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Dai Fujikura interview

Japanese composer Dai Fujikura tells us why he has no time for national borders in music

Dai Fujikura. © Rob Greig
Japanese classical music. So that must be lots of birdsong and wind whistling through the grass, cascades of cherry blossom and a shakuhachi flute lulling in the distance. Dai Fujikura raises his eyebrows, his face crumples into a bewildered expression. The 35-year-old composer has no time for such clichés and – far from being stereotypically inscrutable – he is absolutely clear about the reasons why. ‘I think of my nationality as absolutely nothing on so many levels,’ he declares. ‘Quite often people say they are proud to be from somewhere. I don’t understand – where you are from is not up to you. When I go back to Japan, it is funny: I enjoy visiting, but I am counting the days until I come back to London; I feel at home here.’

On Saturday he is the main attraction of another of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s splendid Total Immersion days of music, film and talks. ‘Sounds from Japan’ is a celebration of contemporary Japanese composers and the father of the genre, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996). Japanese composers led by Takemitsu came to the fore after WWII. His music is informed by nature and mankind’s place within it – the early music was influenced by Western avant-garde composers; the later output settled into often slow and sparse textures, setting the tone for expectations of music from Japan.

Perhaps it is logical to assume Japanese music is contemplative, given that Japan is predominantly Buddhist. Fujikura gives a wry grin. ‘Sure,’ he agrees, ‘but I don’t know any Japanese friends who actually do meditation. You should meet my mother – she runs around like crazy and goes to the gym every day. I understand where these ideas come from and how non-Japanese people are expecting from us music that is all very nice, meditative and quiet. But when I visit Japan, I don’t see that at all. If you’ve ever been to Shibuya [a shopping district in central Tokyo], it’s crazy. So many people crossing the street in the middle of the night and Starbucks is open 24 hours a day. I feel energy there and I can relate to that, and I want to express it in my music.’

But isn’t his home city of Osaka part of the region that includes the ancient centre of Japan where the rituals of religion and contemplation of nature are cerebrated? Fujikura comes clean. ‘I don’t feel Japanese in that I don’t relate to nature. The thing is, I think the feeling is mutual: nature doesn’t like me either – I have big nasal allergies.’

In fact, his main inspiration at the moment is his 16-month-old daughter, Mina, who creates havoc and plays with her musical toys while her dad sits in the corner of their one-bedroom flat in Lewisham (where he lives with his Bulgarian cellist wife, Milena) trying to ‘create utopias’ with the aid of a piano and manuscript paper. But he wouldn‘t have it any other way; for him composing is an act of everyday life, not a sacred space.

The maverick composer, who came to England at 15 and never left, also mixes it up with pop musicians, such as his teenage heroes Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian, and enjoys the rare privilege of having works commissioned and performed around the world. And despite his poor relationship with nature, he has written pieces such as ‘Secret Forest’, which ends with a torrent of rain sticks. His 2006 BBC Proms orchestral commission, ‘Crushing Twister’, was inspired by turntablism – DJs altering the speed and sound of two simultaneously playing records – which was emulated by an orchestra split in two.

The big work of his to be played this weekend is the European premiere of ‘Atom’. Inspired by his experience at the electronic composing workshop IRCAM in Paris, this orchestral piece recreates the computerised breakdown of a melody into tiny fragments, which build from a single grain of sound, expanding as its texture changes from rough to smooth, and finally blossoming into a ‘big juicy melody’.

So, there it is. As with all original artists, Fujikura’s influences come from everywhere and although he’s free of much of the baggage of the Western composing tradition, he has his own hang-ups.‘I have to be really careful when I write for alto or bass flutes,’ he explains. ‘It is dangerous. If there is a crescendo, because of the nature of the instruments, it can create an overtone – and immediately people say “Oh, that comes from the shakuhachi.” It doesn’t – if I had blond hair, no one would think that way.'