Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves: a Festival Celebrating Japanese Music in Canada
In 2000, the Sacred Music Festival featured the world premiere of a piece called Rapprochements (Reconciliations) for Inter-Cultural Orchestra. The composition, by local musician and composer Moshe Denburg, was written for a mixed choir and an ensemble of 28 instrumentalists from a variety of musical and cultural backgrounds.
The performance gave birth to the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, one of the first concert orchestras in the world devoted specifically to performing new intercultural music on a large scale. Described as “the United Nations of music” (CBC Radio) and “music that sounds like Vancouver looks” (Georgia Straight), VICO features many of Vancouver finest musicians and is currently the only professional ensemble of its kind in Canada, and one of only a handful in the world.
The VICO brings together musicians and composers from many cultural and artistic communities in the Lower Mainland, including Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Indian, Persian and Middle Eastern, Latin and South American, Vietnamese, African, North American and European. Since its inaugural performance in 2001, the VICO has commissioned and performed over 35 new intercultural pieces by Canadian composers such as Elliot Weisgarber, Jin Zhang, Dr. Stephen Chatman, Mark Armanini, Farshid Samandari, Trichy Sankaran, Michael O’Neill, John Oliver, Grace Lee, Neil Weisensel, Joseph “Pepe” Danza, Moshe Denburg, Coat Cooke, Ed Henderson, Larry Nickel, Rita Ueda and Niel Golden.
Under co-artistic directors Moshe Denburg and Mark Armanini the ensemble seeks to broaden our understanding of what music is, creating in the process what they call “the Canadian music of the future.”
In concert the ensemble features 15-25 musicians playing instruments from all over the world). The orchestra also presents a free public educational series (Music of the Whole World), programs for elementary and high school students, professional development workshops for musicians and composers, and a variety of other events.
In recognition of its work in the field of inter-cultural understanding and cooperation, VICO was a recipient of the 2012 City of Vancouver Cultural Harmony Award.
From May 7 to 19 the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra will present Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves, a mini-festival of Japanese music in Canada.
Featuring guest artists Tsunao Yamai (renowned noh performer) & Naomi Sato (virtuoso sho player) from Japan, the festival will be held at various venues in Vancouver, Burnaby and Victoria.
The Bulletin talked to VICO co-artistic director Moshe Denburg along with Kozue Matsumoto (koto), Yuriko Nariya (koto), and Minoru Yamamoto (shakuhachi). The three Japanese-born musicians, now living and performing in Canada, will be taking part in various elements of the festival.
In conversation with Moshe Denburg, Kozue Matsumoto, Yuriko Nariya + Minoru Yamamoto
To paraphrase a paragraph from VIVO’s website, VICO’s mandate is to facilitate a new musical art form, one that welcomes and embraces all of Canada’s resident cultures. This is a pretty big and open-ended task. How do you choose what programs to focus on at any given time?
Moshe Denburg It all depends on the culture being featured. The principle at work is that everyone starts with their own cultural orientation, and is seeking out inspiration from other cultures. There is always a combination of at least two cultures on any given program, but usually more represented in the instrumentation. The intercultural idea is ubiquitous, and there is no shortage of ideas out there regarding new work and new projects. We are blessed in the lower mainland with a large variety of cultures and some excellent exponents of these – Chinese, Iranian, Japanese, Indian and more. The availability of the musicians and the cultural diversity of our own milieu is a strong determinant always.
Is there a precedent for this kind of cross-cultural orchestra?
MD The idea of a large scale intercultural project, which encourages new composition, is one that has been with us since the 1960s. However, the regularizing of an orchestra, with a variable roster able to play instruments from many cultures, is not at all widespread. Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project is an example, but is not a regular orchestra as far as I can tell. We have a sister intercultural orchestra in Amsterdam, called the Atlas Ensemble, who have been active producing intercultural work, and we in fact have collaborated with them. I believe we can say, without hubris, that the VICO is the first, and still the only intercultural orchestra in Canada, and in the world, we certainly have preceded all others we know of.
Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves focuses on Japanese musical forms, from ancient to contemporary, and is billed as a celebration of Japanese music in Canada. Is it a case of presenting Japanese music on Canadian soil or is there an element of collaboration, blending Japanese and western musical idioms? If the latter, how is it manifested?
MD The blending is especially featured in the final concert on May 18. This is the essence of the intercultural project, and will bring together Japanese and Western musical idioms and instruments, and will include Chinese instruments as well. In other parts of the project we will be presenting Japanese instruments and music, by Japanese Canadian musicians. There will also be an intercultural element in these presentations, though not for large ensemble.
Kozue Matsumoto Also we attempt to blend the different genres of Japanese music, which rarely happens in Japan, especially with noble arts like noh and gagaku (the genre that sho belongs to).
