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Contemporary Japanese Melodica Music

The melodica is absolutely one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century.
I am a composer and performer, and although I have composed a wide variety of music, such as Javanese gamelan, Western orchestra, for Japanese traditional instruments, for the piano, string quartet, etc., one of my continued, long-term interests is composing music for “melodicas”. Over 15 years I have been exploring the new possibilities of music for melodicas.
Traditionally, melodicas are regarded as instruments for children, but recently more and more professional musicians have been attracted to using melodicas.
In this lecture I would like to present my ideas on the melodica. I hope to outline how this instrument has attracted contemporary composers, how contemporary composers have developed its possibilities and how it is potentially a very important instrument internationally.

* Although I understand that the proper name for this instrument may be the “keyboard harmonica” and that “melodica” is Hohner’s product name, “melodica” is a more popular name, used internationally to represent the instrument itself. In this lecture I am going to use “melodica” as a general noun.

melodica improvisation for winds cafe by makoto nomura

1 How did I come across the melodica?

In the late 1970s I was a primary school student. Every child at my school had to buy a melodica or to be precise, every parent had to buy a melodica for their child. So I got a melodica, which was called the Melodion. All my classmates had the same Melodions and our teacher taught us how to play the keyboard, which key is C, D, E, etc. without any advanced techniques.
As I was not satisfied with this primary musical experience of the instrument, I wished to have much more advanced lessons with an authentic model of the instrument. The instrument I had looked like a children’s toy and I thought I should have a proper, better instrument. I went to a music shop with my mother, a YAMAHA music shop, and asked about lessons and instruments. Unfortunately they did not have any lessons for melodicas and only a few different models called Pianica were on sale but none of them seemed to be designed as proper instruments for professional musicians. All of them looked like toy instruments for children. I was disappointed and stopped exploring the instrument anymore until I became an adult.

2 Brief history of the melodica

In southeast Asia and East Asia there were different free-reed instruments, for example khene in Laos and Thailand, sho of Gagaku (Japanese court music) etc. The Harmonica, which was invented in the 19th century in Europe, was derived from Japanese sho.
In 1959, the German company HOHNER, which was famous for the harmonica, invented the Melodica. The melodica in those days was not a keyboard-type but a button-type. In 1961, Japanese company SUZUKI, which was also a harmonica manufacturer, produced the Melodion, which was similar to Melodica.
At that time, the School curriculum in Japan set out that schools had to teach both the harmonica and keyboard (mainly the harmonium). In either 1962 or 1963 SUZUKI produced keyboard-type melodions and the Japanese government named them as keyboard harmonicas, substitutes for both harmonicas and keyboards. YAMAHA also produced its own keyboard harmonicas, the PIANICA and ZENON produced the PIANY. In the1970s, melodicas became extremely popular all over Japan and since then almost all primary-school-children in Japan have learned how to play it. Since the 1990s, many professional musicians, including myself, have shown interest in the melodica. SUZUKI produced the first professional model in 2002 and more and more musicians have become interested. Finally, in 2008, SUZUKI produced the “Hammond 44″, with 44 keys and a microphone inside.

3 How to play the melodica –its various techniques

Wikipedia says

The melodica, also known as ‘blow-organ’ is a free-reed instrument similar to the accordion and harmonica. It has a musical keyboard on top, and is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece that fits into a hole in the side of the instrument. Pressing a key opens a hole, allowing air to flow through a reed. The keyboard is usually two or three octaves long. Melodicas are small and light enough to be carried around. They have been very popular in music education, especially in Asia.

In order to play the melodica you must blow air and press the keys. Techniques for keyboard instruments and wind instruments apply to the melodica.

a) vibrato
There are 2 different vibrato techniques, by mouth as flutists do and by shaking the instrument as accordionist do.

b) staccato
There are also 2 different staccato techniques, by fingering as pianists do and by tonguing as wind players do. Tonguing not only the single note but also the chord is one of the most significant techniques of the melodica. Even flutter tonguing on chords is possible.

