Dai Fujikura on his piece “Longing from afar (GAGAKU ensemble version)”

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
11 min readMay 15, 2024

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Read my interview with Dai Fujikura. He delves into the realm of tele-performance with his composition Longing from afar, crafted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic’s social distancing measures. Drawing inspiration from the challenge of creating music across physical distances, Fujikura uniquely integrates a conductor’s role into the ensemble, a departure from conventional open score compositions. Renowned for his innovative works, Fujikura’s accolades include numerous international commissions and his acclaimed opera Solaris, which premiered in Paris in 2015 and continues to captivate audiences worldwide. Text version of this interview is created by Estere Bundzēna.

Can you give some context to the piece?

It is called Longing from afar and I made this in April 2020, which was the beginning of the pandemic. Really busy and popular conductors started calling me on the phone and it was phenomenal because usually very busy conductors are never free for a phone chat, as they would be in the airport, rehearsing, in and out, conducting 3 concerts in 1 week and so on. So even with good friends, it is very difficult to get to them. So then a very good friend of mine, a great conductor — Kazuki Yamada called me from his home and he just asked me if there was anything I could do, to make music to perform over Zoom or online. At that time we were just beginning to know about Zoom and all this online business, and then also the quality back then was quite low. So what could we do?

Kazuki is a music director in many group institutions but one of them is a choir. All the singers were at home too, obviously. So this was not commissioned. I wanted to do something. I said sure, why not. So then we started to experiment and we got to version one of Longing from afar. We performed it then on Zoom and on YouTube. I was interested in how I could write music to embrace the not-togetherness because at that point all I saw were desperate acts from orchestras and musicians, how they were trying to be together online. However, that is not easy either, there are delays, bad internet connections and so on. So, how can I write music which welcomes the delay and everybody not being together?

I am the kind of composer who wants to write everything in detail. I had a composition teacher, who is a famous jazz double bassist, Daryl Runswick, who has taught me many ways of open scores and improvisations. But when I was 18–19 years old, my aim was not to be like Cage. I love Cage now but at that time, I wanted to write everything properly, precisely. So I was not listening to my teacher, but now this is 2020. I remember the teaching from my teacher who was wonderful and who I am still in touch with and maybe this is the time I can do my way of doing this. I started doing version one and version two and kept making many upgraded versions.

Since I made Longing from afar, I do not even know how many people have played it. I remember the Shakuhachi Ensemble, even multiple Shakuhachi Ensembles played. From America, it was the Percussion Ensemble, then Yokohama Sinfonietta, London Sinfonietta and Koto Ensemble and many more. The Bamberg Symphony I played together with a local recorder players of children and that was quite interesting because the conductor Jonathan Stockhammer was conducting the adults, the great orchestra and I was in charge of the kids online. This was already a year after the pandemic, so the children, like my child too, were already experts on Zoom, they knew everything, whereas with adults it was quite challenging to setup for this performance on Zoom. I think over 20 or 30 ensembles and groups have played this and this is my most performed work in the shortest period. I have to say that this was great at a horrible time of the pandemic. It was a great project for my mental capacity, because, as I have said, I am not that kind of a composer, but this forced me to write open scores, which now I write more pieces of, as well as my usual orchestral scores.

As the pandemic time went on, we thought it would end in three months, by the end of the year. But the length of the pandemic increased and more people wanted to try Longing from afar and other things. I wanted to make sure this score of Longing from afar was free to download, so if you ever want to try with your friend, you are not together because of a social distance or whatever, whichever country you are living in, you can try it. On my website, there is a link to download the PDF. I did this and then my friend, who is a sho player, approached me. Sho is a Japanese traditional instrument, a mouth organ which came to Japan well over 1000 years ago. She plays in the GAGAKU Ensemble, which is known as the world’s oldest orchestra. Meaning that the musicians get together and play one piece together, I think. Traditionally GAGAKU has no conductor. I never grew up with traditional Japanese music because I only studied Western music because I came over to Europe when I was a teenager. My first encounter with the Japanese instruments was when I heard them live in Darmstadt Germany.

