Interview with Kenji Oh (April 2018)
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I like singing since I was a small kid. High school choir was my first contact with an authentic music experience. This choir was very fine that I sang in national competitions. The first piece I sang there was Poulenc’s Mass in G. Eventually I became a student conductor here. Soon after I started singing in the choir, my friends and I tried to create video game (RPG). Just because I was singing in the choir, my friends asked me to do music for the game, so I started composing using a Windows 95 computer. Since then, I’ve been composing for 22 years. We didn’t even start making the game. But that I started composing then changed my life, obviously.
What were and are your main musical influences?
I went to Kyoto University of Education for 5 years (2000-2005), living in Kobe. It took 2 hours to commute. Back then I thought it was important to listen to a variety of music. I had 4 hours of listening every day. As I wanted to be a media composer, I listened to lots of movie soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and my favorite genre–choral music. (By the way, I think 90’s video game music for old consoles has special quality because of the musical limitations the consoles have.)
Similar to that, when I was living in Tokyo by myself(2005-2008), I had plenty of time in between my first job and the second. I purchased a big TV. TVs are surprisingly cheap now, but it was expensive then. It was crazy to spend most of my saving for TV when I did not have a job. Somehow I felt that it was very important. I watched 3-4 movies every day for 4-5 months. I kept the habit even after getting the second job, but maybe 1-2 movies for weekday and 2-3 for a day off. I think I developed my sense of storytelling, form, development etc. from movies. These extensive experience of listening and watching absolutely influenced and polished my ability to understand and to create art in forms that unfold over time.
Also, living in the states opened my eyes wide towards Japanese culture.
I believe Goethe’s saying “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own” is very true. The Blue Marble can be seen from a far distance from the earth.
I have mixed identity. My mother is Japanese, my father is 2.5nd-generation Chinese immigrant. (His father was first-gen, his mother was 2nd-gen immigrant) I didn’t consider myself as Japanese or Chinese (My passport was Chinese until I got Japanese citizenship at age of 23. BTW, you have to give up your original citizenship to get a Japanese one, so I had to lose my Chinese citizenship then). Even after getting my Japanese citizenship, my identity was not simply Japanese, but someone with Japanese citizenship. But I realized how much Japanese I was by living outside of Japan, born and grown in Japan, speaking the Japanese language. It is very natural for me to explore Japanese culture and express it living outside of Japan, having complexed identity.
Why did you choose to become a composer?
It was something I could express things the most comfortably.
I generally like creating. I used to be a web director and made websites, did coding. I liked painting when I was a kid, too.
I met your music with « Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura・Josetsu Horikawa », how did you compose the suite?
Giacomo told me that he wanted me to write a piece for him at the reception after my graduate recital. He told me that he liked my pieces and especially the pieces that express my Japanese background. One of them was The Garden for String Trio. I created, I call, “sawari unit” for viola and cello for the piece. So the initial idea was to create a sawari unit for the guitar for a piece with a theme of Japanese culture. After deciding a theme for the piece, the first step was trial and error to create the sawari unit. When I came across with the theme to portrait the scene from the kabuki play, I liked the idea that the people in Edo era portraited the story hundreds of years earlier in the play and I portrait the play a few hundreds of years later. This rich context allowed me to utilize any traditional elements through the history towards the future naturally as I liked, not being trapped in ideas of actual kabuki music.
Did you compose other pieces for guitar ?
I had not composed a piece for solo guitar. I have a song cycle written for male voice, flute, marimba, guitar, and cello. In this song cycle, I set 3 ancient tanka poems. (composed in 2012) But there was not any preparation for the piece. I created a sawari unit for marimba as well in 2015 for a solo piece. so now I have sawari units for Vn, Vc, Gt, Mar.
Berlioz once said that composing for classical guitar was hard to do because you first had to be a guitarist, and these words were often used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar compared to other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time these words seem not to be so important in the contemporary music’s world where guitar (either classical, acoustic, electric, midi) seems to attract a lot of attention. As a composer, do you believe that there is still something true in what Berlioz said?
Yes, I believe there is still something true. I would not be able to compose the piece without having access to the instrument. I had to make sure what I was writing was possible by trying on the instrument myself all the time. I will never ever be able to play the piece, though. I was doing so very very slowly, but still, I did play part by part super slowly. If you’re not a guitarist and you don’t do that, writing must be limited. Of course, you can write a piece with the limitation, but not with all the possibilities.
By the way, I can’t whistle, but Giacomo told me he was good at it and I decided to use this talent of his.
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
We put information of music on papers, sheets of music. Information on the sheets of music is symbolized information of the music. Lots of information are lost as being symbolized, even though we make efforts so that it loses its information as little as possible while being symbolized. Performers are to fulfill the lost information. But no one can fulfill it with exact same thing except in composer’s head. Sometimes, the fulfillment can be very close to what composer imagined. The best part is that it may be better than the imagination of the composer, and it gets other musicality in it. Sometimes, what musicality adds has so rich information. Sometime the fulfillment can’t convince composer…)
Also, we often purposely drop/give up some information and expect performers to fulfill in their way. Performers have space to express themselves in between the lines. The space between the lines vary. Maybe not so big, but for sure there is in classical music. It may be bigger in jazz, contemporary, etc.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
I’m not sure if I get your question, right, but I’ll try to explain what I think. First, errors can add something when in some context where randomness is appreciated or expected. Otherwise, an error can be good, bad, or nothing. Sometimes, we misjudge and evaluate a “good” error as “bad” when it was unexpected. I want to appreciate a “good” error as “good” that I try to open my mind wide. “Good” and “bad” vary from point to point of views, so… error can be anything, which is, I think, one of the qualities to call it an “error.” It’s like “禅問答(Zenmondou)” — meaning “a dialogue between Zen priests.”
There was kind of “error” on the score of “Yoshitsune —-“, where my writing was not clear enough. Giacomo played differently than what I was imagining. I liked his way better, so I changed it.
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
I don’t have such five discs decided, so, unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer this question. Hahaha. But thinking of the situation to be left on a desert island alone, I would like to be without them. It may be the best time to practice Zen without any distraction.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I have 3 pieces for a musical theatre work that my friend in Japan is producing in my hometown. Also, I’m studying programming to produce a sound installation type of thing in VR. VERY LONG way to go. I’m hoping to finish something simple in this year.