Sunday, 16 May 2010

Minoru Miki, composer

In late 2009, I interviewed Minoru Miki, a modern classical composer, conductor, musician, and musicologist. The interview was by email. Although Miki's English is rather good, he answered my English questions in Japanese. These were then translated into English by Leanne Ogasawara.

CBL: You have made some excellent music inspired by the Silk Road. How did that develop?

MM: In 1993, I became one of the founding members of the musicalensemble, Orchestra Asia. The first three years of the group we worked solely on putting together arrangements of traditional Chinese, Korean and Japanese folk songs, using the traditional instruments of those three countries. From the fourth year, we started the second phase of our activities by moving away from arrangements and taking up new compositions of music. The first theme we chose to explore was that of the Silk Road. This was the most convenient symbol to unite these three countries of Northeast Asia, which are united by a common culture and script. I composed a Silk Road-inspired piece called Loulan as a Dream, however due to differences in the late modernization of Korean instruments and great differences in skill levels among the Chinese musicians this piece has not been performed enough.

CBL: To many Japanese of your generation – I am thinking here in particular of the painter Hirayama Ikuo — the Silk Road is an important symbol. On the one side, Japan has reached out and embraced many things from the West, and as a corollary to this – or possibly as a reaction — there has been a similar urge to embrace or re-embrace Asian culture. Would it be correct to say that the Silk Road represents an important side of the Japanese urge to reach out?

MM: The great East-West cultural exchange that took place along the Silk Road also became the aim behind the foundation of the Yatsugatake, Hokuto International Music Festival (HIMF). In this age of scarce artistic funding, this festival is a great opportunity to see larger audiences come together every year to hear music composed around this theme of East-West exchange. However, I am not a scholar and hence do not have the time nor the funds to do research into Silk Road history. For me, the Silk Road is a symbol for East-West relations from recent times till today, as well as a symbol for contemporary North-South issues. In addition to my operas, I think my current life's work has come to be taken up with the production of work which harmoniously brings together the cultural developments of the West and the little-known but fascinating cultural riches of Southeast Asia, together with the musical traditions of East Asia, in order to create something completely new in terms of music. This is something that needs to be done in a place where group collaboration between musicians can occur, with the fruits of this collaboration being the musical performances themselves. This is something I feel a great urge to work toward, and it is my belief that only through this kind of collaborative effort between people that genuine peace and harmonious relations can be established.

CBL: Although it is now obviously peaceful, historically this Japanese urge to embrace Asia seems to have its roots partly in Imperialistic Japan’s attempt to define itself by rejecting over-Westernization and seeking expansion in Asia. Isn’t it true therefore to say that the seed of the idea of "the Silk Road" for the Japanese contains an element of Asian pride and assertiveness as well as an element of Imperialism towards Asia?

MM: The imbalance in power between various countries during different historical periods is one of the great causes of evil in the world. The enormous wrongs that occurred during the Age of Discovery, for example, or America’s unilateral activities today generate an infinite amount of hatred and, indeed, we now find ourselves in the pitiful position of just waiting for the destruction of the world itself. The Silk Road was a uniquely peaceful trade route connecting Rome with Chang'an. It served to promote peaceful exchanges and mutual cooperation between Eastern and Western countries. It is interesting that, while in Asia the Silk Road is a subject of fascination, in the West it seems to be mainly of interest to archaeologists. As a person who fundamentally rejects the current Westernization of the world towards a sort of a monoculture, what I can do in my own projects is to choose artists whose own sense of "internationality" is rooted in their own cultural identity. Having said that, in my Japanese or Asian music projects, there are countless cases in which we utilize technologies or know-how produced by the West. Also, Japan's own history of waves of influence from China means that within my own identity as a Japanese person, there is this great East Asian cultural flowering. Recognizing this has been essential to my co-artistic flourishing, which has nothing to do with the wartime Imperial Japanese government’s concept of an East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. In the Western musical heritage, there is the ideal medium of the orchestra. This assembled know-how is something lacking in many of the musical traditions coming from Eastern countries. The EU was set up as a cooperative economic and cultural sphere, as a system that seeks to allow the individual flourishing of all its members — in the same way that individual musicians in an orchestra come together and each creatively flourish. After the re-establishing of ties between China and Korea, I immediately sought to establish a creative musical ensemble with other musicians in Northeast Asia and in 1993 started Orchestra Asia.

CBL: How do you feel about the totality of your work? Is all your music in some way part of a whole or do the pieces exist separately and represent particular interests, obsessions, and challenges of the time they were written?

