Garden of earthly delights: Ampere; new release of the music of Dai Fujikura

The latest CD from the Minabel label offers an enchanting sonic odyssey through the musical landscapes of Dai Fujikura

ampere_coverThe forthcoming disc from Osaka-born, London-resident, Dai Fujikura, sees the composer’s constant hunger for musical expression take form in a range of compositions, from large-scale orchestral works to chamber music and pieces for solo instruments. Yet, as always, each piece offers the composer’s own distinct perspective on the forces for whom the piece is written, in his exploration of new expressive possibilities and extended techniques

The opening work is a case in point. Ampere is not traditional concerto, in which soloist is pitted against the orchestra; rather, the piano is the catalyst, evoking responses from the orchestra that reflect the various hues and textures the pianist draws from the instrument, extrapolated into a series of orchestral colours. Ultimately, though, the piano falls victim to the sympathetic responses it evinces from the orchestra, and amidst a breathless sea of fluttering pizzicato strings, is transformed from sonorous grand piano into a toy piano, whose exotic utterances are now limited in colour and scope; no longer able to provoke a range of replies from the orchestra, the toy piano falls silent, and the piece comes to a conclusion.

The shimmering orchestral textures of Stream State see the surface of the orchestra scintillating with shifting layers of material, pitching differing orchestral textures against one another in a constant state of change. Far from the homogenous, blended sound of a traditional symphony orchestra, the sound here is always in flux. A more sedate second section attempts to impose some semblance of unity across different families; low, restless brass, pizzicato strings, brittle percussion. The rest of the orchestra rises in revolt; sustained woodwind chords try to impart a centre, soon shouted down by a defiant tutti chord. Wisps of material dart elusively through the strings, to be answered by clattering percussion. Rasping brass drives a fomenting orchestra to a frenzy, before a strangely calm conclusion.

Balancing the larger-scale works are three pieces for solo instruments. The balletic grace of Fluid Calligraphy is painted in ethereal arabesques in an exploration of the full range of harmonics on a solo violin. In Poyopoyo, the solo French horn almost attains the state of being able to speak, in the fluttering, muted survey of its articulatory possibilities. For anyone familiar with the talking trombone of the teacher in those Charlie Brown cartoons from the seventies, this is a more refined, introspective version – the schoolteacher caught alone, in a reflective soliloquy. There’s mischief here too, though, with laughter often bubbling to the surface. The natural state of the horn’s soundworld is refashioned, like plasticine, handled like something ‘soft and squidgy’ (as the title translates) and moulded into something much more articulate. The solo instrument really is speaking its own language, if only we could just catch the words – the piece is beautifully executed with superb control in this recording by Nobuaki Fukukawa.  Perla is a slow, often sensuous exploration of the expressive power of the bass recorder, employing flutter-tonguing and overblowing techniques as the instrument lurks lonely beneath the moonlight.

The gentle, diaphanous opening of the final piece on the disc, my butterflies, evokes an iridescent heat-haze; the texture gradually opens out, embracing muted brass chords, building to the first sustained vertical sonorities and a moment of release. Fujikura demonstrates (as elsewhere on this disc) his extraordinary ear for texture, for instrumentation that works to enhance as well as to draw out distinct differences between families of instruments.  An oboe and bassoon melody moves in slow, measured steps, underpinned by a sustained chord in the distance, leading to a sedate and serenely noble conclusion, reminiscent of Stravinsky. Of all the pieces on the disc, this is perhaps the most lyrical, the most expressive, permeated throughout by a hushed expectation – a reflection in part, maybe, of the initial inspiration for the work, Fujikura’s wife in the early stages of pregnancy.

Dai Fujikura

Dai Fujikura

Coming away from the disc, you are left with a sense that your ears have been opened to the experience of sound anew; Fujikura’s music, in its tightly-controlled expressive means allied with a wonderfully articulate textural language, opens the doors to sound in a manner which makes you listen with a renewed inquisitive sense. For all its surface-level industry and constant exploration of textural possibilities afforded by the instrument(s) for which the composer is writing, there emerges an overall unity of vision, a singular concept from Fujikura’s music; that of being enchanted by sound, of being enthralled by the sonic landscapes through which the music moves.

Fujikura has previously written for the Okeanos Ensemble; his Okeanos Breeze, which was commissioned by the group, embraces traditional Japanese instruments as part of the ensemble. The works on this new disc show his handling of instrumental forces continuing to broaden and mature, in his continuing investigation into new aural possibilities

Ampere is released on the Minabel label next month.

