writing Japanese music

It was tricky because when I sat down and it was of course, "Okay, now I’m doing a Japanese film score, okay..." And then part of me doesn’t like that sort of stuff because coming from Iceland I’ve always been treated as this exotic elf, which I never really got, but there you go... And I sort of felt that maybe you’ve got countries in the world like the States and Great Britain and France and Germany who are sort of not exotic, and the rest of the world, which is probably 85%, is exotic. And South America’s exotic, and Africa’s exotic, and Asia’s exotic, and Iceland’s exotic, and probably Canada... no, probably not. [laughs]

So I didn’t want to sort of treat Japan like it’s been treated a lot, which is sort of this clichéd, kind of exotic-ness, and tons of shakuhatsi and, you know, that sort of stuff. So i wanted to treat it as an equal, as I would like if somebody from, I don’t know where, Bulgaria was making an Icelandic film soundtrack and they would ask me to collaborate. You know, how I would like to be treated, as an equal human being. "Let’s just write music. And okay, I happen to be Icelandic, but so what," you know ?

So when I started working with Mayumi I was very certain about that. That okay, she plays a 3,000 year old instrument, but she’s a very modern woman, and up for all sort of exciting stuff. Then one more Japanese thing that i thought was very important was the Noh singer, because it’s sort of the climax of the movie where the two main characters start removing each other’s legs and eventually become whales and swim away at the end of the movie. I think both me and the director felt it was very important that that was not violent. It was not literally about removing the leg, it was obviously poetic and more transformational, something shamanistic happening.

So I felt it was very appropriate to actually use Noh music in that piece, but not like I would write something sort of influenced by Noh, which is kind of a bit weird.

But actually I got Matthew to write the words of the transformation and they got translated, which is a very very complicated and exciting affair because Noh music is very very disciplined. It’s one of the most restricted musical forms that I have at least come close to.

And then we got Shiro Nomura which is probably one of the most respected Noh singers to sing it. So I felt, he’s presenting Noh music himself, nobody’s taking anything away from anybody.

All Noh theatre pieces are always about how you enter the other world, and there’s always a spirit that comes, and the samurais change into a giant spider or something, so it’s quite appropriate.

But for the rest of the music, I have to say, I thought the Japanese-ness should rather be that emotional state that I was hungry for when I was a teenager, when I was reading those books, and I guess kind of searching for some sort of minimalism, for lack of a better word, or sort of meditative state.

And maybe Shinto also is very much about placement of things, and that when I put a glass on the table I put it in respect of the other glass on the table, and that with two musical notes there’s that respect for each other and there’s actually a lot of silences, you know. And I think I try to approach Japanese-ness more from this angle.

BBC Radio 3, Mixing It, 5 august 2005