Cultural reflections: Okeanos and Dai Fujikura

Founder member of Okeanos and Creative Director of Tokaido Road, Kate Romano reflects on 10 years exploring Western and Japanese cultures.

Part 1: Okeanos and Dai Fujikura

In February 2013, Okeanos gave their 14th performance of movements from Dai Fujikura’s Okeanos Cycle on the Barbican stage as part of the BBC’s Total Immersion Japan weekend. It was a celebratory milestone in a 10 year relationship between the ensemble and the composer, a collaboration which resulted in a work which remains Fujikura’s most-performed to date, both by Okeanos and other ensembles worldwide. The concert prompted Fujikura to tweet: ‘Okeanos, the piece truly becomes yours, away from the composer’.


Kate Romano

How rarely that happens with music of our own time; an opportunity to create, explore and enjoy new music as true chamber music rather than a hastily forgotten – and often frantically prepared – premiere. The journey has been a slow and steady one. Fujikura was in his early twenties and studying with Edwin Roxburgh at the Royal College of Music when the Textural Space textile exhibition (part of Japan 2001) toured the UK. Visiting an art gallery in Manchester, oboist Jinny Shaw (founder of Okeanos) was struck by the breathtaking display of the art work. Okeanos commissioned Fujikura and four further young Japanese composers to write a ‘musical response’ to the exhibition using the original oboe, clarinet, viola line-up but with the addition of a sho and replacing the harp with a koto.

Dai Fujikura

Dai Fujikura

At this stage, Fujikura cheerfully admitted that he had absolutely no working or musical knowledge of the Japanese instruments proposed. His treatment of the sounds and textures and their integration into the oboe-clarinet-viola ensemble was learnt through trial and error, combining different sonorities and textures as the cycle progressed. It’s an approach which suited Okeanos well. There is very little that is intentionally ‘Japanese’ about what we, Okeanos, set out to do. We had simply stumbled upon an attractive sound world that is bass-lite and treble-heavy and allows for interesting textural games, relationships and harmonics to exist within a myriad of colours. Fujikura responds to these possibilities very well. He describes his approach to the Okeanos instrumentation as a ‘single imaginary solo instrument’ – that is, a mythical creature sporting 17 reeds, 17 strings and 19 pipes. Not so much a chimaera, I think, as a rather appealing ensemble challenge to performers and composers.

Fujikura’s lack of familiarity with the instruments of his home country is not atypical of a composer of his generation. Born in Osaka in the 1970s, his cultural upbringing was one with heavy Western influences. He touchingly tells of his youthful ambition to live in Germany, having concluded that ‘all great composers came from Germany’. Fujikura’s music remains unapologetically Western. He first came across Takemitsu as a teenager via an LP given to him by his English landlady. And if this recording of November Steps had any ‘Eastern’-type influence on his development, it was already a selective version of the real thing, Takemitsu having stripped away the chanting of the biwa player and introduced non-traditional plectrum techniques whilst occupying himself with compositional concerns related to the problem of creating a unified work from Western and non-Western elements. In Fujikura’s music there is no identification of the Japanese concept ‘ma’ – that cultural space and emptiness which characterises Japanese Noh theatre. There is no musical void for the listener to fill, such as one might find in the subtle and spatial music of Jo Kondo. Like Westerners, Fujikura’s music keeps on chattering, interrupting, barely pausing for breath whilst the unique and extraordinary sound-world emerges from the melee with singular clarity. Fujikura’s composition is at its absolute finest when this exciting synergy of timbre and material occurs. At the Barbican, with the luxury of 13 previous performances to draw upon, we were indeed ‘totally immersed’ in a sonority which – thanks to Dai and the others composers who had written for us – had now uniquely become our own.

Okeanos: recorded by Okeanos (NMC D172)

Sakana: recorded by Kate Romano as movement 3 of Okeanos Cycle (NMC D172) also on HCMF Sampler CD.

