Dai Fujikura’s “Glorious Clouds”

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FUJIKURA: Glorious Clouds / Nagoya Philharmonic Orch.; Martyn Brabbins, cond / Sparking Orbit (New version) / Daniel Lippel, el-gtr; / Serene / Jeremias Schwarzer, rec / Uniuni / Nobuaki Fukakawa, Fr-hn / Yuri / Maya Kimoto, koto/voc / Shamisen Concerto. Gliding Wings / Ensemble Nomad; Norio Sato, cond / Shakuhachi Five / The Shakuhachi 5 / Motion Notions / Mari Kimura, vln/motion sensor / Love Excerpt / Tony Arnold, sop; Jacob Greenberg, pno / Repetition Recollection / Eriko Daimo, mar / Pre / Yoji Sato, bs / Star Compass / Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, vla / Contour / Heather Roche, bs-cl / Ghost of Christmas / Chubu Philharmonic Orch.; Yuko Tanaka, cond / Minabel/New Focus Recordings MIN111

This CD came to me as a download in an email from the composer. In the liner notes, he explains that

One day I was reading an article in a magazine about microbiomes, and I became extremely interested in finding out more about them… Microorganisms live not only in the intestines but also on the skin. In fact, microorganisms live everywhere on the earth. Because of the amazing network of microorganisms that is everywhere, animals – including us humans – can survive.

I read that some insects can be made to commit suicide by microorganisms. If certain bacteria require water to breed, they will infect insects which cannot survive in water and force them to suddenly fall into the water. The insect then dies instantly, but the bacteria will start to breed happily in the water. It is true that we are all controlled by microorganisms.

Also, I read of the great benefits of microbes to animals. For example, microorganisms are essential for digestion and absorption in our body, and it seems that some of the vitamins that we cannot synthesize in the body may be produced by microorganisms.

When I read these articles, I thought “Ah!!! Various small microorganisms are making the whole world, that is just like an orchestra itself!” And I started composing.

So there you have it. When Glorious Clouds began I thought to myself, “This sounds like ambient music,” but it isn’t. The music morphs and changes, not only in structure but in timbre, moving in and out of soft, lush sounds and, somehow, metallically edgy sounds, all produced by the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra (which I’ve never heard of before). There is actual composing going on here, but much of it is subtle. Some of it is menacing; these “glorious clouds” may have some evil elements in them. By the 4:42 mark we seem to be in a different world, or at least a higher plane, beyond the mesosphere to the ionosphere where the clouds thin out to almost invisible wisps.

Some of the edginess in the orchestral sound may indeed be off-putting for some listeners; I can’t say that it thrilled me; but it’s certainly different and, more to the point, it’s creative and interesting. Despite the fact that Glorious Clouds lasts nearly 18 minutes, one is never bored for a moment because things are constantly shifting and developing. This is truly “spacey” music of the highest order.

Sparking Orbit is a piece played by Dan Lippel, one of the owners of New Focus Recordings, on electric guitar. It’s edgy and abrasive, with the guitar constantly spitting out short, fragmented sounds that strike the listener as an electrical short, but there’s also some structure underneath that holds it together despite the fact that none of the sounds that Lippel plays actually sound like musical notes…until the 4:39 mark, when he suddenly plays a lovely if amorphous melody against a backdrop of soft electronic sounds. At the 7:31 mark, the guitar begins using distortion. Microorganisms or no microorganisms, I didn’t care much for this section. And of course, we eventually get full-out rock guitar, which is when I skipped ahead to the next section. (I wish people would outgrow the sound of a rock guitar; it’s childish and puerile, just like the glissando trombones and “wa wa” trumpets of an earlier era.)

Ironically, the first section of Serene, played on a recorder, is equally fast-paced and furious, not really “serene” at all, but it is interesting. Also interesting is the fact that the second movement is played on a higher recorder, probably a piccolo recorder, and although also fast-paced music it uses a lot more trills as part of the overall structure of the piece. In the third movement, Schwarzer plays an alto recorder, and the music at last reaches some calmness and serenity—until near the end, when he suddenly plays with distortion.

