Friday 12 July 2013

Okeanos Ensemble travels the Tokaido Road

Okeanos is a rather distinctive instrumental ensemble which mixes traditional Japanese instruments with western ones, so that they mix koto and sho with clarinet, viola and oboe (The full ensemble is mezzo-soprano, koto, sho, shakuhachi, harp, clarinets, oboe/oboe d'amore, viola). But in fact, the group's primary focus is as a new music ensemble. They were founded around 10 years ago by Jinny Shaw (who plays oboe and oboe d'amore) and I caught up with another founder member, clarinettist Kate Romano, to talk about the group's plans.

The group came about because Shaw and Romano decided to collaborate on a new music group. At the initial stage the group was simply a new music group, but a visit to a Japanese textile exhibition gave the idea of commissioning a group of Japanese composer. Those who wrote for the group included Dai Fujikura who has gone on to write a number of pieces for Okeanos.

At the time, they thought it might be interesting to mix Japanese instruments with western ones, though they did not set out to be a Japanese fusion group. Kate Romano commented that she found the sound-mix interesting, as it is rather treble heavy and the different instruments have different tuning systems. She describes the sho as being like a rather ancient mouth organ.

Their website describes the group's primary focus as being to reach out to new audiences, create opportunities for composer, pioneering performance events, often collaborating with other art forms. Romano comments that this was their mission statement when founded and is still true of the group today. That they do this via a distinctive mix of Japanese and Western instruments seems to be something which just happened.

The mix of instruments though, does give composers a variety of challenges, most notably how do deal with the different tuning systems. Different composers take different routes, for Howard Skempton the koto used Western tuning whereas Dai Fujikura used quarter tones. Fujikura has done a lot of work with the group and they have developed his Okeanos Cycle over a number of years. In fact, Fujikura had to learn about writing for Japanese instruments from scratch, as his training had been entirely in Western classical music

Romano talks about performing Fujikura's music so often that the group finds it has become natural, like any other sort of chamber music. She feels that these pieces are now nice and familiar and that the group has developed a performing tradition. But somehow it also seems like a natural end.

So the group has been looking for a new project, something which would build on everything that the group has done. In fact, there is more than the Japanese strand to their work and they also do purely Western music (without the Japanese instruments), including a strand of story-telling concerts with Judith Weir.

Their new project, Tokaido Road, builds on all of these different elements.

The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road is a set of 53 prints by the Japanese artist Hiroshige, depicting the road which led from the Shogun capital of Edo to the Imperial capital of Kyoto. Hiroshige's innovation when creating the prints was to add people to the landscapes. (You can see the prints at the Hiroshige website). This narrative element was picked up by the poet Nancy Gaffield when producing her book of poems Tokaido Road. Gaffield, who was born in the USA but who lived in Japan for many years, has written 53 poems, one for each station, but there is also a narrative element running through the book.

Romano explained how the group discovered Nancy's book and wanted to do something with it. Initial plans to simply set some of the poems to music were expanded into the idea of a narrative drama. Romano explained that the work, Tokaido Road, would be a 50 minute drama but it would have to be practical and portable, so this meant being written for just three singers, western and Japanese instruments, hand held percussion and a mime. Gaffield is writing the libretto and Nicola Lefanu the music.

It is new ground for each. Though Lefanu has worked with Okeanos before she has never written for Japanese instruments (her piece Mira Clar Tenebras was written for Okeanos just using Western instruments). And Gaffield has never written a libretto, and has discovered quite how little text a composer really needs.

Romano talked of the project being a highly ambitious one, but clearly the group are excited and challenge. Caroline Clegg (of Feelgood Theatre Productions) is the director, the producer is Stuart Calder and the conductor is Dominic Wheeler (from Guildhall School of Music and Drama). The premiere is planned for the Cheltenham Festival in 2014 with a number of other touring dates.

Here Romano brings up the notion of ekphrasis, a Greek term describing how one work of are comments on another. Initially, Nancy Gaffield's poems commented on Hiroshige's pictures, but in Okeanos's Tokaido Road there are multiple layers of ekphrasis with the mime, the music, the libretto, the poems and the woodcuts existing on a wonderful ekphrasistic hierarchy.

Our conversation returned to the nature of the group and its Japanese-ness. Romano talked of how they never set out to be Japanese, but were just interested in a mix of instruments. But now, she feels that there is no need to apologise for using just a selection from Japanese culture, regarding Japan as a collaborating partner. She points out that this sort of selection is just what artists do. And Romano feels that it is exciting to explore the intersection between the two cultures. Our conversation then went on to take in how much you can learn about Japanese culture from their pots, and how Japanese the music of Dai Fujikura is given that he is entirely Western trained, but we were defeated by time.

You can find out more about Okeanos and their Tokaido Road project at the Okeanos website.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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