Miyake score taps the exotic

by Suzannah Tartan

Jun Miyake is a self-proclaimed lover of the exotic. Nowhere is this more evident than in his latest composition, the music for a revival of avant-garde playwright Shuji Terayama’s 1977 play, “Chugoku no Fushigina Yakunin” (“The Miraculous Mandarin”).

In the space of two hours, his exquisite score roams the world, from the opening strains of a traditional Chinese melody to the cacophony of free jazz, through a tender tango, ending in a finale that mingles the carnivalesque decadence of composer Kurt Weill with the grating industrial pulse of band Einsturzende Neubauten. Yes, somehow they have all been fit seamlessly into Miyake’s mix.

In some ways the musical odyssey of “The Miraculous Mandarin” resembles Miyake’s own wanderlust. He began his journey as a jazz-trumpet player who studied with jazz great Terumasa Hino and at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. An epiphany came after he saw his idol, Miles Davis, in concert in New York in 1981.

“But in the end, I realized he didn’t reveal anything new,” says the 51-year-old Kamakura native and Paris resident backstage at the Parco Theatre where the play is being staged. “I concluded that jazz was over.”

Returning to Japan during the heady days of the bubble era, Miyake found a perfect and lucrative way to expand his horizons: writing music for commercials. “They accepted any crazy idea. They also gave me a lot of assignments — ‘Can you write something Hawaiian?’ ‘Can you combine African and enka?’ That is how my musical language expanded.”

A series of solo albums released in 1999-2000 “Glam Exotica,” “Mondo Erotica” and “Innocent Bossa in the Mirror” used this new musical fluency to explore the themes of exoticism, eroticism and innocence — “the three things that really motivate me,” says Miyake.

The first release drew heavily from his travels in Asia. For the second, ” I imagined a very erotic night from beginning to end.”

With a particular partner? Your wife?

“Not exotic enough,” he says chuckling.

The third presented the biggest challenge. “I couldn’t think of how to [musically portray] innocence then so my producer suggested bossa nova.”

Reviews of his latest album, 2008′s “Stolen from Strangers,” garnered comparisons to the work of lounge music’s favorite composer, Burt Bacharach. It’s a compliment that Miyake accepts graciously. However, the record owes more to electronica and an eclectic roster of guests like Brazilian singer Vinicius Cantuaria and “downtown” New York musician Arto Lindsay.

Collaboration is also a part of the appeal of theatre composition. “I liked the feeling of many people getting together — actors, director — and focusing on the same direction,” he says. He has composed for avant-garde American director Robert Wilson and legendary choreographer Pina Bausch with whom he was working at the time of her death in June.

Although a literary work, “The Miraculous Mandarin” became notorious after it was adapted for the ballet by composer Bela Bartok. In the original story, a young girl is kidnapped by a band of tramps who use her to seduce and then rob potential lovers. Her last client, however, is a wealthy and mysterious Chinese man, a Mandarin. When the tramps try to accost him, he proves to be indestructible. Finally, the girl embraces him. His desire satisfied; the Mandarin dies. The combination of prostitution, besmirched innocence, and interracial love was too much, and after its premiere in 1926 in Cologne, the play was banned.

The Terayama version, aided by its new score, revels in the original’s debauchery while adding political nuance by transferring the setting to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. At Parco, the tramps have become pimps played by members of the Dairakudakan butoh troupe, whose leering, writhing figures create a phantasmagoric tableau. Though Terayama’s intent can be somewhat obscure (why all the mirrors or the waving Hinomaru?), despite the complexity of the metaphors, one might easily follow Miyake’s lead and focus instead on the visceral experience of the music and the stage. “The theme (love and death) is eternal . . . but the tragedy of not being able to die is very special,” says Miyake. “I’ve tried to imagine the visual aspect of the stage, rather than thinking about it in a literary way.”

After six months of work on the play, Miyake is ready for “a bit of silence” after he returns to Paris, his home for the past four years. He has become an ubiquitous presence, his photo plastered in subway stations and bus stops as the “image” man for the tony shopping emporium Galaries Lafayette. Miyake was shocked when photographer Jean-Paul Goude, Galaries Lafayette’s creative director (most famous perhaps for launching the career of Grace Jones) chose him over David Lynch as the shop’s new face.

“Maybe,” says Miyake, “it is because he is a lover of the exotic too.”

“The Miraculous Mandarin” is playing through Oct. 4 at the Parco Theatre in Shibuya. The soundtrack from the play will be available in record stores from Oct. 21. For more information, see www.parco-play.com