Wednesday 10 November 2021

Recycle, re-use, re-think: Dai Fujikura's latest disc Glorious Clouds

Dai Fujikura - Glorious Clouds

Dai Fujikura Glorious Clouds; Minabel

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
From microorganisms to the philosophy of Kierkegaard, from a concerto for a traditional Japanese instrument to a contrabass clarinet solo, the inspirations of Japanese-born, UK-based composer Dai Fujikura are fascinating and dazzling

Dai Fujikura's latest album, Glorious Clouds might almost have the subtitle, 'recycle, re-use, re-think', as many of the works on the disc seem to evolve from Fujikura's other pieces. The disc also represents the composer's continuing engagement with Japanese traditional instruments, instruments that he didn't really listen to or know much about when growing up in Japan. Glorious Clouds from Minabel / New Focus Recordings features Fujikura's Shamisen Concerto from Hidejiro Honjoh (shamisen), Ensemble Nomad, Norio Sato, new orchestral pieces from Nagoya Philharmonic OrchestraMartyn Brabbins, and Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuko Tanaka, as well as solo and chamber pieces for a wide variety of instruments from koto to contrabass clarinet.

We begin with Glorious Clouds from Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins (conductor), a work which arose out of Fujikura's time as artist in residence with the orchestra. It is not, as might be suspected from the title, a piece about clouds and the weather, but is an exploration of the world of microorganisms and microbiomes. The piece begins in intoxicating and dynamic fashion, all swirling lines, atmospheres and textures, and moves between Debussy-esque colours and shapes, and more dynamic rhythms. Brabbins and the orchestra give a terrific performance.

In complete contrast, comes a new version of Fujikura's Sparkling Orbit for guitar and electronics. Originally written to use live electronics, this new version uses fixed media. Here performed by Daniel Lippel (electric guitar), the piece is atmospheric and intriguing, creating a sense of a dynamic, electronic soundscape. Still on an intimate scale, Serene performed by Jeremias Schwarzer (recorders) is a three-movement work based on Fujikura's Recorder Concerto. The material makes a lot of contrasts, between more thoughtful and extremely busy, between colours and textures and besides melodic material we have the performers breath and the bending of notes. Another small piece extracted from a larger is Uniuni, performed by Nobuaki Fukukawa (horn), which comes originally from Fujikura's horn concerto, which itself was derived from a solo horn piece. The result is a short but dazzling piece with a strong improvisatory feel about it.

Much of Fujikura's music feels like something of a dialogue between Western classical and Japanese musics. Born in Japan, he came to the UK at the age of 15 and his training was entirely Western and he only started exploring Japanese traditional music as an adult. But another fascinating layer in this dialogue (or perhaps dialogues) is that many of the performers on this disc are Japanese, some performing in the Western classical tradition and other in the Japanese classical tradition, but all bringing that element of a different sensibility.

Yuri is for the Japanese traditional instrument the koto, a plucked zither, but here Maya Kimura plays an unusual 25-string koto (as opposed to the standard 13-string one). Yuri is an exploration of what is possible with such a traditional instrument, from vigorously fast to the austerely sparse, along with the addition of a very traditional sounding vocal part towards the end. Fujikura is interrogating here what it means for a Japanese composer to write for an instrument with such a long and traditional history.

This interrogation continues with Fujikura's Shamisen Concerto. This was co-commissioned by shamisen player Hidejiro Honjoh and is based on a solo piece, Neo that Fujikura wrote from Honjoh. The shamisen is a plucked string instrument (akin to guitar or banjo) and developed in Japan from the 16th century. The concerto is in a single 20 minute span, but the different sections seem to move between the movements of a traditional concerto. From Fujikura's way of writing for the instrument, I suspect that it might have natural balance problems with a full symphony orchestra as with a Western guitar concerto.

We begin with an introduction which concentrates on texture and timbre, rather than piece leading to the first main section, fast solo instrument with occasional chords from the orchestra amplifying and punctuating. The playing from the soloist here, and elsewhere, is simply dazzling. A more thoughtful central section introduces a greater element of dialogue between soloist and orchestra, whilst the next section develops as a fast solo toccata with cries and whispers in the orchestra, but this is not the end and there is a big solo cadenza, before the orchestra re-joins for the conclusion. The work receives and impressive and at times dazzling performance from Hidejiro Honjoh (shamisen) with Ensemble Nomad and Norio Sato (conductor).

