Saturday 10 February 2018

A Portrait: composer Dai Fujikura introduces the music at the forthcoming Wigmore Hall concert

Dai Fujikura (© Milena Mihaylova)
Dai Fujikura (© Milena Mihaylova)
The composer Dai Fujikura has a portrait concert at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 17 February, a rare chance to hear Dai's music in London. Japanese born but based in the UK for the last 25 years, Dai has a busy career and is one of those composers who are able to devote their career almost entirely to composing. The concert at the Wigmore Hall has a fine line up of performers, many long-time collaborators, and the music ranges from recent pieces right back to music written when Dai was an undergraduate.

Dai Fujikura (© Seiji Okumiya)
Dai Fujikura (© Seiji Okumiya)
I recently met up with Dai to find out more; he is lively and articulate company, with fascinating things to say about both the process of composition and the effect of being a Japanese-born composer in a Western European country.

When we meet, Dai gives me a copy of a new CD out Chance Monsoon, which has some repertoire in common with the forthcoming concert. Dai produces recordings on his own label, Minabel. Chance Monsoon is all in Japanese (the information is available in English from his website), he explains that it is being issued as a CD in Japan (licensed through Sony) but is available as a digital download elsewhere (see Dai's website). This is because CDs are still hugely popular in Japan (and account for 85% of total music sales) and the country still has over 50 Tower Records stores (remember those!).

When producing and recording Dai is concerned not just with the way the music is played but the way it sounds on the disc. Since he was in his 20s he has edited and mastered his own recordings. Essentially he hears the music in his head and wants it to sound just like that on disc. He dislikes the typical sound of classical music recordings, where you have to turn the volume up to hear the strings playing pianissimo and then are in danger of being deafened by the timpani.

His concert at the Wigmore Hall, Dai Fujikura Portrait in the Avex Recital series, came about because Avex, a big Japanese entertainment and record group, asked him. Dai comments that because he has now turned 40 he seems to be getting  lot of portrait concerts around the world, including one at the Lincoln Center in New York two years ago. The Wigmore Hall concert forms a welcome chance to hear Dai's music in the UK, where performances have been relatively rare nowadays. He is aware of the irony of this as he has lived in the UK for 25 years, since he came here at the age of 15 to study for his GCSEs, and he feels more than half British.

People with whom he has a relationship so that all have long familiarity with his music

Dai has curated festivals in Japan, notably the Born Creative Festival in Tokyo, so he approached planning the Wigmore Hall concert with interest. The performers are all friends who have played his music for a long time, or people for whom he has written works, people with whom he has a relationship so that all have long familiarity with his music and the pieces being played. Many of the pieces in the programme have an interesting history, and he introduced a number of them.

Sakana for solo saxophone is to be played by Masanori Oishi who commissioned the work nearly 10 years ago, and it has come to be one of Dai's most played pieces, including being used as an entrance exam for one of the Paris conservatoires. The double bass piece Es was written for Enno Senft (who will be playing it at the Wigmore Hall) the double bass player in the London Sinfonietta, the name of the piece of course refers to Senft's initials but also to the key of E flat (Es in German) in which the piece is written. Dai developed Es into a double bass concerto, and he says that this often happens with his music, solo pieces develop into concertos and vice versa, thus creating what he calls a family of pieces.

Two pieces in the concert, Deepened Arc and Frozen Heat (to be played by pianist Mei Yi Foo) were written in 1999 when Dai was an undergraduate at Trinity College of Music (then in Mandeville Place) so they were premiered at a composition studies workshop in a street very near the Wigmore Hall. He feels that the pieces really show the composers he was into at the time!

Mei Yi Foo is also playing two further piano pieces, SekSek and Ayatori. Both date from 2011 and were written without commission, something Dai does occasionally when he writes a relatively restricted composition for piano, going back to basics and exploring new methods of composition which, if successful, can then be used in larger works. These two pieces were in fact written whilst his wife was pregnant with their daughter Mina and Dai was forbidden to get involved in a larger piece until the birth was over. He would subsequently write his sinfonia concertante Mina about his daughter's birth.

Neither Dai nor his friends played nor did they encounter traditional Japanese instruments

The Wigmore Hall concert also includes music for Japanese traditional instruments. In fact, Dai did not hear any Japanese traditional instruments live until he was in his 20s when he heard some in Darmstadt. Growing up in Japan, neither he nor his friends played nor did they encounter traditional instruments. The only time you might come across them being when visiting a traditional restaurant.

Neo is written for shamisen (played by HONJOH Hidejiro) a type of three string guitar played with a plectrum which Dai finds a fascinating reflection of Japanese traditional music as it uses a screw which adds an additional buzzing to the sound. Whereas in Western classical music the player aims for pure tone, avoiding as much extraneous noise as possible, in Japan this is positively welcomed. A fact that Dai finds 'mind blowing. Another Japanese traditional instrument, the Sho (a mouth-organ-like instrument) is common to both China and Japan. In China keys were added to improve the instrument's functionality and sound, but in Japan it has never changed and the instrument's limitations and extraneous sounds welcomed.

The recording of Neo, which is on his new CD played by HONJOH Hidejiro, came about because he and the artist were both in New York at the same time. One of their big discussions about the piece was how much extra noise to add, how tight the screw should be.

Dai had to study the shamisen a lot before writing for it, and he explained that when writing a piece for someone, he can prove very demanding. Each day he emails the music he has written to the player, and asks them to recorded it (wherever they are) and send it back. By the end of this process he can piece together a simulation of the piece from the fragments, and knows that works and what to cut, or change. It is useful for him and the musician, they can see the whole piece.

