Global Soundscapes Festival
Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra presents
Global Soundscapes Festival
When the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra was formed in 2000 under founding artistic director Moshe Denburg its stated mission was “to to act as a forum for the creation of a new musical art form, one in which all of Canada’s resident cultures can take part.” In the years since, VICO has, through composition, performance and educational outreach to both music professionals and the general public, served as a voice for Canadian composers and musicians of diverse backgrounds, fostering the creation of musical works that fuse and transcend cultural traditions.
One of the components of the VICO season is the Global Soundscapes Festival, a showcase of music and musicians from around the global – mixing and matching cultures to great effect. At this year’s festival, the focus is on Japan, with international guests Naomi Sato (sho), Harrie Starreveld (shakuhachi), Miyama McQueen-Tokita (koto), and Yuji Nakagawa (sarangi), among others.
One highlight of the festival is the presentation of Debris, a new mini-opera by Rita Ueda, inspired by the 2011 tsunami and the debris that washed up along the west coast of North America. Debris will be performed twice, once in Ucluelet on June 1, and again at the festival opening concert on June 5.
I spoke to Rita Ueda by email during rehearsals for Debris.
Bulletin Interview | Rita Ueda
I moved from Hakodate to Vancouver with my parents and brother when I was seven. The Seikan tunnel and shinkansen had not been built at the time, so the trip from Hakodate to Tokyo took three days via ferry and steam train. Once in Tokyo, we applied to immigrate to many countries in South America, but we were turned down everywhere. We were staying at a hotel near the Canadian Embassy, so we stopped by there on our way back to Hakodate… we were on a plane to Canada three days later!
Did you come from an artistic family? Where did your love of music come from?
My mother was an opera singer, and she had boxes and boxes of scores and recordings. We attended many concerts in Vancouver and around the world.
How did you get started playing music – and what instruments do you play?
I started out with two pianos in my room as a small child in Hakodate. One piano was a well-maintained ‘good’ piano for playing normal classical music. The other one was a broken-down piano with the front cover missing so the strings and hammers were exposed. I improvised for hours every day on this piano. I did not have piano lessons until years later. I started out as a flute player (a bad one), and I can also play piano, saxophone, electric organ and the viola (all very badly).
Composition has always fascinated me. So many musicians don’t compose and are happy to play other people’s music, yet it seems to me that composing is the ultimate expression of musical creativity. When and how did you discover that composition was a path you wanted to follow?
I have been a composer for as long as I can remember. I have never been interested in anything else. I began my music lessons as a composer, and my instrumental lessons were for the purpose of improving my skills as a composer.
My very first teacher in the 60s (I was about three to six) was about 95 years older than me. He had studied with Helmholtz in the 1880s, and he had met Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I only remember him vaguely, and sadly, I do not remember his name. We spent most of our time improvising and making graphic notation scores. He convinced my parents to take me to Sapporo to see a contemporary music show with American composers that included Steve Reich, John Cage and Earle Brown.
The lessons abruptly ended when I was asked to play the piano in my school. I auditioned with a classical piece, but the teacher told me I can play anything I wanted at the show. So, I played one of my improv pieces… my parents and grandparents in the audience were not happy.
How does one “learn” to be composer?
I learned to compose by composing. At first, I ‘wrote’ a lot of graphic-based improv pieces. Then I went through many different phases – classical sonatas, Baroque fugues, big band jazz orchestra, bebop, 12-tone, and electronic music.
I’m also interested in the creative process. As a composer, do ideas, or sketches appear in your head spontaneously? Or is it more business-like, in that you sit down to compose something.
That depends on the project. Sometimes an idea enters my mind and I have to write it down because I cannot get anything else done. Or, I have to work in a studio with limited time and resources. Quite often, when I work on orchestra pieces, I do not know that I even have an idea until I find myself writing it down.
Some writers write every day, as part of a life-long practice. Do you write music every day?
I do not write music every day… but when I do, I write with a vengeance! I would normally spend about 10 hours a day writing. My life is not balanced at all.
