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.

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)

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.