c) unstable pitch
The pitch of the melodica is not very stable. The temperature of the room influences the pitch a lot. The stronger you blow the air, the lower the pitch becomes (and of course the louder the dynamics are). When you press the key slightly, this becomes more remarkable. This unstable pitch gives a melodica ensemble a complex harmony, for example HIRAISHI Hirokazu composed “Walking in Space” for 8 melodicas.

d) tremolo with one key sustained
When you play one note followed by 2 notes together on the organ, 2 notes sound twice as loud as the first single note. But when you play similarly on the melodica with the constant amount of air blown, 2 notes sound as loud as the first single note because the air is divided into 2 different keys. This makes the tremolo with one key sustained sound like the trill.

e) playing with voice
When you play a note and sing in a slightly different pitch, the beating happens between your voice and melodica. If you shift the pitch of your voice gradually, the beating rhythm is changing. This is an enjoyable and fun technique.

f) key noise etc.
When you press the key, even softly, some key noise is produced. A Japanese melodica player, NAKA Hiromi, put felt inside his melodica to reduce this noise. But I myself take advantage of these noises in my music, sometimes as a percussive effect. Also there is a lever to take the spit out. (In fact this is not spit but water produced by the vapour of the player’s breath cooling down.) Using this lever also produces different sounds like the wind.

g) various physical styles
Instead of using the mouth piece you can attach the tube. This enables the player to move around and assume various physical positions. You can play the keys using your head, legs(thighs),hips, etc. I have explored various styles of this type. In 2007 I created a piece called “Physical Melodica” with the dancer/choreographer SHIRAI Tsuyoshi. In 2008, in further exploration, I formed a cross-boundary performing arts band “MONGENS” with ENDA Makoto(dancer), KURASHINA Junko(actor) and YOSHINO Satsuki(administrator). In 2009 I launched a new project “Keyboard Choreography Collection” with English composer Hugh NANKIVELL.
Mongens will tour the UK (Devon, Morecambe and Newcastle) in July 2009 with some extended melodica dance theatre. Also there will be some workshops of “Keyboard Choreography Collection” at the Sage, Gateshead on 21-23 July, followed by an informal presentation/performance on 24 July.

h) tuning the instruments
You can tune the instruments by scraping the reeds. If you scrape a reed around its top, the pitch becomes higher. If you scrape around its root, it becomes lower. You can adjust the instrument using your favorite tuning system. I had an instrument which was tuned in Javanese gamelan tuning “Pelog” and “Slendro”, totally different from Western tuning system. SAKAMOTO Kazutaka uses melodica in A=430Hz, which is good with traditional Japanese music.

4 contemporary melodica ensemble

Regular melodicas cover about 3 octaves. They are known as alto melodicas. There are also soprano and bass melodicas. Bass melodicas are very unique instruments, which gave me the idea to organise a melodica orchestra. The range of each instrument is as below.

soprano F4-C7
alto F3-F6
bass F2-E4

In 1996 I formed a melodica octet “P-blot” for the Music Merge Festival in Tokyo and asked various contemporary composers to write a new piece for the melodica ensemble. Many composers responded and the programme on 5th October 1996 was as below.

1) EMURA Natsuki “Music of Henbai”
2) SHIBA Tetsu “6 short pieces for melodica”
3) Well-known Japanese pop song arrangement
4) Michael PARSONS “Piece for melodion ensemble”
5) OTOMO Yoshihide/NOMURA Makoto “Blue Kite in Javanese gamelan style”
6) The special guest singer TASKE sings a new song about P-blot and melodica.
7) KAWAI Takuji “Lovely Snatch”
8) HIRAISHI Hirokazu “Up to date 2″
9) WAKISAKA Akifumi “Sextet”
10) NOMURA Makoto “Hocket for Kobe”

EMURA is a Japanese experimental composer. PARSONS is an English experimental composer who was one of the founders of the legendary “Scratch Orchestra”. OTOMO is a composer/guitarist/turntable player who is active both in Japan and Europe. KAWAI is a free improviser. HIRAISHI is a post-minimalist composer and his composition was performed by Kronos Quartet. WAKISAKA is a composer who is known in the world of ambient music as WAKI.