With its use of distortion, Dai sees the shamisen piece as related to the electric guitar (an instrument he loves) and an American guitarist is interested in adapting it for this instrument.

Dai Fujikura - photograph taken for the BBC Radio 3 series 'Composers Rooms' (Photo BBC)
Dai Fujikura - photograph taken for the BBC Radio 3 series 'Composers Rooms' (Photo BBC)

So exactly how Japanese is Dai's music?  

Since coming to London at the age of 15, when he studied at school in Dover, Dai has seen many changes relating to Japanese culture in the UK. he would often get asked naive questions like 'What kind of food do you eat?' or 'Is Japan part of China?', and going to the Japanese food centre in London the customers were almost exclusively Japanese. Whereas now, Japanese food is a normal part of British culture.

So exactly how Japanese is Dai's music? He explains that as a young composer he did not want to be pigeonholed as the Japanese composer and so worked hard to erase any perceived Japanese elements from his pieces. Also, he was keen to avoid the ghost of Toru Takemitsu (a composer he never met but whose work he loves). Whilst some people do detect a Japanese flavour to the music, many Japanese people enjoy his music because it does not sound Japanese.

Whilst Dai loves writing for Japanese traditional instruments, in fact he loves writing for instruments that he does not know, he enjoys having to research the instrument. When writing his recent cello concerto, he applied the same technique to this instrument. He knows the cello well, but he researched how the instrument was made. Realising that it is such a phenomenal piece of craftsmanship and engineering has meant that he treated the instrument with more care, and the resulting work is more lyrical than it might have been.

Each one is different, tuned inaccurately, and he likes this idea

Another unusual instrument, albeit one of a very different kind, is the toy piano. An early American contact, International Contemporary Ensemble asked him for a piece for toy piano and violin, Breathess, for an education workshop with toddlers. Researching the instrument he found that each one is different, tuned inaccurately, and he likes this idea. Breathless can be seen on YouTube with Pierre-Laurent Aimard on the toy piano. Since then, Dai has written quite a few works for the instrument. His first piano concerto Ampere includes a toy piano cadenza which he developed into a separate piece, Milliampere. For the performances of Breathless at the Wigmore Hall, they will be borrowing his daughter's toy piano.

Dai Fujikura (Photo Ai Ueda)
Dai Fujikura (Photo Ai Ueda)

If he wrote his own he could not be told off for changing it

Growing up in Japan in the 1980s and studying the piano, the teaching was extremely strict. The young Dai found he hated the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, particularly the gaps in the Haydn, and he could change and re-compose the pieces. His teacher would tell him off, but he was stubborn and persisted. With ineffable logic he decided the problem was the music, and if he wrote his own he could not be told off for changing it. By the age of 13 he had a composition teacher, though so prolific was he that lessons could simply consist of Dai playing the teacher the music he had written that week.

As a result of reading a children's book of biographies of the great composers, Dai became convinced he should study in Germany. But the English language was far more familiar than German, so the idea arose that he would study in England first and he was lucky that a neighbour in Japan was an English teacher who had lived in the UK and was able to give him lessons. She also was keen on contemporary music and introduced Dai to the music of Takemitsu, including a recording by Nobuko Imai who, 20 year later, would commission Dai himself.

A scholarship led to his studying for his GCSEs in Dover. He would go on to study at Trinity College of Music and found the atmosphere at the college wonderfully free. The head of vocal studies, Linda Hirst, was a great help and Dai even felt able to go into the principal, Gavin Henderson's office and say that he, Dai, had written a new concerto and could Henderson make it happen in a college concert - Gavin Henderson could, and did!

The Royal College of Music followed, studying with Edwin Roxburgh who was a wonderful teacher. By now Dai was already living from commissions, he and his girlfriend (now wife) in a tiny flat. He continues to be one of those composers who are able to make a living from their composition.  Around this time he did a project with the London Sinfonietta, Blue Touch Paper, and asked for Peter Eotvos as a mentor. As a result, Dai sent Eotvos some scores, and it was Eotvos' mentioning of Dai's name to others which started to get his name known around Europe.

The young Dai was not just into classical music, there was film music, pop and rock in the mix too And he regard himself as extremely lucky that he has gone on to work with most of his heroes from this period, not just Pierre Boulez, but Ryuichi Sakamoto and even David Sylvian (who was in the band Japan in the 1970s) and would go on to write avantgarde pop. These are people who were his heroes as a teenager, and with whom he would work and develop deeper relationships.

Dai Fujikura Portrait is at the Wigmore Hall on 17 February 2018
Dai's CD Chance Monsoon is out on the Minabel label

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • A Heine songbook - Robin Tritschler and Christopher Glynn - concert review
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  • Giovanni Croce revealed - motetti & cantiones sacrae - CD review
  • 'You still have to make the right line' - Michael Finnissy day at St John's College, Cambridge  - feature article
  • Singing to create a national identity: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir - concert review
  • From oboe to podium: Leo Duarte on Handel pasticcios, playing the oboe & period singing style  - my interview
  • Finely balanced casting: Handel's Orlando from La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square - Opera review
  • Hamlet reinvented: Ambroise Thomas' opera from Opera2Day in The Hague - Opera review
  • Music for the Queen of Heaven - the Marian Consort in 21st and 20th century music - CD review
  • Debut treehouse - intimate, innovative and engaging - concert review
  • Classical music with a popular twist: I chat to Lithuanian composer Gediminas Gelgotas - interview
  • Seeing the genre develop: Lully & Quinault's second tragédie en musique, Alceste  - CD review
  • Home

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