Full of eastern promise: Jonathan Mayer and cultural intersections

Interesting discussion with Jonathan Mayer yesterday about combining musical cultures. Jonathan is active as a sitarist and a composer, having recently written his Young Person’s Guide to Indian Music for the LPO; and next week, the Docklands Sinfonia will give the UK premiere of his Sitar Concerto, with Jonathan himself as soloist

Exploring the intersection between Western and non-Western culture is a key concept for Tokaido Road, as well as for Okeanos Ensemble in its combination of Western and Japanese instruments. As someone with a foot in both Western and Indian musical cultures, I asked Jonathan about the challenges faced in writing a traditional concerto for an Indian instrument; is the piece even a traditional concerto?

jonathan_mayer‘Yes; it’s very much a Western concerto. Notation is the key; it’s difficult to find sitar-players who are familiar with traditional musical notation, as of course Indian music is an oral tradition.’

Bringing the two cultures together in an effective manner is also a key issue; there’s no sense in simply bringing Indian musicians in to improvise over a piece – that kind of cultural shorthand has been around since the 60’s. (Jonathan’s father, the late sitarist John Mayer, was exploring the combination of Indian music with Western jazz with the Indo-Jazz Fusion Group, including British saxophonist Joe Harriott.) ‘In the concerto, the solo instrumentalist’s part needs to be notated; without written material shared by the sitar and the orchestra, there’s no thematic development – there’s no dialogue.’

It’ll be fascinating to hear Jonathan’s resolution of the challenge when his sitar concerto is performed next week; details online here.

Five Questions: Nicola LeFanu

Five Questions to composer, Nicola LeFanu.

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

Nicola_LeFanu_PetersLots of things! The opportunity of working with Okeanos again, and the chance to discover writing for koto and sho. The poems – I loved them, and their relationship with the woodblock prints. I already knew Hiroshige’s work, so it was great to embark on a project that would showcase it. The chance to write a music theatre piece, which combined visual and aural elements equally. Whereas in opera, everything is structured through the singing voice, in music theatre it is a case of weaving together diverse strands. But in both opera and music theatre, it is the overall pacing that is crucial.

Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

As the composer, my job is to write the music! But it is a great deal more than that. Shaping the libretto and working with the librettist is at the heart of it. It was quite a long time before I discovered the dramatic focus that I wanted. When I realised that using that terrifying picture of the skulls and skeletons (The Vision of Kiyomori) was the key, things began to fall into place. In other words, Hiroshige was not only discovering the power of landscape painting, but he could bring home to people the truth of famine and persecution that existed because of the military government.

I love the fact that I am working in a team. Composing is solitary, but making theatre meant I could work with Nancy, with Caroline and Dominic. And the key person behind the whole project is Kate Romano. Nothing would have happened without her imagination and tenacity.

What excites you about contemporary arts?

That there us so much going on. It is a bit like the sixties, so much creativity and energy in so many fields. But it is harder than the sixties, as there is so much more bureaucracy now. We just got on and made things happen, without having to jump through so many hoops.

It is funny that people still tend to be derogatory about the sixties. I don’t think they understand what a heady time it was. In music, there were wonderful performers developing new repertoire, and so many opportunities for us who were beginning our professional careers.

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

As this is my eighth work of opera or music theatre, I suppose it has reminded me of how addictive I find it!

More seriously, it was fun to explore spoken text alongside sung text. I can’t bear spoken text in opera because it falsifies the whole nature of the medium. But in music theatre it works fine. And I loved exploring the koto in relation to the spoken text, it is such a resonant and expressive instrument.

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

I think I answered that already!

Tokaido Road: a commisioner’s perspective

Boy, am I proud of this. Here’s the score and instrumental parts for Tokaido Road.

The Road starts here...

The Road starts here…

Tokaido Road is Nancy’s words, Nicola’s music, but I have a strong bond with this work. I like to think that I gave it some space to grow and goals to aspire to. I’m like a surrogate mother or doting aunt – there’s a duty of care in commissioning a new work. You have to nurture it. You want to see it flourish, contribute to a culture, speak to an audience, to be representative of its time. And like all new things, you want it to develop, grow, mature.

Tokaido Road was born of an artistic idea, a deep curiosity and an ambitious desire to change things. The relationship between Hiroshige’s prints and Nancy’s poems was already rich enough in artistic possibilities. The opera quickly became a framework for a set of questions: what is the ‘complex and murky relationship’ that exists between the arts? Tokaido Road is a study in extended ekphrasis, a term that describes the use of one art form to ‘comment on’ or ‘illustrate’ another. How does this translate across a second culture? I wanted to present this powerful cross-cultural, cross-arts synergy as a rich and highly accessible source of pleasure, entertainment and education rather than a misunderstood and sometimes marginalized form of art. I wanted to make casual media labeling (such as ‘fusion’, ‘experimental’, ‘fringe’), often used as a result of uncertainty surrounding music that juxtaposes different cultures, redundant. I wanted to create a project that would appeal to as many people in as many ways as possible.

