Dai Fujikura: a taste of Utopia - Abi Bliss
We find out why the hcmf// featured composer’s music is like gold dust

As a child learning music in Osaka, Dai Fujikura decided that there was definitely room for improvement in the classical repertoire. A quarter-century later, he admits that the patience of his tutors must have been sorely tested by his interpretations of Mozart and others.
“I had a very strict piano teacher in Japan. She would tell me that I should play exactly what the composer wrote,” he recalls, “which is correct, and what I would say if I were teaching anybody. But for some reason I didn’t: I was just making it up, adding more rests, or cutting them. The more I made variations upon these masterpieces, the more my teacher was upset.” Eventually, his stubbornness found its own outlet. “I just decided that, if I make my own music, I can make my own rules. So that’s how I started composing music. And then I realised that composing is much more fun than practising.”

That same piano teacher may have had little inkling that her headstrong student would one day be an internationally celebrated composer, one whose work promises to be a high point of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and whose prizes include the Royal Philharmonic Society Award and hcmf//’s own Young Composer Award. But she can at least take credit for providing young Fujikura with one piece which struck a chord with his inquisitive approach to instrumentation: György Kurtág’s Játékok [Games] – “the one which you play with fists and nails. At the time I thought it was fun to learn, but now I think it was quite a revolutionary choice for a piano teacher in a little Japanese suburb,” he says.

Another source of inspiration came a year later in the form of Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps, loaned to him by a downstairs neighbour who he went to for English lessons. But when Fujikura moved to the UK at the age of 15 to study music, it was the cinema screen rather than the concert hall that was calling to him. “I loved soundtracks, especially the horror movies,” he recalls. “Not that I’m a big fan of horror but I loved the music because horror is the only genre typically where the composer uses extended techniques.”
Yet the film industry proved elusive. “When I was in music college, I did everything I could to be a film music composer. I even went to an interview with a film music composer in London who was looking for an assistant. At that time I’d just written an orchestral work which had won a competition, which meant that I had a recording of it. I brought that to the interview and this composer said, ‘Why are you here? You should go home and do this kind of music and not be my coffee boy.’”

It’s arguable that, free from the constraints that would be placed upon him by director, producer and studio, Fujikura has been more able to compose music as richly atmospheric as those soundtracks were to his teenage ears. His 2008 piece Secret Forest summoned up a chorus of birdsong and insect sounds in an idealised woodland setting that wouldn’t trigger his allergies as a real one would, whilst 2009’s Phantom Splinter, part of New York ensemble ICE’s concert on Friday 22 November, combines instruments with live electronics to shower audiences with a lush multiphonic monsoon. Both are professedly utopian imaginings.
“Maybe it’s a little too near to self-psychoanalysis, but perhaps because I was prevented from becoming a film music composer, in order to make the world that I wanted to live in, the only way that I could do that was to become a composer,” he muses. “So trying to create the forest and the rain that I wanted to be surrounded by, it’s a natural thing for me to do.”

Are his creations utopian in the word’s original sense – that of ‘no-place’? “Well, for me, utopia doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist, at least I as a listener can live there whilst the piece is being played.” He adds, “I’m a very practical person, so I can’t see any benefit to trying to control the world around me. But at the same time, in my music, I can.”

Fujikura’s friendship with ICE is longstanding and for ice, featured in the same concert, he indulged musicians’ wishes to play some of their lesser used instruments, writing parts for dulcimer, kalimba and a variety of handheld percussion – sourced, he says, from “a dodgy-looking shop in Camden Town”. The guitar part is played with the hands reversed, to produce an effect “like little ice cubes scraping each other”; Fujikura wanted the piece to evoke an impression of “gold dust, or the dust of the ice floating towards you. I hope the audience will be looking around, checking out each fragment of the dust.”

Despite his early leanings towards cinema, he explains, his music is as much a tactile experience: “I am very interested in states of texture and their transition; how does a solid become liquid? Like melted chocolate: we all know what it’s like, but when it’s actually melting, it’s quite sexy, quite beautiful. I very much like my music to trigger all the human senses: not just hard and soft, but hot and sour and sweet...what does it taste like if you eat it? If I write a texture, what is it like if you put that against your cheek? Is it cold? Is it like concrete, or like brick? Music covers everything, so why be just visual?”

Oslo Sinfonietta’s concert on Saturday 23 November brings to hcmf// the world premiere of Fujikura’s second piano concerto, Diamond Dust, and with it another fascination: the apparently effortless harmony of the swarm. “There are lots of pitches in my pieces, but somehow they are not all over the place,” he says. “We don’t look at a flock of birds and think they are flying according to rigid rules. We think they are flying beautifully and freely; yet they are not all over the place. That’s a mysterious and beautiful thing.”

In Diamond Dust, a bottom A played on the piano triggers a swarm-like response from the ensemble. “The ensemble acts as if it is the resonance and harmonic field of what the piano is playing, but in a distorted way. You don’t hear the actual harmonicities of A. And then that resonance is distorted and goes shooting up the harmonic field, and then they hover, and while they’re hovering, the texture comes together, phrases of the melody start swimming or flying, and then come back to the piano.”

And in an era when pianists are just as likely to be up to their elbows in the instrument’s innards as sitting at the keyboard, on this occasion Fujikura’s former teacher would have nothing to worry about. “When I go to festivals and I see pianists reaching inside the piano, I think, ‘Of course, I am at a contemporary music festival!’ There’s nothing wrong with it, but I’ve seen it millions of times and it’s nice to have a break from it,” he laughs. “Through tricking the resonance in this way, I’m trying to make the piano sound interesting just through playing it.”

ICE: Fujikura takes places on Friday 22 November and Oslo Sinfonietta perform Diamond Dust on Saturday 23 November.

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