But the friend that approached me, Tamami Tono, the sho player. She must have heard the series of Longing from afar and all of the versions of it. She said that the music of Longing from afar is GAGAKU music, “you just don’t know it!”. So to prove it, she gathered together the GAGAKU Ensemble with technology, which is hilarious if you think about it. You talk about traditional music from the 8th century together with headphones and microphones, YouTube, Zoom and all that stuff. They performed this piece and asked me two hilarious things. The first one was if I would like to conduct it. I said ‘Please, you guys have been playing GAGAKU for 1300 years without a conductor. If you are going to play this with a conductor, that proves how bad the piece is.’ It is their special magic, the fact that they can do this like no other culture. The second question was if I wanted them to wear black shirts and trousers, the sort of Western clothing, or the 794 AD traditional costumes. Of course the traditional costumes! So in this Zoom recording, they are wearing them and then playing their instruments.

I am quite surprised actually. This version of Longing from afar is not viewed many times on Youtube. I am delighted to be interviewed here because not many people have really talked about this GAGAKU version. I mean, how often do you see a bunch of people wearing costumes which are 1300 years old and instruments from that period? Even as a visual, it is strange.

What is the concept of the piece?

Like the title suggests — longing from afar. You are thinking about others but from afar. We had this experience in the pandemic. We might be all fine, but we were thinking about family members or friends from afar. You were in your room, maybe your friends lived down the road but you could not see them because of the pandemic. But we are together in this music. This was my aim. Quite often people seem to perform a hybrid version of it too. There was a social distance on the stage and then some of the musicians joined online while some of them were on stage and we played together; that is also possible with this piece. I am sure lots of people started baking bread and all sorts of things in the pandemic, which is great but I have also learned a lot of things. For example — learning new instruments. But one of the biggest things I learned during that time was how to write this kind of music, because mentally I was not able to because I did not have to do it in the past.

Watch full interview:

What was the experience you wanted to create for the audience and why?

I think there are several things. I am not sure what kind of music I write, but I also come from a classical background. I also made a collaboration album together with some Nordic jazz musicians during the pandemic. Although, I was secretly working with them before, so I have been doing a lot of things in parallel. I am the kind of person who writes music using classical instruments too. I love orchestras, I love writing for orchestras for instance. During that time, it was difficult to attend live performances. Once I attended a symphony orchestra concert alone because there was no audience, there were restrictions. I was the only person in the audience because I was the composer of one of the piece in that concert. However, I think that live concerts are very important because not only do you hear the music live, but it is important that you are there, together with the other strangers, and listening to and experience the same music together.

For me, the audience size does not matter in this case; a concert with 10 members of the audience in some small places are absolutely great as well as the larger places. If you are talking about an orchestra concert, it will not fit in a small jazz club, obviously. It has to be a bigger place, so that means the hall of the audience capacity will be about 2000. You are sharing that experience now with 1999 other people if it was a packed concert. You probably went there with your friend, your best friend or a husband, wife or partner and you can share the experience. Even if you hated it! It is not ‘I hated it, so therefore I want to have the money back’. It is about the joy, the feeling, the fact that you are all different. You might sit next to someone but have a completely different experience. It is very different from the movies because the movies are recording art, it will play the film exactly the same each times. When we see a live performance, we have no idea what awaits us. We do not know if there will be an earthquake if the power will go out. I think that it is so thrilling and great to witness the performance in the presence, even though you hated everything that evening; that is completely okay. That is one thing. This experience is irreplaceable.

Another thing is that I am a recording nerd. I just love recordings and that is one of the reasons why I have my own recording label. I do all the editing, mixing and mastering. I am constantly learning from my recording engineer friends. This is my obsession. Longing from afar was a recording on YouTube because of the pandemic time. It was necessary, it had to be in a recorded format because we could not perform live.

Watch Longing from afar:

What was the compositional process and how did you get the first version of the piece?