MM: My numbered musical compositions number some 145 pieces. This opus includes my eight-part Operatic Cycle on Japanese History, amounting to over 20 hours of music written over 37 years. My Eurasian Trilogy and Ballades for Koto comprising around 20 compositions for the koto, Nohara Uta, 21 songs with violin and piano, and 14 compositions for my piece Hana Monogatari. I have also created a rather unique three-part Pine Concerto for Japanese traditional instruments. In addition, my anti-war/anti-nuclear and ecological consciousness-raising pieces number some 20 works. Another area in which I have made continuous effort is in musical activities for large ensembles of traditional Japanese and Asian instruments, such as my Pro Musica Nipponica and my Orchestra Asia, both which are unique in the history of world music. I have also composed music for the new koto and 21-string koto. Working on and off over several decades I have compiled a repertoire of music for traditional East Asian instruments which is both unique and composed around a variety of themes. Of course, many of my musical compositions were made for specific projects and motivations. However, no matter what project, I have always strived in my work to both consider various periods of history as well as to transcend those periods to create music which will never grow old or have an old-fashioned or stale to feel to it.

CBL: After a very long career, is there a sense of seeking completion with your latest compositions? I ask this because you have been working on Happy Pagoda, an operatic piece that reflects the 20th century.

MM: My eight-part Operatic Cycle on Japanese History is a series of operas composed to reflect the particular spirit of various periods of Japanese history. At the same time, it is a study of the artistic and cultural high points of those historic periods. The Happy Pagoda was not originally intended to be part of the series. The piece came about when I was asked by the governor of my home prefecture of Tokushima to serve as artistic director for the Grand Finale of the Tokushima National Cultural Festival in 2007. Due to the small budget and unfavorable conditions of the hall, which didn’t allow for any adaptations to the stage and lacked an orchestra pit, I composed a one-hour, smaller-scale folk opera. However, the libretto for the piece, written by Tatsuji Iwata, takes over one hour just to read! Iwata comes from a temple family. His father served as a Buddhist priest but was killed during the Kobe Earthquake. He composed his libretto as a kind of requiem, and therefore the piece is both heavy and long. Because of this, it was performed with only four musicians who played stage right to accompany the unsung libretto, which accounted for about half the opera. For me, the piece remained incomplete. And, yet, at the same time, I was very interested in the piece, and so, after the performance, I talked to Iwata about radically cutting the libretto and turning the piece into a full-scale opera. Therefore, we are adapting the music to be performed as an orchestral piece with singing, with the second act being rewritten to contain a play-within-a-play. The entire thing has become an exploration from various angles of the meaning of World War II. I am hoping when the piece is completed it will serve as an appropriate ninth Opera for my Operatic Cycle on Japanese History. Basically, the piece is complete and I am waiting on Iwata's libretto for the play-within-a-play part.

CBL: The 20th century must be particularly difficult to represent or embody musically. What challenges have you faced? What musical, lyrical, and narrative themes are you using?

MM: I was 15 years old when the War ended in defeat for Japan. So, while my generation had no responsibility for those events, still, the sense of guilt or need for atonement felt by our generation for the great suffering caused by Japan's effort to follow Western examples of imperialism and militarization is a feeling that has not disappeared. This is a theme, in fact, that accounts for over 20 percent of the opera. From a musical, lyrical and narrative perspective, I feel I have brought this to life in language which transcends time and place.

CBL: How important is it for a musician to root his creativity in his own culture and to preserve traditional elements, including old instruments?

MM: In my case, in many ways, I served as a kind of trailblazer in my work — both my solo compositions as well as my ensembles — to modernize and internationalize Japanese traditional musical instruments. Being aware of this, I wanted to approach my projects with a sense of responsibility and authenticity, and so I made great efforts to study the ancient instruments. For example, at one stage I strove very hard to develop a historically authentic tonal quality and period instrument performance technique in my work. However, there came a time when I realized that, even if I didn’t give such matters any thought whatsoever, these traditional elements would come out anyway in music played on traditional instruments, even if they were played in new ways or caused to emit new sounds. I wrote about this experience in my book, The Theory of Composing for Japanese Instruments (published in English in 2008 by Rochester University Press and in Chinese in 2000). In the 1980s, many young composers wrote pieces utilizing Japanese traditional instruments, and the effect was rather dry in its overbearing tonality and use of the instruments. However, nowadays, in part thanks to my book and various compositions, there are many new choices available for the free and creative utilization of Japanese instruments.

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