in conversation: Mark Takeshi McGregor
You’re a bit of a wild card in this mix that is Kizuna, I think. As a musician, you’re maybe not an obvious choice to be part of a group exhibition, yet it works.
I totally agree—I think the addition of a musical element was a very original move on Beth Carter’s part, which made her invitation to be part of Kizuna all that much more attractive. In the arts, we’re always wanting to explore interdisciplinary collaborations, but it requires a leap of faith: it means working outside of your comfort zone, trusting others and getting others to trust you. So it’s rare when these things actually happen (and rarer still when they work well!).
How did you come up with the concept for Shiki?
I was initially really nervous about what my contribution would be. I wanted Kizuna to be an opportunity for me to reconnect with my heritage, but I knew I had to work actively with others in order to achieve this. I’m a performing musician, but I don’t actually compose my own music, and I wanted there to be an original musical element. So I asked a composer friend, Yota Kobayashi, to collaborate with me. Yota was born in Nagoya, Japan, but has been living in Vancouver for many years. For him, the thing he missed the most about Japan were the seasons—not so much the weather or temperature, but the sounds one associates with each season: indigenous birdsong in spring, cicadas in the summer, temple bells in the winter. Yota proposed an installation that would explore these unique sounds: essentially, a new Four Seasons (or “Shiki”), but from a Japanese perspective. Throughout this piece of music there would be the flute (recorded by me), acting as a sort of Ariadne’s Thread from one season to another. I was skeptical at first. While I knew what Yota proposed would make an effective piece of music, I wasn’t sure how this would involve my own personal connection to my Japanese heritage. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that at the core of Yota’s proposal was a desire to explore this concept of nostalgia—that inarticulate, bittersweet sensation that occurs when you flip through an old photo album, or smell certain foods. And I knew that this could be a very rich theme to explore, so I began planning out a series of paintings that would draw their inspiration not only from Yota’s music, but from family photos and photos from the museum archives, that were in some way season-specific. And so our project, Shiki, began to evolve from this.
You are primarily a musician yet you created four quite beautiful watercolours for this exhibit. Have you always done visual art? Do you see parallels between your music and your painting?
I’ve been drawing or painting since I was old enough to hold a crayon—long before I ever considered playing music. My mother was an excellent amateur painter, who loved the work of Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. She taught me how to paint, and also how to be objective and critical of my work. In the past few years, my visual art has had to make room for an increasingly busy performance schedule, so Kizuna was an incredible opportunity to revisit painting. For an entire month I painted eight to ten hours a day, which was exhilarating, but also a little weird. I mean, performing music is a highly social activity. You’re constantly around people: talking, listening, playing together, occasionally arguing . . . but there’s always a heightened level of communication. By contrast, painting is a very solitary activity, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did make me realize that twenty years of music-making has turned me into a fairly social creature, so I’m not sure if visual art is something I could embrace full-time!
You grew up hapa in North Delta, but spent quite a bit of time in Steveston, one of the main centres of the pre-war Japanese Canadian community. Did you have a sense of your Japanese-ness growing up?
My grandparents and many of my relatives lived in Steveston, so this community figured prominently in my childhood. One of the interesting things about Kizuna was that it provided me an opportunity to reexamine my childhood through a Japanese Canadian lens. I had never consciously tried to identify the “Japanese-ness” of my upbringing. It certainly wasn’t something I questioned as a kid: your childhood is your childhood. And if you had asked me, I would have said that I was raised in a predominantly western household. But as I prepared for Kizuna, I began to realize that there were many things growing up that were specific to the Japanese Canadian community in BC: my grandfather was a fisherman, my grandmother worked in the processing plant, and even my Australian-born father was a shoreworker in Steveston. Fishing played a huge role in our lives. There were other things too: my grandfather used to play shakuhachi (the Japanese bamboo flute), and there seemed to be one-eyed darumas lurking in every closet… and of course there was the food: sukiyaki dinner, manju, and tonnes of sushi (way before it was cool).
You took up the flute almost by accident but now devote yourself to it fulltime. What excites you about music?
One of the most important things that happened during my education was my exposure to what we call “new music”—essentially the music of the past century until present day, music that often challenges and makes us reassess our preconceptions of beauty. I began working with living, Canadian composers in the creation of new music, and this has been (and continues to be) a thrilling journey, and even a bit of a raison d’être for me as a performer. I mean, playing the music of Mozart is an enormously rich and rewarding thing, but you are ultimately engaged in an act of re-creation as opposed to creation—this music has existed for ages, it’s a part of our society’s fabric. As a performer, there’s often very little you can contribute to it that hasn’t already been done. But I have to say there’s something extra exciting about working with contemporary composers: you are directly assisting in the creative process, and are potentially contributing something unique and beautiful to the world that hadn’t existed before. There’s something very vital about this, and something that (I think) needs to be done more in classical music. As far as Kizuna is concerned, my previous collaboration with composers was of particular importance, as it was through this association that I became acquainted with Yota.
What was it like doing the research for this piece, delving into the archives?