I am very happy to speak to you about this. As I said, I was the other kind of composer then. I write about how to get the multiphonics and all of the little details. When Kazuki Yamada called me out of the blue, asking what we could do and how, because people just wanted to perform, but everything was cancelled. I did not know how to make it work. How can you play together when you cannot play together? Are you crazy? I was sure the pandemic would be over in two months, but little did we know, of course.

I was taking a bath, which is very Japanese of me, and I was thinking about this piece. I already had told Kazuki that this was not really possible, even though I had seen other orchestras desperately doing something on YouTube, but I had not been interested in it. There were a lot of famous musicians playing on their phones and it sounded terrible, I did not want it. I mean, if famous people are so desperate, what am I supposed to do? I think I came out of the bath and I just wrote a sketch by hand. Again, I am not that kind of composer, it was new for me. But I thought that maybe I could just do that. Harmony is extremely important to me, so I did not want anything random to be played in the Zoom environment, which is not so nice either. I sent the sketch to Kazuki and I said that it was just a scribble. He, on the other hand, said ‘I think I understand this,’ so then the next morning I woke up and typed. I think it was about two pages long on the notation, sent it to him and got back a response ‘We will try’.

So then his choir tried it, then I added some things and so that became the first version. Then I added some melodies and all sorts of things. Then the piece had options — some that you could play if you wanted to. My two influences were Daryl Runswick, my composition teacher, and my parallel life where I was working with jazz musicians from Norway. The Norwegian festival Punkt is an improvisation festival and I sometimes appeared there to perform, I think I played there five times. So I learned from them.

Can you imagine the piece in a concert hall?

Yes, it has been done before. In Japan it was in Tokyo Metropolitan Theater, Ensemble Nomad performed it live on stage, but without me. I performed it in London and I joined everyone through Zoom.

Can you name the main principles of the composition?

This piece is an open score, there are no other elements. It has pitches and harmonies from sections A to G and they are set harmonies that people can pick the pitches to perform. If you are playing the wrong notes, you should hear the wrong notes. That is the basis of it. It has also a two-part melody, so if any group of people want to perform them, they can. They can play together, not together or they do not have to play if they don’t want to. There are also solo melodies if anybody wants to play, it is all in the instructions. However, you can only play these solos in a certain section, which goes with the harmony, which is the backbone of the harmony.

The important thing is that this piece is open score, but needs a musical leader. At that time of the pandemic, I thought that a leader is extremely important. I do not know what everybody else thought, I mean, we can criticise now, but we needed a leader. Each country had different rules and issues. It is not like we could do whatever we wanted, so whether a good or a bad one, we needed a leader, so therefore this piece is open score with a leader. It is for a group of two to three people, for an entire Orchestra; or two orchestras as you wish. But the leader cannot be a person who does anything they want, because as we saw in the circumstances of the pandemic, people did not follow the leaders.

In Longing from afar, the leader must communicate with the musicians. They have the freedom to play, but the leader is there to suggest, even if they decide not to follow the leader. I would not say that it is like a democracy or anything that big, but that is the kind of interaction that the leader and the people both need. That is how it is supposed to be in any universe. Even if people do not follow the plan, the leader should still tries to achieve something together and that is music in this case. That is the case of Longing from afar.

source: screenshot from youtube video

Born in 1977 in Osaka Japan, Dai was fifteen when he moved to UK. The recipient of many composition prizes, he has received numerous international co-commissions from the Salzburg Festival, Lucerne Festival, BBC Proms, Bamberg Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and more. He has been Composer-in-Residence of Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra since 2014 and held the same post at the Orchestre national d’Île-de-France in 2017/18. Dai’s first opera Solaris, co-commissioned by the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Opéra de Lausanne and the Opéra de Lille, had its world premiere in Paris in 2015 and has since gained a worldwide reputation. A new production of Solaris was created and performed at the Theatre Augsburg in 2018, and the opera received a subsequent staging in 2020.

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