Dutch-Japanese pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama is a maverick, an artist whose work and personality run against the grain of the expected in terms of repertoire, performance style, and even fashion. The front cover of BVHaast's Tomoko Mukaiyama: Women Composers features a photograph of Mukaiyama's penetrating gaze peering out from underneath a mass of unkempt hair. Many Japanese women are quite fussy about the condition of their hair, and would not allow it to be seen in this way, as though it were "dirty." Mukaiyama dispenses with all such formalities, and likewise this disc is a roller coaster ride of extreme contemporary music in which compromise is unknown -- nothing could be further from the familiar, nineteenth century based compilation of feminine composers than this. If there were a category of "punk" in classical music, this would be part of it.
All of the composers on Tomoko Mukaiyama: Women Composers are living as of this writing (May 2006). Mukaiyama's playing is typified by aggression and incredible endurance -- just check out the remarkable Inner Piece of Vanessa Lann, which is driven by a fast ostinato that rolls along for most of eight minutes. Hörfenster für Franz Lizst of Adriana Hölszky and Sofia Gubaidulina's Piano Sonata are dense, dissonant, angular, and difficult works that utilize a wide variety of approaches to piano playing, including inside on the strings and purely percussive effects. Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya's Piano Sonata VI is made up of rude, noisy tone clusters played in foursquare time occasionally interrupted by an oblique falling figure; the perfect musical counterpoint to the gut-wrenching uncertainty of post-Soviet existence. Very striking is Mukaiyama's take on Meredith Monk's Double Fiesta, featuring a wonderfully batty wordless vocal of nonsense syllables that Mukaiyama herself chants gleefully while she plays Monk's complex, minimalistic piano music.
For those for whom Tchaikovsky represents the apogee in "good music," Tomoko Mukaiyama: Women Composers will be like your worst migraine headache. Mukaiyama's agenda, though, is certainly meaningful in terms of exploring a different side of feminine composition from what it is commonly taken to be. These are mostly tough, stressed-out works, which demonstrate a personal response to external forces, a reaction of unbridled freedom leashed against them, or a combination of both. For those who like music with the properties of challenge, charisma, and attitude, present company included, Tomoko Mukaiyama: Women Composers will be very satisfying, especially taken one piece at a time, as though each represents a different journey into the unknown.