For the Global Soundscapes Festival you are premiering your new chamber opera, Debris. As I understand it, the work is based on a documentary film by the same name by John Bolton. Both works reference the 2011 tsunami that hit the Tokoku region of Japan, and the resulting debris that washed up on the west coast of North America.
I was not interested in opera until 2012 when I came across the story of an eight-year old boy in Dartmouth, NS who had inspired his whole town to send aid to the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I was so moved by the story, I created my first opera, One Thousand White Paper Cranes, for Japan. A few years later, I learned of the documentary film Debris by John Bolton about Pete Clarkson, the park ranger/artist who created the Tohoku Tsunami Memorial in Tofino. Once again, I was compelled to tell this story through opera.
For those of us not familiar with the form, what is a chamber opera?
Opera is usually a large-scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, usually lasting 2-3 hours. A chamber opera is normally written for an ensemble of less than 15 people. Debris is about 30 minutes, written for six musicians – Sarah Albu (soprano), Willy Miles-Grenzberg (baritone), Miyama McQueen-Tokita (koto/traditional Japanese singing), Naomi Sato (sho), Harrie Starreveld (shakuhachi/shinobue) and Geling Jiang (sanxian).
You’ve got a number of characters in the piece, along with some unusual instrumentation, including sho, shakuhachi, sanxian and koto. Have you composed for non-western instruments before? Where there any challenges that presented themselves?
I am normally an orchestral composer. I knew nothing about Japanese instruments, and I had never written for an intercultural ensemble until the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra commissioned me to make the Japanese-instruments-and-Western-opera version of One Thousand White Paper Cranes for Japan in 2014. It was a steep learning curve for me to learn how to compose for koto, shakuhachi and sho. Fortunately, I have excellent instrumentalist colleagues who have given me invaluable advice.
The various intercultural versions of OTWPC as well as Debris have taken me on a wild journey that required me to learn and to work with many instruments from around the world – koto, shakuhachi, shinobue, sho, taiko, sanxian, erhu, pipa, guzheng, kayageum, oud, setar, tar and santur. This is all within the last five years!
Can you give us a run-down of the piece, how it is structured and how it unfolds?
Debris opens with a koto solo with the koto player singing the story of the 2011 tsunami and how nearly 20 millions tons of buildings, furniture, cars and personal belongings have been swept away and turned into debris (for the lack of a better word). To this day, many personal items of the victims wash up on the Canadian west coast…
Pete sings about his experience as a park ranger in charge of organizing the clean-up of all the items on the beach. He wonders what would happen to his belongings once the ‘big one’ hits the West Coast. Alice then appears, voicing her anxieties about living in an expensive beach-side condo.
Throughout the work, the ghost of Mayumi (sho, a young mother who drowned in the tsunami with her five-year-old boy) wanders the beach. Mayumi is a fictitious character I created based on what I saw on live news on March 11, 2011. I watched in horror as a woman and her child were swept away by the tsunami as onlookers wildly screamed. I have not been able to track down this news footage, but I still see it once in a while in my dreams.
In Debris, I tried to tell a Canadian story about who we are as a people. I was inspired by the many displays of Canadian compassion and generosity throughout the tsunami crisis. People of Tofino and Ucluelet identified and returned many items back to their owners in Japan. The rest were treated and disposed of in a respectful fashion. Like the characters in Debris, I too wonder what would happen when the ‘big one’ hits Vancouver. What would happen to our things, and how would we want people to treat them?
The libretto is by Rodney Robertson. What was it like working with him?
Rod Robertson has been active as a Canadian poet for many years. He lived in Japan for a few years, and he is from Nova Scotia (the origin of OTWPC). Our collaboration with OTWPC was our first operatic work for both of us. We have collaborated many times since then. The Turning Point Ensemble performed our Old Man and the Sea, inspired by Hemingway’s novel, last March.
He is a great opera buff, and he has a wonderful understanding of the genre. I am very grateful to find such a creative, generous and flexible librettist!