The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Norway's Ultima Contemporary Music Festival is held annually each autumn. This year the spotlight is on Japan.
Norway's Ultima Contemporary Music Festival is held annually each autumn. This year the spotlight is on Japan
Ultima is a contemporary music festival, but you also have classical music like opera on your schedule. How do you define contemporary music?
Johnson: It is a very difficult question and one that we always have to deal with in running a contemporary music festival. Is it contemporary because it is written today, or is it contemporary because it reflects something today that was said in the past? We try to be quite open-minded about this question. Our resources are basically geared toward developing new work. That's the main bulk of our program, maybe 70 to 80 percent. So we have maybe 35 world premiere performance in our festival each year, and about one third of these are international. It comes to somewhere between one third to almost one half of the festival budget.
For example, at this year's (2004) festival we presented Dutch music from the 70s and 80s centered around composer Philippe Hurel and his students, and we also had music from Paris and from Central Asia, from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan. What is the common denominator in all this? I will tell you a common denominator that is not in the program: Igor Stravinsky. He was a Russian who came to Paris and had a lifelong influenced many composers all over the world. This was a program based around Stravinsky, but no Stravinsky works were in the program.
But we also have medieval or baroque music if it goes well with the performers. You see you have to acknowledge that performers are living human beings who have to have an inner motivation to do what they do. And the inspiration for a top-level performer is always a matter of quality. So, if the performer wants to perform something earlier, say from the 1920s all the way to the 13th century. If it has artistic reason, we can just as well do it rather than having them play a 15-minute contemporary piece that they don't like. Because what are we really doing? In the end, you are trying to bring good concerts to the audience. But our main focus remains to present new works that bring new practices, new repertoire and new insights.
In general I would say that about 30 to 35% of the Ultima program is new works, about 50 to 55% comes from the last 20 years and the rest are special things that come from consulting with the artists and giving insight from other perspectives. Like we have one classical event every year. This year it was the "Via Kabul" program of music from Central Asia. In the past we have done Chinese opera, music from Syria, the mosques there; and we did Japanese ancient Gagaku music in 2000. So, we try to present a broad picture of where inspiration comes from. The festival is owned by 18 Norwegian institutions, and they all have the right to propose content, the final decisions are always made through discussion in the program committee.

Japanese music will be one of the themes of your 2005 Ultima Festival. How do you go about the work of putting together such a program?
Johnson: As we work to put together a Japanese program, it is very hard to say what is Japanese. Does it mean being born in Japan? Is it Japanese to be living in Japan or trained in Japan? There are plenty of fantastic Japanese composers and musicians who have been living in other parts of the world that Europeans consider to be Japanese but many here in Japan would not consider Japanese because they haven't lived here in Japan for 20 years.
About putting together a program...there are a wide variety of styles among these composers, and even in the last ten years I have seen so many new names coming out. They may base themselves in Paris, London, in the United States. They choose to live in other parts of the world even though they were born here in Japan. On the other hand, you have people like Jo Kondo, whom we met the other day and who has a very strong international name because he stayed in the US in the 60s. Many Europeans actually think he lives in Europe because you see his name is featured everywhere in Europe, he performs and records everywhere in Europe. I thought he lived there but, no, he lives here in Japan. So you see, the international community doesn't tell you where a musician lives, it only tells you about the quality of their work. And that is again what we are trying to find, quality. We are not pretending to be presenting an overview of Japanese music, because that's impossible.
We have commissioned three works. One work is by Jo Kondo, who is the oldest then we have commissioned, we have commissioned a work by Akira Nishimura and we have commissioned a work by a very young woman named Sachiyo Tsurumi, very talented and very different from the other two. Kondo is representative of the 60s outbreak from the central European tradition. Nishimura is involved in redefining the Japanese way of treating to the European tradition, while Tsurumi is moving toward a reinterpretation of the Japanese tradition with a very nihilistic outlook. It is great fun and it is very innovative music.
These three will make the core of the program. We will invite one Japanese dance ensemble, Leni-Basso. We have formally invited them but they have a lot international commitments, but hope they can come. And we will again invite Reigakusha, the Gagaku ensemble to play a contemporary piece by Toshio Hosokawa. And we are inviting some other performers and composers, so it is about 25-30 works in all. I would say we will play works by 15 Japanese composers in all. With a focus I might say on Hosokawa and Nishimura, who I consider to be the leading Japanese composers of my generation. This Japanese program will constitute close to one half of the 2005 Ultima program coverin g the week from the 2nd to the 9th of October. So the festival will begin with a Japanese focus and it will end with a German-French focus. And in between we will have a schedule of Norwegian world premieres.

Where did the idea for the Japan program come from?
Johnson: When I first took over the job of festival director in 1998 we had just had a Japan-focused festival in 1997 and I thought it was a great success. So, in 2000 I invited the Tokyo International Music Ensemble and they gave a fantastic performance of "In an Autumn Garden" by [Toru] Takemitsu. And I promised our Japanese guests at that time that we would have another Japanese focus in 2005.

Henrichsen: And we told the government that it would be appropriate to make a cultural exchange program with Japan at that time because Japan was one of the first countries to recognize Norway's independence in 1905, and 2005 is a centennial celebration of Norwegian independence. In 1999 we presented the idea that we would include a Japanese work in our Festival every year until 2005, which we have done.

Johnson: And I should say that we will not stop working with Japanese artists after 2005. It is an ongoing relationship and after working with Japanese artists for so many years we have a lot of friends here. We seek quality everywhere, and regardless of the fact that they are Japanese, they have very high standards, for example a person like [pianist] Aki Takahashi, she is a fantastic performer. We speak to people all the time, and there are numerous composers, performers, organizers who we get ideas from. We also have a large network of European artists who suggest Japanese artists to us who they have met.
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