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Composed: 1980
Length: c. 16 minutes
Orchestration: 13 strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In 1976 Vivier spent most of the fall on an extended tour of Asia, travelling from Japan through Bali to Iran. This trip proved very fruitful in terms of artistic inspiration, confirming his penchant for ritual and color and giving him fresh inspiration for split melodic elaborations as a type of complementary and concurrent development. From then to the end of his sadly truncated life he composed prolifically (he was working on an opera about the death of Tchaikovsky when he was murdered), giving many of his works titles drawn from that formative journey: the ballet Nanti malam, the piano piece Shiraz, Bouchara and Prologue pour un Marco Polo for singers and large ensembles, and Zipangu for string orchestra.

“Zipangu was the name given to Japan at the time of Marco Polo,” Vivier wrote in the note he provided for the score. “Building around a melody, I explore different aspects of color in this work. I have tried to ‘blur’ my harmonic structures through different bowing techniques. A colorful sound is obtained by applying exaggerated bow pressure on the strings as opposed to pure harmonics when returning to normal technique. A melody becomes a color (chords), grows lighter, and slowly returns as though purified and solitary.”

Vivier calls for his ensemble to be divided spatially, with six of the violins to the left of the conductor, and the rest of the group to the other side. The main melody is clearly presented at the beginning in octaves from the six violins, over a drone E – the anchor for the piece – in octaves in the other group, and it rounds off the piece formally at the end. But though tonal centers, drones, and melodic manipulations are quite attractively and complicatedly involved in Vivier’s processes and structural definitions, Zipangu is not about pitches and intervals. As he wrote, it is about aural color, projected with great energy and ingenuity. The dynamic swellings oscillating from side to side, the “granular” white noise crunch from the exaggerated bow pressure, the crackle of Bartók pizzicatos, and the ghostly harmonics and slippery glissandos all suggest the instrumental incarnation of electronic effects, while the tune and its rhythmic/metrical play witness to Vivier’s Asian inspirations.

Zipangu was commissioned by the University of Toronto and premiered there in 1981 on its New Music Concerts series, with Robert Aitken conducting.

— John Henken