Review by Paweł Jędrzejko from „Presto”, 27.09.2020
A VERMILION CALM: THE "GENETIC" EXPERIMENT BY KEIKO FUJIIE
On September 19th 2020, at the Center for Performing Arts Piekarnia in Wrocław, the premiere of an extraordinary opera was held - minimalistic, but full of existential metaphors, by the excellent Keiko Fujiie, in an extremely sensitive, refined direction by Pia Partum, to whom Japanese composer gave full creative freedom, which was perfectly executed.
“A Vermilion Calm" - this is how the title of this two-act, consisting of a prologue, twelve arias and an epilogue work - combines the traditions of the East and the West in all harmonious compositional layers: musical, textual, staging and visual. The effect of this synergy is a unique vision of the human condition, entangled in the variability of samsara, but at the same time conditioned by an ego-free, indescribable, extra-linguistic - nirvana.
Everything is delicate here. Classical guitar in the hands of Kanahi Yamashita enters into a subtle dialogue with the cello of the
great Jan Skopowski, to intertwine unexpectedly with the hypnotic sounds of Retsuzan Tanabi's
shakuhachi flute, and then submit
to the soft harmony of the voices of Bogadan Makal, Łukasz Klimczak, Jakub Michalski and Tomasz Łykowski, and the whole is complemented by the versatile piano by Justyna Skoczek. It is in this musical context that two leading voices are composed: the warm mezzo-soprano of the perfect Urszula Kryger and the extraordinary, moving countertenor Jan Jakub Monowid, who played the role of the Poet, and who, as Keiko Fujiie points out, was the source of inspiration for the final version of the work.
When we were invited (together with her husband, legendary guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita and daughter Kanahi Yamashita - reviewer's note) to participate in the international Silesian Guitar Autumn festival in Tychy, we took the opportunity to visit the NOSPR in Katowice - says the composer. That evening, the invited guest Jan Jakub Monowid, whose voice delighted Fujiie, performed with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. - His countertenor is different from all the others - says the artist. The singer impresses with his "vast scale", but although he sings high, his voice remains "absolutely" masculine "". - Since then - continues the artist - I visited Warsaw twice to participate in opera performances in which the singer performed. I wanted to listen carefully to the timbre of his voice and get to know his technique, because in my mind the idea of a complete revision of the opera that was being created at that time was already budding, with the idea that it was Jan Jakub Monowid who would sing the main role in it. The initial version of the opera, for which I created the libretto myself in Japanese, included parts for tenor, guitar and shakuhachi, but after listening to the Polish singer, I suddenly realized that his voice suited the role of the Poet perfectly. And with this in mind, I changed the entire composition.
In fact, Fujiie's intuition works perfectly well. Monowid's voice is a medium by which the composer manages to introduce an element of transgression into the work. Aware that the parts sung today by countertenors in classical music were often performed by castrates and that the scale of the countertenor is similar to that of "traditional" female sopranos, Fujiie herself emphasizes that this voice is to "bring to mind youth - but at the same time cross the boundaries of fossilized category ". - My story - explains the creator - suggests a kind of marriage between what is human and what is inhuman, but on a slightly more down-to-earth level. It shows the one-sided nature of love, the blindness in relationships, delusions and daydreams, and finally the loss of power. It is a story about the unstable, ever changing borders of sea and land, humanity and wild nature, masculinity and femininity.
These subtle moments of transcendence are clearly noticed by the Poet, whose sensitivity allows him to see and understand more than others do. It guides us through youth, love, maturation, fruiting and death (solar eclipse), which becomes the vermillion gate of the Shinto temple: a place of meditation and insight into the crevices of being, undulating like wind- moved, discontinuous sheets of material, constituting the mise-en-scene of the whole opera. The Poet's feet, buried in the icy sand of a winter beach, feel the force of gravity; his gaze, however, drowns in the eyes of the girl walking on the beach - his gaze breaks away from the cold "here and now", from the silent, non-interpretable being. However, the Girl – just like all the actors of this philosophical production - is a screen for the Poet's projection. Dressed in white, she does not stand out from the white background herself: she is "noticeable" only moments at a time. Though she stands in full light, she disappears whenever the blacks and grayscale of the film projected hide her completely.
