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)