VICO performs new and existing works by a wide range of composers. Is there any room for experimentation of exploration within this framework?
MD Of course there is, always. We always strive to present a combination of idioms – traditional as well as modernist. There is so much to learn from the traditions of other cultures – modes, rhythms, even tonalities – and we allow composers to explore their intercultural ideas in the context of their own cultural roots.
What are the biggest challenges of working with VICO?
MD Communication, tuning, balance and blend in the ensemble. And of course, raising enough money to put a large, well-rehearsed group on stage.
The biggest joys?
MD Learning from others, and finding beauty in unexpected ways.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but music is often called the ’universal language.’ What’s your perspective on that?
Yuriko Nariya I am not sure whether we can understand each other, but besides that, I think music is one way of expressing what you think
Minoru Yamamoto I don’t think so. When I don’t get a certain music, I don’t get it. Music is a language of a particular culture/ethnicity. I may feel like “oh there is such a music,” but I can’t say that I understand it. Music is not something shallow like “everybody can understand.” Each has its own history, and I don’t feel I understand it so easily.
KM Probably music might be easier to approach and feel that you can do it compared to languages. In this way, music is a great introduction for people to connect with each other. At the same time, music is a whole other world with different approaches and interpretations and expressions of people through sounds instead of languages. The more you develop the sense of music beyond the introduction stage, the more difficult and humble you feel to say such cliché.
What does music mean to you?
KM I was just chatting the other day about art with friends . . . art is like the page margins or blank space of life. It looks that it doesn’t produce anything and is sort of a waste of paper, but without it, it is difficult to read what is written on a sheet. The margin makes the sheet look beautiful, helps us to understand and read things smoothly, and also we can write memos on it. How much margin or what kind of margin makes you feel easy to read depends on individuals. So it is difficult to assess/evaluate what the good margin is or ultimate margin. Yet, what is for sure is that we would feel awkward if there is no margin. Probably this is one way to explain what music means to me. So you could also say that my life is surrounded by music 😉
What is the most exciting or rewarding aspect of playing with VICO?
YN To enjoy the harmony and create one art work with other performers
MY This is the first time to play with VICO, and I am looking forward to it.
KM To be able to know the top class musicians from the world in person (rather than via media) and experience their music by producing music together (rather than consuming them like buying CDs). Not many people may be fluent with English and we may not have a huge conversation, but sharing the same space and time is a way more direct way to get to know them and learn their music, like how they express rather than what they express.
Each of you brings the music of your particular culture to VICO. Do you enjoy stepping out of your comfort zone.
KM If you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point of getting together with people of different cultures? It may not be a comfortable thing to do at the beginning, but you know everyone is doing it because we share the passion to create beautiful music together, and you will know that we care more about beautiful music rather than protecting our own comfort zone. But I guess it doesn’t matter if it is with people of different cultures or with these of the same culture. I think any creative activity is always about getting out of your comfort zone.
Are you ever surprised by the results of these collaborations?
MY To me this kind of collaboration is more about enjoying the process rather than the result. Well, for example, when I do improvisation, I enjoy the performance itself. The audience may feel about it as wonderful or new, but to me, I just enjoy the music created at the moment, and it’s not about surprise.
I would imagine that there’s a requirement that each musician be fluent in reading (western) music. In bringing together so many cultures, is there ever a need to step outside that framework and learn a new vocabulary?
KM I would say yes. When I speak English, the framework of my thought is completely different from when I speak Japanese. This makes my life complicated and sometime difficult, but at the same time it makes my life richer than monolingual life. I think music is the same – having more frameworks makes the music richer. Even though this would be a super challenging and may have to wait the next generation (you know how difficult it is to learn another language and make a beautiful speech by mixing two languages unless you are born in such an environment), I would like to see this happen in the future.
Has living and performing in Canada changed how you approached your music? Has it been liberating for you as an artist (are you growing?) or are there drawbacks? Both?
YN I feel sort of free in a way; on the other hand, it makes me think what the thing is that we have to uphold as the tradition.
MY I don’t know, as I started shakuhachi after I came to Canada.
KM I am not sure as I can never know what would have happened had I stayed in Japan. One thing is that wherever I had lived and whoever I had met, I would have experienced a growth that comes with a particular situation that I would have experienced. In that way there is nothing special about Canada, about growing. Something that I miss would be the respect for tradition. I understand that Canada is a new and young country, and people do not quite understand the concept of “tradition.” It is not about following what people of the old time did. There is a careful negotiation between what people in the past did and what we do now. I miss experiencing this subtle nuance of what is old and what is new around tradition with the great masters of the art.