The Poet's eyesight, however, gives her distinctive features, although it also, paradoxically,
deprives her of her autonomy. The Girl, falls asleep with a touching lullaby, although visible to us, disappears again –this time in the arms of the Poet.
The metaphysical anesthetic of love poetry soon ceases to work: naïve youth yields to maturity measured by the number of scarred wounds. The Girl is inevitably maturing; symbolically - her once white skirt turns red. As a woman, she achieves the perfection of a fruit which, hiding the seed of another cycle, must die for reality to continue. Now fully mature, she spreads her wings and transforms in front of the eyes of the Poet into something that she has always been or has never been: her "dim colors" give way to the expressive color of a beautiful vermillion warbler. Slowly the Poet begins to understand Mother Nature's singing and echoes her in a moving, no longer human duet. The longing "olekuleleku" is not a "sung word", it is a transcendent understanding without words, or perhaps beyond words. A beautiful bird swims slowly over the mirror-smooth surface of a calm sea, farther and farther, to the point where there is no turning back. It blends into a new, vermillion dawn, in which it dissolves completely when the sun, free from the moon's shadow, floods the world red. Then the scales finally fall from the Poet's eyes.
Poetic transformations are accompanied by a subtle harmony of the a cappella quartet inspired by the music of the Polish Banana Boat band. The Guardians of the North, South, East and West, like the Greek choir beyond time, take on different roles - but they come and go directed by the will of the Poet. The question of Poet’s agency is clearly visible in the confrontation of his "movement" with the "stillness" of the constantly present on stage, frozen in the lotus position, meditating elemental master Retsuzana Tanabi, who will remind us of himself just standing up once. Then we notice that it is his "non-European" shakuhachi that opens the cracks of reality: it is the wind awakened by him that blows away the seemingly uniform screen of the stage reality on which our projections undulate, but behind which lies an unnamed void. It is in this form that the great circle of nirvana and samsara closes - but it is also he who, constantly escapes our "western" attention due to his permanence. The poet does not notice him for a long time. Mother Nature has been working with him from the very beginning - and all voices and instruments resonate with him.
Of course, this reading of Keiko Fujiie's opera is also purely a private projection - but a
projection inspired partly by the opera's libretto, which was created in collaboration with the the American instrumentalist and music teacher Laurie Randolph
living in Berlin. Keiko Fujiie says about this collaboration as follows: - First, I translated my Japanese libretto into English myself, supplementing the opera
with a few arias and an epilogue, for which I wrote the lyrics in English straight away (therefore there are no Japanese versions of these pieces). Then I asked
Laurie to make a linguistic proofreading of my translation. But, as is usual with native speakers, they would like to improve everything! That is why working with
a libretto and reaching consensus took both of us almost three years.
However, in the course of these activities, we both understood how differently we think and how differently we interpret reality when looking at it through the prism of our native languages.
The difference, to our mutual surprise, turned out to be huge. But we already had the melodies to which the language of the libretto had to be adapted to be sung. Naturally, in many places I had to modify the melody to suit Laurie's requirements and the character of the text.
Eventually my hero (Poet) became a kind of hybrid: his features are Western, but his DNA is still Japanese.
A Vermilion Calm, Keiko Fujiie's "genetic" experiment, was ultimately all too successful. Going beyond the boundaries set by the inherited and encoded in language system of values embedded in Buddhism, Shinto, Tao and Confucianism of Japanese culture, but at the same time breaking the expectations of a European music lover rooted in Greco- Judeo-Christian categories of Western culture, the Japanese composer confirms that she is a world-class composer. It is impossible to crush Fujiie's work into the narrow framework of a single culture, a binary understanding of gender or an anthropocentric system of values. However, one can - and should - submit to its meditative silence, in order to see in a deep peace of mind what is most important to each of us.
A chance meeting in Berlin was the spark for a new opera melding influences from rap, West African traditions and classical music, writes Clair MacDougall in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou.