Anyone who had raised funds for new music will empathise with the immense hard work and perseverance needed to enable a project to happen. But the journey has fascinated me – there are challenges and opportunities to be creative at every level, even from a project-management perspective. Today marked the end of the beginning: now the journey takes a new path and I can’t wait to see where it will take us.

Poetry into opera: Under Milk Wood

Fascinating interview here with composer John Metcalf in The Independent, in which he talks to Jessica Duchen about turning Dylan Thomas’ inventive, dazzling fairy-tale-cum-radio-play Under Milk Wood into an opera.



Bursting with linguistic invention beyond its diminutive published stature, Thomas’ evocative and magical piece often references music; Organ Morgan, devoted to Bach and Palestrina, his wife eternally proclaiming ‘Oh, I’m a martyr to music;’ the music of the spheres heard over the wood, ‘perturbation and music in Coronation Street;’ PC Attila Rees playing cadenzas on his truncheon.

Confronted by the no doubt daunting task of making an opera out of something which each listener owns as a work part radio-play, part drama, revealingly Metcalf says

In general, whenever I got stuck during the composition process, I found that there was one solution: go back to the Thomas.

As with Tokaido Road, turning a poem into an opera represents a challenge for the composer as well as the poet (read Nancy Gaffield’s take on working with composer Nicola LeFanu on turning her poetry-cycle into the opera here). Thomas’ richly inventive language sways and blossoms with a music all of its own; and clothing this in a musical language for the opera would bear its own burdens, not least for something so well-loved in its original form; Metcalf comments that his score looks ‘to pick out the dislocated, alienated quality of the town and its people. But at the same time, my work is very lyrical.’

A fascinating prospect in store; between the 3 to 5 April, Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre might just be the place to be…

Premiere at Cheltenham Festival now online

High excitement in the boardroom at Tokaido Road Towers this afternoon, as the programme for this year’s Cheltenham Festival has gone live today – including the première of our chamber opera.

chelt_music_fest_society_logoThe event is on Sunday 6 July at the Parabola Arts Centre, starting at 4.30pm.

Tickets will be available soon. Find out more on the Cheltenham Festival website here.

Update: tickets will be available from the Cheltenham Festival website from 24 March. Read more about Tokaido Road from WildKat PR online here.

A Coffee With: Nancy Gaffield

Taking time out from her busy schedule of teaching and writing, I caught up with Nancy Gaffield and asked her about the impact turning her cycle of poems, Tokaido Road, into a libretto has had on her work.

What impact has creating a libretto from your cycle of poems had on the poems themselves ?

Nancy Gaffield

Nancy Gaffield

I was thinking about this, even before you asked the question. When you write, you are always aware that your work is going to be released into the world and become its own entity, although you’re not often mindful of this until you see a review! So you have no control over people or their responses to your work. But now I see people quoting my lines on Twitter! People are reading them in so many ways, and the poems take on a life of their own. Still, it’s surprising! Not negative; just surprising. Ownership is much more collective. I think Nicola now knows my poems better than I do…

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#IWD2014: Tokaido Road celebrating women in the creative industries

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating inspirational women and their achievements. As the website declares,

International Women’s Day events honour and celebrate the achievements of women all around the world, ranging from small random informal gatherings to large highly organised events.

Nicola & Nancy 2As part of this global celebration, here at Tokaido Road we are delighted to be championing an innovative, cross-disciplinary creative project that is predominantly female-led.

Brainchild of Dr Kate Romano, Deputy Head of Academic Studies at the Guildhall School of Music Drama, Tokaido Road is written by composer Nicola LeFanu, whose works have been performed, recorded and broadcast worldwide and who is a former Professor of Music and Head of Department at the University of York, with a libretto by Nancy Gaffield, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. The chamber opera is directed by Caroline Clegg, Associate Director at Welsh National Opera, a freelance director working in theatre and opera and founder of the highly successful, award-winning Feelgood Theatre Productions.  And the set and costume design is by Kimie Nakano, who has a highly successful and international career as a designer in theatre, opera, film, dance and television, including working with Oscar winning Costume Designer Emi Wada on Peter Greenaway’s Eight and a Half Women and with the Akram Khan Dance Company on the ‘Vertical Road’ world tour.

A genuinely collaborative project, realised by an exciting team of women who are leading practitioners in ther respective fields. Tokaido Road is excited to be a platform for their achievements.

Image Gallery: the composer at work

Image Gallery: the composer at work

Composer Nicola Lefanu working on Tokaido Road in 2013. The photos were taken at the Centre d’Art i Natura di Farrera last year, a working place high in the Pyrenees where Nicola and her husband, composer David Lumsdaine, have often gone since it was first opened in 1996.

Images: David Lumsdaine