This concert attracted various composers and since then many composers have written new pieces for P-blot, for example Elliott SHARP(USA), ADACHI Tomomi, SoeTjen MARCHING(Indonesia), Hugh NANKIVELL(UK), Andrew MELVIN(UK), Takano MARI, etc.
Also P-blot has explored a wide range of repertoires, such as 14th century composer Gillaumme de Machault, John COLTRANE “Giant Steps”, John CAGE , J.S. BACH, the famous koto player, NAKANOSHIMA Kin-ichi, etc.

You can listen to music of P-blot on this site.

5 Anthology of 3 minute compositions for a melodica trio

While the melodica is very portable, P-blot did not seem very portable. Although the sound of 8 melodicas together was amazing, it was not easy for P-blot to get funding to play abroad. In 2004, 4 members of P-blot were invited to Lille, France and 5 members came to UK to do a few concerts in 2006. But in these cases I could not present the most unique repertoires for a sextet or octet group.
At this time, I thought about how I could introduce unique compositions for melodicas to a large range of people. Then I decided to start commissioning various composers to write pieces for melodicas under these conditions:

1) duration: about 3 minutes
2) arrangement: melodica trio (any combination of 3 melodicas)
3) deadline: any time
4) premiere: not fixed but I would try to find the chance sometime soon after the piece is finished
5) fee: 30,000 yen (same amount for famous composers and obscure composers) = around 192 pounds

The reason I specified the duration is to avoid longer pieces. If composers write longer pieces then I cannot include many different composers in one concert. Also longer pieces demand much more time for rehearsals. Also the anthology of Japanese Waka(=31-syllable-poems) influenced me in collecting short pieces of music.
The reason I chose to have a melodica trio is that finding more than 3 melodica players in different places can be hard.
Since 2006 I have had different informal concerts in different cities with different musicians. As all the scores are not published, I photocopied the scores for the new players for each concert. If the each player can find 2 more new colleagues to play these pieces, they will be able to photocopy them to have another concert by a melodica trio. Without publishing the pieces, passing them from hand to hand, from person to person, the new contemporary pieces for melodicas will be distributed to musicians all over the world. This is my ambition.

I have already commissioned more than 20 composers and am still ready to commission more.

The list of compositions commissioned by NOMURA Makoto

TSURUMI Sachiyo “Ohoho” (2006)
KONDO Kohei “Short Pieces for melodica trio” (2007)
TANAKA Yoshifumi “Uncertain melody and choral in fading memory” (2007)
TERAUCHI Daisuke “A Path through a Forest” (2008)
David KOTLOWY “Cloud Patterns” (2008)
NOMURA Makoto “Pasqua Belhamasca” (2008)
KATOH Chiharu “Dokudami in Kingyo Town” (2009)
USHIJIMA Akiko “Uninterrupted Pause again” (2009)
MATSUMOTO Yuichi “Abraham Variation 2″ (2009)
Andrew MELVIN “TO-RI-O” (2009)
HASHIMOTO Hiroki “Super Sonic” (2009)
Carl Bergstroem-NIELSEN “Versnaperingen (2009)
Soe Tjen MARCHING “MELON” (2010)

6 Further possibilities

Although I have done many workshops on collaborative composition, I haven’t done many workshops on melodicas. In August/September 2008 I did several workshops on melodicas organised by the concert hall Art Tower Mito. These were quite a new experience for me; one was called “Melodica Symphony Orchestra” in which all the participants were required to read music. The other was called “Melodica Big Band” in which I did not use traditional musical notations. I would love to explore these things more and more.

British composers such as Hugh NANKIVELL, Andrew MELVIN, Charles HAYWARD etc. have been interested in melodicas.
In July 2008 “Melodica Summit” was held in the Exploratorium Berlin, this was a concert specifically focusing on my melodica music. The concert had a big impact on the German audiences and the organiser of “Melodica Summit” is now planning a bigger scale 2nd Melodica Summit in autumn 2010, in order to make a connection between German melodica players and Japanese melodica players.
German composer, Daniel Wolf is going to put the online anthology of composition for melodicas on his website in September 2009.

I would love to convey the Japanese melodica movement to other countries in order to make international connections.

SUZUKI is planning to produce a new model of the bass melodion. I would love to have the opportunity to contribute to the development of new models and versions of the melodica.

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