Japanese composer Keiko Fujiie balances her electric piano on a wooden bench, places her fingers on the keys and plays the opening theme of her opera.
Then Maboudou Sanou, a Burkinabè griot (traditional story-teller and musician) and Fujiie's main collaborator, echoes the melody in a raw baritone:
"Here or there, it is the same earth, but my heart is elsewhere, each morning I am brought back to my homeland," he sings in French, the official language of Burkina Faso.
Next, Sanou blows into a long, red flute - as other musicians strike the wooden bars of a xylophone (balafon) and brush a bow across a one-stringed violin (roudga).
With the premiere for the opera's first act less than a week away, the group has been rehearsing every day of the past month in the modest concrete house where award-winning classical composer Fujiie lives with Sanou and his family on the outskirts of Ouagadougou.
The opera is called Là-bas ou Ici - meaning "There or Here" - and brings together an unlikely group: Exiled poet and rapper Moyi Mbourangon from Congo-Brazzaville wrote the words, a family of Burkinabè griots interpret the music, and also on board is a French artist-turned-videographer from Berlin.
The story is based on a novel in progress by Mbourangon - rap alias Martial Pa'nucci - charting the letters between a son and his mother, and echoes Mbourangon's own story of exile.
"Here or there, it is the same earth - but my heart is elsewhere, each morning I am brought back to my homeland," reads one line.
He now lives in Ouagadougou, having left Congo-Brazzaville after opposing the president's extended stay in power.
Fujiie hopes to complete the mostly self-funded work in two years and then take it on tour around Africa and Europe.
World-renowned Burkinabè architect Francis Keré is set to build an opera house in his home country, where the Fujiie's ensemble also hopes to stage There or Here.
The production was sparked by a chance meeting between the architect and composer in Berlin, where her adult children are studying music, when she heard that the architect was looking for musicians to collaborate with.
Fujiie then moved to Ouagadougou last year and built a home in which she and Sanou's family could live, and the other musicians - Boureima Sanou and Ibrahim Dembélé - could rehearse without raising the neighbours' ire.
Accustomed to handing out scores to musicians who would rehearse in private and come ready to perform, Fujiie initially found the improvisational style of West Africa's rich musical traditions frustrating.
However, she soon began to see parallels with Japanese musical traditions, such as Gagaku, which is passed down through families and has been played in royal courts and Shinto religious ceremonies.
"When I came here and saw these griot families, I felt a connection," Fujiie tells the BBC.
The three performers Fujiie has worked with - Maboudou Sanou, Boureima Sanou and Ibrahim Dembélé - all hail from the same family in Nouna, a town in western Burkina Faso, and are multi-instrumentalists who sing and dance.
It is an oral tradition passed down through the generations that prioritises improvisation over the reading and memorisation found in the Western classical tradition.
"When you are inspired, you improvise, you make something, and when you listen you are surprised," Sanou tells the BBC.
He says has sometimes struggled to "follow the text step-by-step" in the same way for each and every performance of There or Here.
And while he still values his own rich musical tradition that dates back generations, he believes the "strategic" approach will open doors for collaboration with other musicians around the world.
"Here I have to explain it orally, so it takes a lot of time, but it is also a lot of fun for me because in the process I get inspired by their reactions sometimes," Fujiie says.
"So I change, change, change, and I've almost stopped writing - so everything is in the memory. They freely improvise. If I asked the same things of classical players in Europe they wouldn't [do it] - they don't like it."
Fujiie hopes it will tour local towns like Nouna and challenge the elitism of the artform.
A recent performance saw members of Sanou's community sitting with their children on mats, as masked diplomats and expats looked on from tables and chairs.
Fujiie and Sanou dressed in matching brown and yellow, as dancers and actors wearing black and white moved around a projection screen flooded with vivid colours and images of Burkina Faso.
The opera may still be years from completion, but for the moment Fujiie's greatest joy is hearing the women and children sing along and dance as they rehearse.
"I didn't come to introduce European opera here - to the contrary - I needed to study their music, and little by little share the dream of making an opera with them."
All photos subject to copyright.