Halcyon: (clarinet and string trio) recorded by Kate Romano and Goldfield Ensemble (Minabel 2013)

Rubicon: recorded Kate Romano (NMC D172)

Image Gallery: composer and librettist at work

History in the making; composer Nicola LeFanu and poet-librettist Nancy Gaffield working together on Tokaido Road. In the fourth photograph, they are watched over by Elizabeth Maconchy, in a painting in 1932 by Kitty Church.

Images: David Lumsdaine

Five Questions: Nancy Gaffield

Launching a new column on the blog, we pose Five Questions to key people involved in Tokaido Road; this week, award-winning poet turned librettist, Nancy Gaffield.

Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

Nancy Gaffield

Nancy Gaffield

Almost exactly two years ago, I was contacted by Kate Romano (Okeanos) about the prospect of a musical piece around my book of poems, Tokaido Road. I was completely surprised by this, but also intrigued, and agreed to meet with Kate and Jinny Shaw in London to talk through their ideas. Kate and Jinny discovered my poems after a Guardian review, and they were keen to involve my work in an Okeanos project. By the end of that first meeting, Kate had sketched out a plan for me to re-work the poems (as librettist), with a composer writing a 50-minute chamber opera for Okeanos, to include traditional Japanese instruments and a visual element. It was also at that first meeting that Kate came up with the idea of approaching Nicola LeFanu as the composer.

What first attracted you to the idea of the Tokaido Road project?

I am not a musician, nor had I ever written a libretto before, but I have collaborated with musicians and am totally committed to the notion of cross-fertilisation in the arts, so I was completely fascinated. Re-writing the poems as a libretto, however, was a daunting task, and in the beginning I found it nearly impossible to do. Part of the reason for that is the narrative element—which although implicit in the poems, is not overt, nor did I want it to be, so it was a battle of will. Nicola was a huge help. We worked together, both in York and in Canterbury over three weekends, so it really is a composer-librettist creation, just as Kate originally envisaged it would be. This collaboration has been deeply rewarding.

What excites you about contemporary arts?

The broad spectrum—and the various ways that art speaks to the moment. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the arts in Kent now—Sounds New Music and Poetry, Wise Words, Zone, Free Range—just to name a few.

What has the project taught you / shown you / made you aware of?

What this project has shown me is how hugely labour-intensive work like this is. When it was proposed that it would likely take two years from initial idea to the performance, I couldn’t believe it. Yet, what a wonderfully creative period it has been, and I cannot imagine a better team of people to work with.

What relevance, for you, does the project have to today’s cultural environment?

For me the project speaks to the present cultural environment in several ways. First, there are shockingly low numbers of women in contemporary music—as players, as composers and conductors (in 2010, only 4.1% of new commissions were awarded to women composers, according to a recent Guardian article). Tokaido Road features a woman composer, librettist, and director. Moreover, it is a multi-media experience, with a composite of music, poetry, mime, dance and visual imagery and thus shows what exciting possibilities exist in cross-art collaborations. Finally, the opera deals with timeless themes: travel, discovery, love and loss; it reminds us of the power of art to bear witness.

Hitting the road: launching Tokaido Road

Welcome to the  T O K A I D O  R O A D  blog!

We’re very excited to be launching Tokaido Road, a unique cultural experience embracing contemporary music, opera, dance, mime and art. Okeanos are embarking on a journey of discovery with a wonderful team of practitioners, creators, innovators and technicians. Here, we’ll keep you up to date on the sights, sounds and our adventures as we explore Tokaido Road in a literary, visual, musical and dramatic travelogue. We’ll bring you interviews, musical extracts, literary insights, articles about the art which inspired the opera and much more.

Do please join us, follow us on Twitter and catch us at one of the many ‘Stations’ along the way if you can; we will be touring in 2014 and 2015 from Cheltenham to Canterbury and Tokaido Road Outreach events celebrating the music of arts and cultures will begin to appear en route.

‘I walk forward turning round, like the pilgrim who carries a mask on his back.’
– Nancy Gaffield (from Tokaido Road)

‘It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.’
― Ernest Hemingway

Don’t forget you can read more about the project on the About page, and make sure you follow us on Twitter too!

Welcome along the Road…