Indeed, if I had to use one word to characterize all of these instrumental pieces, that word would be “distortion,” and this is even true in Uniuni where the French horn player does indeed play with some “wa wa” effects as well as vocalizing through the horn while playing it. Having never heard any of Fujikura’s music before, I don’t know if this is his “sound” as a composer or if he only chose to do this in this particular suite of works. As I expected by this point, Maya Kimoto also plays her koto with distortion, creating a sound like an off-key banjo, but again the music is interesting. In this piece, Fujikura uses space in an interesting manner, enticing the listener to follow the musical dots even when there are long or short pauses. Towards the end, Kimoto sings, with a somewhat pure voice but atonally; I have no idea what the words are or what they mean.

With the Shamisen Concerto we’re back to slow, edgy orchestral music, at least until the 2:40 mark when very rapid music played on the shamisen, a traditional Japanese string instrument, appears. After a while the orchestra reappears, playing short bitonal chords and figures around it. In the middle, when things slow down, it almost sounds like a Japanese version of Dueling Banjos (even though only one soloist is playing), but later still the music becomes highly virtuosic, creating swirling atonal musical patterns, although the cadenza consists of slower music, again with several pauses in it.

shakuhachiThe eponymous piece Shakuhachi Five features an instrument that, if I read the notes correctly, forces you to shake your head as you play it, and “you must shake your head with the instrument for 3 years before beginning to be able to play it.” It’s a flute created in Edo Period Japan by Zen monks who called themselves komusō or ‘illusory nothing” monks (see picture). The sounds it produces are truly weird, like nothing you’ve ever heard in your life, and Fujikura’s music that they play simply accentuates its weirdness…but again, it is interesting if not inviting. (I got the impression of these five people shouting through these flutes for you to “get lost!”) This is immediately followed by Motion Notions, played by violinist Mari Kimura with a motion sensor, which gives one the impression of a whooshing violin hurtling through space. Indeed, “spaciness” is a key word to describe nearly all of this music. Beam me up, Scotty!

Gliding Wings features Ensemble Nomad and particularly its two clarinetists playing mostly as a tandem. Although this music is modern and mostly in a quick tempo, it is not as edgy as some of it and in fact often presents the clarinetists playing in their chalumeau register. In terms of both form and development, I really liked this piece very much.

Fujikura explains that Love Excerppt, though written for soprano Jane Manning who used a lot of unorthodox vocal techniques, is built around a simple melody to which the pianist does not so much play an accompaniment as “glittering jewels shimmering around” the soprano’s voice. Veteran modern-music soprano Tony Arnold handles her assignment beautifully; in some of her recordings over the past couple of years an uneven flutter has crept into the voice, but here, keeping the volume at a low level, her vocal control is very good if not flawless.

Repetition and Recollection are described by the composer as “the same movement, except in opposite directions.” It is played here by Eriko Daimo on the marimba, but the first section, to the naked ear, sounds very much like a glass harmonica. This is slow, almost sensual music with not a lot of motion or development, yet it is mesmerizing nonetheless. Eventually the music just slows down and stops, although the bass solo Pre follows hard on its heels. Here the instrument is played pizzicato at the outset, like a jazz bassist, but the music is clearly not jazz despite the use, later in the piece, of syncopation.

Star Compass is described as the cadenza for Fujikura’s viola concerto Wayfinder, and here we return to the edgier music that defined most of this odd suite so far. A little after the two-minute mark, however, the viola plays a lyrical, melodic passage that is quite affecting. And in fact this more lyrical quality continues into the contrabass clarinet solo Contour. Both in my listening to this album and in reading the composer’s notes, it seemed to me that the initial theme and impetus of this suite, microorganisms, actually stopped with Gliding Wings; every piece following really has no connection to either the preceding music or the stated theme of the suite, but are, rather, solo adaptations of earlier concerti written by Fujikura. This doesn’t make the music less interesting, at least not to me, but it doesn’t make for a strong suite because both the mood and the overall structure have changed drastically.

We end with Ghost of Christmas, here returning to a full orchestral work. Parts of it are lyrical and parts of it edgy, thus it fits into the suite where we left off after Gliding Wings. As a whole, then, Glorious Clouds is a fascinating if an uneven work in which not all the pieces fit musically or in mood, though most of them are quite interesting. The ironic thing is that, considering the almost bewildering array of forces used on the various tracks of this album, this suite only really exists as a recording; it would be virtually impossible to recreate it in a live concert setting unless the orchestral tracks were piped in over the auditorium’s speakers. A novel experiment, then, and one that works through most but not all of it to create a unified whole.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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