Shakuhachi Five is written for a quintet of shakuhachi, the traditional Japanese flute. The music has a real undulating, fluid quality, almost sea-sick making at times, creating a fascinating atmosphere as the five instruments undulate together and separately.

With Motion Notions we return to a Western classical instrument, the violin, except that Mari Kimura plays with a motion sensor on her wrist, so Fujikura is working here with far more technical information than is generally available to composers. He has a created a fragile, delicate, will o'the wisp piece. Gliding Wings for two clarinets and ensemble is an expansion of an earlier clarinet duo that Fujikura wrote for his teacher George Benjamin's 60th birthday. Here performed by Makoto Yoshida and Hideo Kikuchi (clarinets) with Ensemble Nomad and Norio Sato (conductor), the work feels like chamber music rather than a concerto and features delicate but complex interactions between the instruments, full of fascinating detail.

Love Excerpt, setting a text by Harry Ross, was written for soprano Jane Manning's 70th birthday. Here it is performed by Tony Arnold (soprano) and Jacob Greenberg (piano). It begins as almost a vocalise over an incessant single piano note, creating something highly concentrated. As the music develops and expands, the work becomes highly intense.

Repetition Recollections is a three-movement work for marimba, here Eriko Daimo, inspired by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard in celebration of his 200th anniversary. Fujikura uses five to six layers of different length rhythmic patterns that form the repetitions and backbone of the composition. So though the work is about repetition and recollection, the results have a dazzling variety, full of wonderful complex polyrhythms, with Daimo in the final movement creating impressive filigree textures.

Pre arises out of Fujikura's double bass concerto, in fact Pre is the third piece that the composer has extracted from the concerto and all were played by Yoji Sato. Here, Pre is an imaginative and intriguing exploration of plucked textures on the instrument. We stay with string instruments for Star Compass, based on the cadenza from Fujikura's viola concerto, here played by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti. Moving between the melodic and the textural, the piece creates its own imaginative sound world. Contour started out life as part of Fujikura's tuba concerto; extracted as a tuba solo, it was then rethought for contrabass clarinet. Here played by Heather Roche, the work explores the deep, dark world of the instrument, haunting sounds, complex figurations, dark, low and haunted.

We finish with another orchestral piece, written at the request of Orchestre national d'Île-de-France, and they wanted a Christmas piece. The work does not really use traditional Christmas music (except perhaps for sleigh-bells at the end), but is instead an evocation of a traditional English Christmas experienced by the 15-year-old composer, newly arrived from Japan. There are some lovely orchestral textures along the way, and those delightful sleigh-bells at the end.

As with Fujikura's previous discs, there is an element of 'from my workshop' about the disc, a fascinating feeling of exploring the pieces and the thoughts of the composer from a period of time. The inspirations of the pieces are apparently diverse, but listening across solo movements, chamber pieces, orchestra music, concertos and more, we can begin to discern links, connections, fascinations and more. There are some fine performances on the disc, and it is full of things to dip into.

Dai Fujikura
Glorious Clouds
Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Sparking Orbit (new version)
Daniel Lippel (electric guitar)
Jeremias Schwarzer (recorders)
Nobuaki Fukukawa (horn)
Maya Kimura (koto, voice)
Shamisen Concerto
Ensemble Nomad, Hidejiro Honjoh (shamisen), Norio Sato (conductor)
Shakuhachi Five
The Shakuhachi 5 (Akihito Obama,Kizan Kawamura, Reison Kuroda, Akihisa Kominato, Ken-ichi Tajima)
Motion Notions
Mari Kimura (violin with motion sensor)
Gliding Wings
Ensemble Nomad, Makoto Yoshida, Hideo Kikuchi (clarinets), Norio Sato (conductor)
Love Excerpt (text by Harry Ross)
Tony Arnold (soprano), Jacob Greenberg (piano)
Repetition Recollection
Eriko Daimo (marimba)
Yoji Sato (double bass)
Star Compass
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti (viola)
Heather Roche (contrabass clarinet)
Ghost of Christmas
Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuko Tanaka (conductor)
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