Music Director

photo of Michiru Oshima
Michiru Oshima

Composer graduated from the Kunitachi College of Music. Worked as an orchestrator from student days in various fields, such as film music, CM music, TV show music, animation music, and music facilities. Won the Japan Academy Award for music 6 times, the 31st Japan Academy Award for Best Music, the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film Score 2 times, the 2006 Animation of the Year Music Award, and the Jackson Hole Film Festival (USA) Best Movies Music Award, etc. "For The East" (CD) is on sale in Japan and France. Also wrote the musical score for Sayuri Yoshinaga’s atomic bomb poetry recitals. Her major works include the period drama "Heaven, Earth, and Man", the movies "Godzilla vs. Megagirasu" and "Memory of Tomorrow", and the animated "Fullmetal Alchemist".

Long Interview With MICHIRU OSHIMA

A newly formed group of 12 traditional musicians, hailing from six ASEAN countries and Japan, will be conducting a month-long tour of ASEAN countries throughout October and November, and will also be performing at the Bunkamura Orchard Hall on December 18, 2013. Japanese composer Michiru Oshima is musical director for this innovative project, which will see the artists combining their diverse cultural and musical roots into performances structured around voice and percussion-hence the title “Drums & Voices”. The artists will develop the performances in two 2-week workshops, held in Thailand and Vietnam, prior to the tour. With the first of these workshops now been completed, we took the opportunity to talk to Michiru immediately upon her return to Japan from Thailand.
(Interview by: Hisae Odashima)

(Interviewer) The traditional instruments from each country are all very unique. It's quite amazing to realize just how great a variety of percussion instruments there is.

This was actually the first time for me to take part in a workshop. Previously, whether I've been working with an orchestra or performing with instrumentation, the rule has always been to hold studio sessions. What's more, normally, 99% of the pieces being performed are my own, so I have a fairly clear idea of how they should turn out-an idea in place since the time of composition. This project, however, started at absolute zero, and that includes me. So it was an extremely interesting experience!

(Interviewer) The traditional instruments from each country are all very unique. It's quite amazing to realize just how great a variety of percussion instruments there is.

It was even more amazing to see the actual instruments. The sounds they produced were so novel to me; it was a great revelation to be see what could be done with these instruments. It also quickly became clear, as the musicians played their instruments, that there was considerable variety in the sense of beat in each country. Even with a 16-beat rhythm, for example, some musicians would put a swing on it, while others kept strictly to the beat; some would be slightly ahead of the beat, others slightly after. There really was huge variety. We have another workshop planned, and we'll be focusing on how to bring these approaches to the beat together, looking either at trying to align them or whether we should be wary of trying to align things too neatly.

(Interviewer) Because there are those times when too much alignment is no good thing.

In some cases, musically it can be better to stay very focused on a single direction, but in other cases it's much more interesting not to do that. We started with a presentation by each country, and actually I had planned on these self-introductions lasting for about three days. But they were all done within two hours. That left us without enough information to work with, so I had each country in turn give a more detailed presentation, which allowed us to identify rhythms that excited us, and pieces that we might be able to use for the project. I think that everyone was essentially feeling their way through unfamiliar territory.

(Interviewer) So even within Asia, there's considerable diversity in musicality.

In the traditional music of some other Asian countries, I was able to detect themes similar to the pentatonic scale used in Japanese music. There were melodies that had definite commonality with songs that have been popular in Japan throughout its history, but then again there was music that was quite different to anything found in Japan-such as that of Myanmar. That was a real revelation to me. Because I had thought that the music of Myanmar would be the most sedate and serene. But in fact it's based on a 16-beat rhythm with a strong back beat. I could see how the Cambodian musicians were immediately captivated by this Myanmar beat, and they were annoyed that they couldn't play it. Even just watching them from the sidelines, I could really sense their disappointment. But by the second session, they had it mastered.

(Interviewer) So would you say the musicians are approaching this project with a strong sense of competition?

These musicians are top class in their respective countries and they all want to be recognized as the best performer; each musician has a strong sense of pride, in the best sense of the word. Having said that, one of the Thai musicians, for example, said that his main priority was to get along well with everyone. He was really concerned about being nice to the others. In this first workshop, the most important goal of the two weeks was to get to know each other as people. Things normally happen in a different order. In studio sessions, you hand out the sheet music, and that forms the platform upon which relationships of trust are built. But for this project, we first needed to create a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect, and then work on creating the music as we were still building that foundation.

(Interviewer) Did you encounter any conflict among the musicians, or indeed any kind of jealousy?

I talked with some of the musicians, and Yusri, from Brunei, commented that at the beginning of the workshop there had been too much information; it had been confusing for him. In Brunei, patterns are set in stone-you are told how each instrument is to be played-and for him it felt very odd to take a different approach. But he also felt that he wanted to absorb the culture shock he had experienced, and take it back with him to Brunei. He also commented that the next time he starts a project in Brunei, he wants to make use of his workshop experiences.