The archives were fascinating. I was impressed by how much I recognized from my own childhood, and also by how much there was that, for me, was entirely new: Hanafuda playing cards, for example, which I thought were fantastically beautiful. There’s also an impressive assortment of traditional Japanese musical instruments, including a shakuhachi (which actually made its way into the Shiki display). But I was primarily interested in photographs, as these would form the basis of the paintings that I was to create for the exhibit. Most of the photos I selected were “season-specific”—they may have evoked a particular holiday, such as Koinobori, or an historical event, like the Powell Street Riot of 1907. There were pictures of internment camps or Steveston during various times of the year—I found photos of the camps in winter to be particularly striking. These photos would inform my paintings in some way or another: sometimes it was a particular colour scheme; other times it was a pattern or texture, or some aspect of the formal composition. There were some really touching and funny photos that never ended up having any direct influence on the paintings I created, and I wish I could have included them somehow: pictures of school plays, music recitals . . . there were a series of photos of an elderly man tending his garden that I thought were really touching, but they didn’t quite work in the context of Shiki for one reason or another.
Has working on this piece changed how you see yourself or the community?
You know, it’s interesting: participating in Kizuna definitely made me feel closer to the Japanese Canadian community, but at the same time, now that I’ve scratched the surface, I’m almost overwhelmed by how much there is I still don’t know, even with regard to my own family history. I’d say Kizuna absolutely ignited my interest in the Japanese Canadian community, and instilled a desire to learn more. Your grandfather was an avid photographer and you used some of his photographs in this exhibit. Tell me a bit about him. My grandfather, Rintaro Hayashi, wore many hats. Before and after the internment, he was a Steveston-based fisherman. But he was also a writer: he wrote a book in 1974, called Kuroshio-no-hateni (At the End of the Japan Current), which chronicles the early Japanese-Canadian fishing industry in BC. Chapters from this book were recently translated, and it was fascinating to learn how the quiet, gentle old man I knew was, in fact, a passionate humanitarian who campaigned for Japanese Canadian rights. To top it off, he was also a swordsman! He was an 8-Dan kendo instructor at the Steveston Martial Arts Centre for many years—so, as you can imagine, rather large boots to fill. Anyhow, his photos, along with those from the museum archives, are the principle inspiration for the paintings of Shiki. Grandpa took literally thousands of photos, and it was quite emotional going through them again after so many years (it also made me realize that I had truly appalling fashion sense in the 80’s. But I suppose we all did).
Shizu Hayashi worked with you on this project – what was her role in the proceedings?
Shizu Hayashi is my aunt, and my primary link (since the death of my mother) to my Japanese Canadian heritage. Throughout the preparation for Kizuna, she was someone who could fill in the blanks, sharpen hazy memories and recount vividly family events and anecdotes (and I had forgotten how much I love the art of storytelling!). At any rate, Shizu was of monumental importance when going through the family photos: towards the end of his life my Grandpa became a tad eccentric, and reorganized his photos (which are contained in dozens of albums) into a seemingly random order—which I’m sure made perfect sense to him. But to the average viewer these albums no longer have any discernible chronological flow. Fortunately my aunt’s knowledge of the Hayashi family tree could untangle and decipher any of my grandfather’s anachronisms: she could put names to faces and places, and could even deduce the year a photo was taken. I’d seriously still be going through those albums if it wasn’t for her.
The soundscape was created by Yota Kobayashi, a Japanese electroacoustic composer. What was the process like, working with him? Can you describe the piece for readers?
I had already collaborated with Yota on many occasions before Kizuna. He’s someone I already felt extremely comfortable working with and could trust implicitly, so he seemed a natural choice for this project. Yota is a phenomenally gifted composer who specializes in electroacoustic music. His pieces are prerecorded and often quite abstract, but the listener never feels lost, because all the sounds Yota uses are taken from the world around us: the wind blowing through trees, traffic, rain… what he does isn’t remotely conventional, but it’s extremely beautiful. For Shiki, Yota took prerecorded sounds that he associated with Japan, and assembled them into four movements: Spring, which features the birdsong of Uguisu and the Japanese cuckoo; Summer, with fireworks and cicadas; Autumn, a thunderstorm; and Winter, which has temple gongs that sound at the end of the year to suppress worldly desires. Throughout this, the flute (which was recorded by me) acts as a bit of a tour guide, taking the listener from one season to the next. Other times, it is evoking birdsong, creating a sort of dialogue with the real recorded birdcalls, or playing folk songs. Winter is my favourite, because the flute embodies the worldly desires that are subsequently subdued by the gongs. But the overall effect of Shiki is quite meditative and reflective. I’m surprised by how many people have said they resonate with the music, even those who have never been to Japan. So I think we managed to create something that strikes a universal chord (no music pun intended!).
What do you take away from this project on a personal level?
Kizuna kindled my enthusiasm for other artistic practices. Lately I find myself going to the theatre more, to modern dance, to art galleries. Also, having the opportunity to meet with Natalie, Miyuki and Greg has made me want to explore inter-artistic collaboration more. They say opera is the ultimate synthesis of all the arts, and I agree: if you’re living in Europe in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. I think we have the resources and talent to create something entirely new, something that speaks directly to us, while still honouring our past. And I think once we discover the recipe for this new multi-art form, we’ll kick opera’s ass.
Mark Takeshi McGregor and Yota Kobayashi are generously offering a recording of SHIKI, their sound installation created for the KIZUNA.
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