Program Notes of Pieces
LITTLE GIRLSʼ BEAUTIFUL LIVES
The twelve pieces of music here are the sketches of everyday lives, the playful moments and dreams of little girls. More precisely, they express the transient moment between young childhood and adolescence. They reflect the images of my daughters and also the misty memory of my own past. I may have spent those days differently if I had the chance. These fantasies naturally enter the work. Of course, the pieces are not solely dedicated to my personal memories and wishes. I believe that each girl is given and grows with a sacred and simple flower of love. The flowers of the girls of the age I depict here have not yet been sullied or distorted by the contempt that surrounds them and reciprocal irritation. Through the pieces here, I tried to describe the beauty of the flowers and also the linkage the girls possess with ʻthe unlimitedʼ. My wish is that they will grow into perfection with increasing depth under a protective care. I pray for this. The girlsʼ delightful surprise when they find simple and modest flowers in roadside grasses. Their sudden silence in sadness when they find the dead butterflies and cicadas with beautiful wings at the end of summer. The moment when their countenance lights up with joy when discovering the round and green fruits among the green thick foliage above them. The girls have no contempt in the quotidian and they have the sense of finding such humble beauty. This is connected with ʻthe unlimitedʼ. It is plaintive that because of the sensitivity their heart often suffers. Our civilization has become increasingly masculine because of the development of science and imbalanced because of the relentless pursuit of power and monetary riches. Civilization has become destructive. It is inevitable that the girlsʼ sadness prolongs in this environment. However, if there is a way in which they can live without numbing, destroying their lively feelings they will add elegance and serenity to the barren landscape. The sadness of the little girls, their silent cries become thin, needle streaks of rain. This will be absorbed even into the armored rational heart of adults.
1． Morning with Roosters Dawn. The little girls wake to the sound of the roosters. They feed them and chase them, round and round, and then get chased themselves!
2． Floating Paper Boats on the River This piece was inspired by a poem by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. One afternoon, a little paper boat floats down a river. A little girlʼs name is written on it. In the evening, she sees, in a dream, the boat floating slowly down the Milky Way.
3． Bicycling to the Wizard's Wood The bicycle. A commonplace thing for adults but a shining treasure that brims with delight for many children. I am sure you would like to take your bicycle into the deep wood. What secrets will the woods reveal?
4． Raindrops Recolour the Landscape Raindrops trickle and curl across the windowpane. Look! What joy! They fashion vivid colours on dry stones, roads, the ground and leaves.
5． Fireworks in a Starry Sky Science has wrought knowledge and information. However, this does diminish the feeling of mystery that stars evoke. Do not fireworks signal the presence of magical power more than an elaborate conjuring trick?
6． Birds Peck-Pecking on Branches The sound of birds peck-pecking together. Their nimble joy delights us but what an awful noise for the worms under the tree.
7． An Annamese Bowl with Leisurely Goldfish Well, here is a goldfish bowl. As in Vietnamese houses, a few pop-eyed goldfish swim leisurely in a large blue and white porcelain bowl.
8． A Sad Melody at Twilight This describes the sad longing that strikes the heart.
9. Daughter of the Mountain This refers the daughter of mountain people in the Russian story ʻStone Flowerʼ. She may not be a human maid. Perhaps a malachite nymph?
10．Children Chasing Birds Children are chasing the birds who are picking and pecking at the scraps of rice and corn in the field. This was an important work for farmers. The movements of the body involved in the work are atmospheric and evoke a sense of fun. Thus, it has been become the motif of much artistic performance. This piece of music presents the image of children copying the movements. The main melody is made by Kanahi, our second daughter.
11． New Year's Eve in a Far-off Land The writing of this was prompted by Alfred Tennysonʼs poem “New Yearʼs Eve” in the Victorian era in England; a scene from a dream and a fairy-tale world, detached from reality, bringing the feeling of distance: “In a Far-off Land”.
12. Lullaby of the Waves The waves come and go. They are a lullaby. My second son Namifu (ʻWave Boyʼ) was sung a lullaby by Koyumi, my eldest daughter.
© KEIKO FUJIIE
translated by JOHN MAHER
©Keiko Fujiie (all rights reserved)