrics of the chorus are, “gentle breezes blow; love always for Hawaiʻi.” Hawaiʻi Aloha evokes not only a homesickness for place and sound, but this action of coming together—a homesickness that we’re all feeling right now where music and human interaction are home.
In the face of great upheaval in the nation and acts of bravery against destruction, we are all finding our way. It felt strange and also so calming to be at The Noguchi Museum walking amongst the sculptures. After looking around the garden for a while trying to figure out the best angle to capture this video, we settled on this spot next to The Big Bang. In The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (Abrams, 1987) Noguchi writes of this sculpture, “I have been graced with occasions when creation out of destruction has been palpably evoked before my astonished eyes. But these are moments of bravery I have no confidence of repeating—and so I don’t—till another time.”
The title of my work, koʻu inoa, means “(is) my name” in Hawaiian. My name, Leilehua, means a garland of lehua blossoms. ʻŌhiʻa lehua is the first plant to grow back after the volcano destroys all vegetation. Leilehua—like many words in Hawaiian—is rich with multiple meanings. Looking beyond the direct translation, it means “creating beauty out of destruction.”
Perhaps it was Unmei (meaning “fate” or “destiny” in Japanese) that I would perform for you—an absent audience—as if you were the Fifth Stone, the illusion of another behind the camera as I played alone in the garden. I hope you may all find the confidence and bravery to create something beautiful in this time of destruction. May it begin with listening, empathy, a single leaf falling in the garden.
Star Compass (2020, world premiere) by Dai Fujikura performed next to Isamu Noguchi’s Deepening Knowledge (1969)
Star Compass is the cadenza (the part a soloist plays alone) for Dai Fujikura’s new viola concerto, Wayfinder. While Dai and I have known each other and collaborated now for almost ten years, this is the first time I have been able to commission him to write a work specifically for me, which was made possible by the generous support of Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting. As Dai began to write, he asked me what I was reading. In fact, at the time, I was reading lots of things about Noguchi, doing research for one of my previous commissions for the museum. Dai and I wrote back and forth, but it didn’t seem to be the right fit for the piece. Then I said—almost as a side note—that my mother had just sent me An Ocean in Mind by Will Kyselka. An Ocean in Mind is the story of the Hōkūleʻa (the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe that first completed a voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976 using only Polynesian navigation techniques), and how the practice of wayfinding was reinvigorated in Polynesia in the 1970s.
Wayfinding is the name for Polynesian star navigation and other indigenous navigational concepts for orienting oneself using sea swells, wind, the sun, cloud color and shape, and bird migration. From Nainoa Thompson’s essay On Wayfinding:
The star compass is the basic mental construct for navigation. We have Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars—the place where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean. If you can identify the stars as they rise and set, and if you have memorized where they rise and set, you can find your direction. The star compass also reads the flight path of birds and the direction of waves. . . . That means constant observation.
In an article written almost a hundred years ago in the 34th Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society (1925, 11–14) by my great-grandfather, Samuel Wilder King, he describes how “the ancient Hawaiians had a splendid foundation in seamanship and navigation.” King served in the U.S. Navy from 1910 to 1924, then reentered the Navy Reserve during World War II and was stationed in the Pacific, finally retiring permanently with the rank of captain in 1946. He went on to become the first Native Hawaiian Governor of the Territory of Hawaiʻi. Before science confirmed what we know now about wayfinders, Hawaiians like him knew of these traditions through the language of their ancestors.
I have always been fascinated by the works in Area 1 at The Noguchi Museum. They are perhaps my favorite in the entire museum. It is such a joy to have time alone in the museum, but even more so to be there with Dakin Hart, the Museum’s senior curator who is always guiding me to discover new connections and new sculptures. When he told me that the name of this sculpture was Deepening Knowledge, I knew that we had to record Star Compass here. Noguchi wrote of Deepening Knowledge, “I had come to think that the deeper meaning of sculpture had to be sought in the working of hard stone. Through this might be revealed its quality of enduring. The evidence of geologic time was its link to our world’s creation.”
In Dai’s Wayfinder, the soloist navigates the orchestra as natural world, taking signs or pitches from it to create a way forward through melodies and shapes. I imagine the beginning of the cadenza, Star Compass—the first large section where the orchestra drops out—as passing through a storm that is so dense with rain that the wayfinder feels totally alone, until suddenly the sky clears, and piecing together stars, she finds her bearings. The end of the piece is a hollow sound not heard before, achieved by playing halfway up the string over the fingerboard. This sound represents a new place where more is unknown than known. The journey is clearly one of deepening knowledge, and yet we come out the other side and realize there is so much more still to learn.
In this time of quarantine and separation, I am reminded of a passage in An Ocean in Mind in which Kyselka describes being stuck waiting for weather to start a new journey. He writes of this particular moment of enduring, “Another day of watching and waiting. Some crew members go fishing; others go into town. Nobody stays away for long. We can’t. We’re trapped by weather that might change, and bound together by a loyalty that will not change.”
Herrera, Hayden. Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi.
King, Samuel Wilder. Hawaiians as Navigators and Seamen.
Kyselka, Will. An Ocean in Mind.
Low, Sam. Hawaiki Rising.
Noguchi, Isamu. I Become a Nisei.
Noguchi, Isamu. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum.
Thompson, Christina. Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia.
Thompson, Nainoa. On Wayfinding.