This October, award-winning composer and educator Koji Nakano will be a visiting faculty member at Scripps College. Recipient of the Erma Taylor O’Brien Distinguished Visiting Professorship, Nakano will present lectures and workshops during his two-week stay as well as attend the premiere of his latest work, Imagined Sceneries, composed for Scripps and Pomona faculty and students. Imagined Sceneries was co-commissioned as part of the Japanese Noh theater festival by Associate Professor of Music Anne Harley and Isabella Ramos ’17.
Nakano currently lives in the United States and Asia. He earned his bachelor’s degree in composition with distinction and his master’s degree in composition with academic honors and distinction from the New England Conservatory of Music. He later studied at the Royal Conservatory of Hague as the Japanese Government Overseas Study Program Artist and received his PhD in composition from the University of California, San Diego. Nakano has composed more than 70 works and won dozens of awards, including the S&R Washington Award Grand Prize in 2008, which is given to leading solo caliber performing and visual artists in the world; Nakano was the first composer to be so honored. He also cofounded the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection to create new music by commissioning rising composers for the world stage. The Office of Marketing and Communications recently spoke with Nakano about his work.
Andrew Nguy: How did you come to be involved in the Noh festival at Scripps?
Koji Nakano: I’ve known Professor Harley since 2011. I had a project at Cal State San Bernardino, and my colleague Stacey Fraser, who is also going to sing in Imagined Sceneries, invited Anne to participate. Last year I met Anne in Guangxi, China, during the 2015 China-ASEAN Music Week, where we talked about the Noh festival project, and she invited me to contribute a work.
AN: How long did it take you to compose Imagined Sceneries?
KN: The work took me four weeks to compose, but I had been imagining the piece for about 10 months before that. I based Imagined Sceneries on the novel, The Tale of Genji [c. 1021], by Murasaki Shikibu, which is considered by many to be the oldest novel in the world. There are 54 volumes available now, but scholars believe that at one point there were 60 volumes in total. The oldest existing handwritten copy of the story dates to the 13th century, so there are many mysteries about the author and questions about the authenticity of the volumes, which were passed down by hand copying from century to century.
Composing the work was another challenge, because I’ve known the narrative as a love story since I was a kid. It’s a famous tale and has been retold in many different media, including the modern novel, TV drama, film, and animation, but they usually focus on the romantic aspects—how Genji has multiple love affairs. I didn’t want to share this kind of story, because it’s not my artistic interest and far from my reality, so I had to find another way to connect to the audience. I shared a different story with new insights into the rich tapestry of Japanese culture from the past to present.
AN: Were there other ideas that influenced Imagined Sceneries?
KN: Anne challenged me to collaborate with other Claremont colleges participating in the Noh festival. She asked, “Can you do something with art history and Scripps’ rich collection of Japanese prints?” and then, “Can you reflect on the environment?” and then, “Is there a way to incorporate Noh theatre?” because combining these disciplines would invite more students into the project—not only music majors. So, I thought about these different components, which also shaped the music. I tried to present different aspects of Japanese culture and sensibility—exploring the relationship among the people, nature, and the modern issue of how these environments changed over time.
AN: You prerecorded sounds to use in this piece. What did you record, and why?
KN: In The Tale of Genji, Kyoto is where the story happens most of the time. I visited Kyoto for three days, and each day I visited different sites that are mentioned in the story. Some are very far from the center of Kyoto, and people have almost forgotten about them. Kiyomizu dera (清水寺) is still one of the most well-known sights in Japan that appears in the story. Some of the other locations don’t exist anymore, were relocated, or became less-known places for visitors as compared to when the story was written. When I visited these sites, I recorded audio of [the various sounds].
AN: When the audience in Claremont hears your piece, what should they pay attention to, in particular?
KN: For the premiere, we will display nine ukiyo-e [prints from 17th-century Japan] from Scripps’ Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, so the audience can focus visually on those images. But there will be many things to focus on in the music as well.
For example, in Japanese culture, we enjoy insect sounds—suzumushi (鈴虫). When I was a child, my mother would buy this insect, and we would listen to it as a soothing way to cool down from the summer heat—it’s like nature’s AC. In recent years, I have rarely seen this tradition in Japan because it has been replaced with actual air conditioning. In Japanese culture, there are still many other wonderful philosophies and bits of wisdom from our ancestors: For example, kachofugetsu (花鳥風月) means “flower, bird, wind, and moon.” Each of these four elements represents a beauty typical of one of the four seasons—they are commonly used as subjects in traditional Japanese arts like haiku and calligraphy. Some say that we develop more appreciation for the elements flower, bird, wind, and moon, in this particular order, as we grow older. With Imagined Sceneries, I hope to share some of these unique aspects of my culture with the audience.
I’m also interested in exploring the image of women in the Heian period. I am familiar with the historical and political position of women at that time and the ways in which they sought financial and social stability, which one can read about in The Tale of Genji. But I’m also interested in their inner beauty and strength as well as their connection with nature. This interest is especially apparent in the final movement, Hashihime [Bridge Princess, a character in Genji]. In this last section, I reflect on women’s spiritual journey and liberation from their own surroundings by connecting with a higher truth—my own interpretation of the Genji story.
AN: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KN: I’d like to thank Scripps College for inviting me to present this project. It has been challenging, and it has taken me on many different journeys. My collaboration with Scripps has enriched and inspired me so much, from my initial research on The Tale of Genji to my trip to Kyoto to the work of composing Imagined Sceneries. I’m also very thankful to Anne Harley, Isabella Ramos ’17, Scripps art history professors Bruce Coats and Mary MacNaughton, and the faculty, students, and guest performers who have contributed to this project and are currently working so hard to prepare for the world premiere. This is all so exciting. This collaboration just happened naturally, and that is beauty to me.
For more information on the Noh Theater festival, click here.