Dai Fujikura interview: piano concerto

You’ve stated that you used to be uncomfortable with writing for Piano as an ensemble instrument; in fact before Code80 (written for Pierre Boulez’ 80th birthday in 2005) you had only written for solo piano. How has writing for piano and orchestra affected you?

It was a nightmare, because with all due respect I really don’t like musical material to be shared between the piano and the orchestra. I don’t write in a Romantic idiom - which lends itself to the concerto form - with one solo instrument duelling with an orchestra over the same melody. For instance, in Schumann’s concerto the oboe plays the piano melody and vice versa. This is obviously in keeping with the style of the piece. However, my own experience as composer means that if I have a sonorous melody in my head I will write it for a melodic monophonic instrument rather than writing for the piano. Furthermore, despite the fact that the piano can be looked at as a tuned percussion instrument, I’d normally give a percussive figure to an instrument from the orchestral percussion family. Therefore I had to search for a reason for the piano to be there when placed together with a symphony orchestra.

So what is the piano’s raison d’être in this piece?

Perhaps that question is best left unanswered, I obviously found the piano’s raison d’être, but the search took other nine months! What I’d rather say is that the piece’s raison d’être is the piano. That is I have treated the orchestra and piano as one big piano.

Like the piano and its essence?

Exactly. That is why the work is not in conventional movements, it is written in a single movement with five sections, each section exploring the sound the piano makes. If you want, the dramatic idea behind the piece is like a pianist playing a magic piano that amplifies an innate sonic aura - emanating from the pianist’s fingers and developed in the orchestra. For instance, in the opening section the pianist plays big chords with a sustaining pedal. Those chords float and the orchestra develops the chord playing only the notes which derived from the harmonic series of the chord played by the pianist. It’s almost as if the pianist is a witch who has special power in her fingertips.

That doesn’t sound very virtuosic…

No, not in the introductory section, but I felt that it was important to show the sonic link between the piano and the orchestra. After this the piano plays a very dominant part in the work. The opening is like an appetiser for a gourmet meal (though perhaps a little more hostile in its attitude), you can only understand the flavours of the main course if your palate has been prepared for them. In the second section, there is a huge piano solo and the orchestra, rather than accompanying, pick up various fragments of the piano solo and develop them. In this section I mainly used similar orchestral sonorities to the piano, such as pizzicati, and percussion instruments. During the second section I also pick out a few notes using the sostenuto pedal.

So that means that those particular notes are always resonating against the other staccato sounds?

Yes and they are in turn reflected by the solo strings which play arco, crescendo, which is the opposite of a percussive sonority that simply fades once played. This is a constant harmonic anchor in this frantic soundworld of percussive virtuosity. Within those there are a lot of melodic phrases which the piano plays, but as I said earlier, these phrases are not shared with the orchestra. The piano plays its own phrases in order to indicate how special the piano is in the context of this work, and how special the musical material given to the piano is.

The pure sound of instruments seems to be of paramount importance in your acoustic work and you have had a lot of experience working at IRCAM and EXPERIMENTALSTUDIO Freiburg on electro-acoustic works. Does your work in the studio affect your acoustic work?

Yes. The electronics studio triggers your imagination in an unusual way, and you can experiment with the nature of sound production, and the nature of sound itself. This means that I don’t see an orchestra as an accompanying instrument, but I see the piano as feeding sound information into a big machine (the orchestra) which can react to certain pitches and harmonies played by the piano.

You’ve been friends with Noriko Ogawa for seven years or so. Has that friendship helped you in writing this work?

Yes, because I’m the type of composer who likes to write for specific players. I’m personally a big fan of her quiet dynamic range. The cadenza, which is accompanied by glissandi timpani, roto tom and talking drum, is very quiet. Prior to this work for the Philharmonia Noriko commissioned a small piano piece from me called Returning, which I wrote three years ago. It was a very important work for me, as it is in this piece that I worked out certain compositional systems that I’d always wanted to investigate. On the surface, this piece and the piano concerto have nothing in common. However, I would not have been able to write this work without first having written Returning. Having said that in the last section – the coda of this piece – the harmony is derived from the sonic analysis of the recording of Noriko’s world premiere performance of Returning. The pitches of returning are not used, but the harmonic series which are created by each pitch (phantom of “returning” if you like) influcence the last section of the concerto.

The cadenza is the Third section of the work. How does the piece continue?

The fourth section is fullest. Using the sustaining pedal more than any other section, the piano is at the height of its virtuosity and the orchestra is playing in its individual sections: Woodwind, Brass and Strings. I would call this section Grand Piano. Then the last section has the most unique instrumentation. It is delicate. The percussionists play glass harmonica and the writing here is chamber music writing so I can explore the strengths of the individual players in the orchestra. Also Noriko plays a special keyboard instrument which she is very excited about playing.

Outside the UK you have received performances and commissions from major symphony orchestras such as Lucerne, Rai, Radio France, Bavarian and Vienna Radio Symphony, Melbourne, New Japan Philharmonic etc… This is your first major commission from a British symphony orchestra outside of a festival context despite the fact that you’ve lived in the UK for sixteen years. Are you excited?

Yes! I have many recordings of the Philharmonia and enjoyed watching many exciting projects, such as the Ligeti Clocks and Clouds series which took place when I was a music student. The first time I worked with the Philharmonia was when Martyns Brabbins conducted Music of Today in 2004. Martyn has conducted many of my works both here and abroad and I’m really happy to be working with the Philharmonia and Martyn and Noriko.

Interview with Dai Fujikura conducted in September 2008 by Harry Ross
"This article was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra for the world premiere performance of the Piano Concerto, which takes places on 3 February 2009 at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. For more information about the Philharmonia Orchestra, including video podcasts and to download our new free piece of composition software, the Sample Sequencer, please visit www.philharmonia.co.uk."

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