(Interviewer) Was everyone as enthused by the workshop?

The musicians who talked about making use of their workshop experiences were quite progressive in their approach; to be honest I'm not sure how many of the musicians were as progressive as that. It's similar to social structure: if, in the creative process, you come across a style that is quite different to the one you have used to create for many years, there is an almost instinctive compulsion to reject that which is unfamiliar as being “not quite right”. But I think that being able to decide to try and absorb differences and different creative approaches and to work together to create something new is really at the heart of this project, which is all about friendship and unity among the participating countries. The first workshop ended with us beginning to grasp the importance of this point. The next stage will be about really familiar and comfortable with the music.

(Interviewer) Did you take on the role of counselor for those musicians who were struggling more than others?

One of the musicians, a singer from Thailand called Chris, did have quite a difficult time. He is a pop singer, so he initially questioned why he was part of the project, considering he didn't know how to sing Thai folk music. I remembered what I had been told by one of my mentors, an older composer, during a period when I had found myself struggling with a series of projects: that difficult work should be seen as a positive experience. That it is, in fact, a rare opportunity to find work that is challenging, that cannot be completed without making more effort than usual, and that requires you to test yourself. So I said the same to Chris, that opportunities like this project were few and far between. But I still think he found it extremely difficult. He worked hard to learn percussive rhythms despite not being a percussionist, he really did make a huge effort.

(Interviewer) And what about communication? Was everyone speaking different languages?

We had interpreters to translate each language into English, which was the common language. This did create a considerable time lag, so I felt very keenly the challenges presented by different languages. I think the musicians certainly felt frustrated that when they wanted to express something, they couldn't do it in their own languages.

(Interviewer) So would you say you were the “mother” of the group of musicians in the workshop environment?

Well, I did have to nag Chris to get him to start writing music! He still dragged his heels, though, so I wrote some music for him, for which he wrote the lyrics. But I wasn't the only woman in the group. Tsubasa Hori, a Japanese drummer, was also part of the group; she has a very feminine character. Mai Lian from Vietnam arrived every day looking extremely stylish; she is a very gentle lady and always smiling. I definitely felt supported by these two women. Although they are also both very tough at the same time.

(Interviewer) A great example of how women can be strong. Were you conscious of anything else in your role as musical director?

Inevitably there is some difference in individual technique, and I didn't want any of the musicians to feel left behind or left out. And when these musicians are playing the music of their own country, they really are all quite outstanding. So I tried to respect this ‘home advantage’ and make use of it, and to develop something that means each musician can feel satisfied with his or her part in the project.

(Interviewer) So you are trying to make something positive of the differences in the musicians' backgrounds.

At first, we were all thinking that we should bring all bring our different approaches to the table, then exchange the best parts of each. Part-way through the process, however, Yusri, the musician from Brunei, said that he wanted to “absorb” the best parts of each musician's tradition. So then we started to think about how we could emphasize the foreignness, the respective strangeness of what we were each contributing. If something is only a little strange or unfamiliar, it's easy to forget about. But when there is fundamental foreignness, then the impact is greater but so is the inspiration. It's much more interesting for everyone, and we wanted to incorporate something of that. So everyone was quite wary of each other's differences at first, but I think we've reached a stage where we don't have to worry about that anymore.

(Interviewer) So would you say that the musicians have yet to start clashing with each other?

There have been a few clashes already. There were even some who thought that we should just be playing traditional music as it was intended to be played. And I think that in the process of expressing opinions about each other's music, the music that they have respectively always played, the artists are able to find a way to engage with musical traditions other than their own. There's a sense that we should just have a go and see what happens. These people usually perform with their own groups, and yet here they have been separated from their normal groups in order to form something new, so already we have a quite unique structure. All the musicians involved are wonderful individuals, and this has been a very important part of the project, I think. There really wasn't anyone who couldn't get along with the group.

(Interviewer) The next workshop will be taking place in Vietnam very soon. Has this project had a major effect on your perspective as an artist?

What I've really felt from the many experiences I've gained through the workshop is that there is nothing to fear from trying something new. Once you've been working for many years, you understand where your safety zone is. You can sense it. If you're working on music for a film, for example, you know exactly how it should be done. But this project has taught me that there is nothing to be afraid of in taking on something quite different to anything you've done before. In fact, really, you can even start to break down what you've built up previously. It's always safest to continue working within the scope of your previous experiences, and of course in many cases that is what people expect of you. But, in fact, by doing something that is unfamiliar to everyone and is completely innovative, you can really start to build artistic courage-although I don't know if that courage will stay with me beyond this project. Because at the moment, there is no-one telling us what we can't do. With work, once you have taken it on you must, of course, be responsible for seeing it through to completion, but as musicians we also need to work hard to challenge ourselves constantly-and to enjoy the results of our efforts.

[Contact Us]

The Japan Foundation
Arts and Culture Department, Asia and Oceania Section
Person in charge: Genda (Mr.)/Matsunaga (Mr.) 
Tel: +81-(0)3-5369-6062

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