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Composer Shibuya tests limits of music

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

One November evening in Paris, Theatre du Chatelet was packed with people who came to see the French premiere of a new opera by a Japanese composer.

But it was nothing like opera as we know it.

Instead of an orchestra and singers performing the familiar theatrical music, what greeted the sellout audience at the famed opera house was a spectacle of synthesized sound, digital beat and animation produced using four large screens and more than 100 speakers.

The production was “The End,” an experimental work by Keiichiro Shibuya featuring “virtual idol” Hatsune Miku, a blue-haired girl who speaks and sings in a synthesized voice to computer-programmed music.

The popular character was created by Crypton Future Media, Inc., as the synthesized voice of a girl. She is being promoted as an anime character that people can make songs for by inputting their own words and melodies.

The offbeat performance was a huge success.

“When the curtain fell, there was a complete silence, and then a thunderous applause and bravos,” Shibuya, 40, told The Japan Times. “Then I knew that the silence meant the audience was enjoying the afterglow.”

The ground-breaking performance in Paris was the first major exposure abroad for the Tokyo-born composer and musician, who studied at Tokyo University of the Arts, a national school that has produced many renowned composers, mainly in classical music.

Shibuya goes far beyond the boundaries of classical music and is willing to incorporate any new idea he finds interesting. Besides solo recordings of electronic and piano music, his works encompass everything from experimental multimedia art to film scores, music for TV dramas and commercials. He even had a stint as producer and composer for boy idol Tomohisa Yamashita.

Although it’s been labeled an opera, “The End” bears little resemblance to the traditional European art form. There is no one singing arias or choruses, no one conducting an orchestra or playing instruments, but just Miku singing and speaking to her imaginary pet animal. Nor is there an apparent story line. Just abstract words and exchanges about death and dying, spoken or sung by Miku, an animated character.

So why does Shibuya call it an opera?

“First of all, it is a tragedy,” said the composer. “And it has arias and recitatives, and an overture and climax. It has all elements of an opera, and its structure completely conforms to opera’s.”

Modern-day opera has digressed from its archetypal structure, in which recitatives drive the story line and arias show off the divas, but Shibuya says he thought it would be interesting if he stuck to the “structure used by Mozart and Wagner.”

The idea for “The End” started when the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, a museum for “new-media art” in Yamaguchi Prefecture, commissioned Shibuya for a new work in 2012.

“I was given complete freedom on what to create,” he said. “It could be installation art, a concert or anything, but I thought, ‘What if I wrote an opera?’ ”

“And from the beginning, my ambition started to inflate. I was like, ‘I’m going to take this opera to Europe! Paris!’ and Theatre du Chatelet was actually on my mind at that point.”

Calling an anime an opera could be viewed as a gimmick, but it is very much a part of Shibuya’s calculated approach to his work.

“After all, if I’d called it a ‘new-media art performance,’ they wouldn’t be able to judge whether the work is good or bad because it’s perceived only as ‘something new’,” he said, “but when you call it an opera, you’ve jumped into the arena, and that allows them to say, ‘This isn’t opera!’ or whatever. When you are Japanese and presenting your work to a Western audience, this is the approach to take. It allows them to evaluate your work.”

Shibuya was, coincidentally, born in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. Both his socio-psychologist father and violinist mother seem to have influenced the course of his life. It was his mother who enrolled the young Shibuya in a children’s music school, where he learned to play the piano.

“What was great about my teachers was, they didn’t really force etudes of Chopin or things like that on me,” Shibuya said. “They allowed me to choose whatever I wanted to play, so I chose works by Bach, Satie and Debussy, which I familiarized myself with by listening to my mother’s record collection.”

Shibuya is strongly conscious of how his work may be perceived. For example, he says, when he made “The End”, he wanted to create a sharp contrast to existing music, including operas, because “you’ve got to create a contrast to be noticed,” he said.

“And something that has a long history is perfect for that purpose, because everybody already knows it,” he said. “Tweaking something that already exists and presenting it as your work” works, he said.

Shibuya acknowledges that his tendency to analyze the psychology of his audience might be an influence he received from his father, who died when Shibuya was in his teens. He often would lecture him about mob psychology and propaganda, his areas of expertise, Shibuya said.

“And he would tell me to always think of what action may bring what results, and what reaction you may get as a result. That may have influenced me in some ways,” Shibuya said.

His death came at a crucial juncture in his life, he said. Knowing that he had cancer and that death was inevitable, his father pressed Shibuya to decide what he wanted to do about his future.

“So I did a lot of research, went to the library, bookstores, art museums, concerts, and thought music seemed to interest me the most,” Shibuya said. But his father was totally against pursuing a career in music, apparently because of the difficulty of making a living from it.

“We even had a scuffle, and I won,” said Shibuya, chuckling.

Having successfully finished his crucial performance in Paris, Shibuya is already planning a new project: the “android opera.” This time, he will collaborate with Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, who will provide humanoid robots as “performers.”

“The decision (to stage robots) was quick, actually. The people of Chatelet asked me to join a meeting (immediately) after we did ‘The End’ premiere, on the day we left Paris,” Shibuya said. “They asked me what I wanted to do next, so I answered, ‘Maybe another opera using robots.’ So this is going to be a joint production with Chatelet.”

The project, which he said will feature only robots singing and performing on stage, is still in the early planning stage, but Ishiguro is already working on the robots, and a performance is scheduled around mid-2015.

Ever ambitious, Shibuya seems ready to jump on any chance that may come his way. Asked whether he craves even more exposure, including something huge, like a role in the opening ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Shibuya said: “Definitely.”

“Music is invisible, but it’s (something) you keep playing in your head once it sticks in your mind,” Shibuya said. “In other words, it is addictive in a way. I am very interested in pursuing that aspect. So if they ask me to do music for the Olympics, for example, it’d be a very interesting opportunity for me.”


Key events in Keiichiro Shibuya’s life

1973 — Born in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

1998 — Graduates from Tokyo University of the Arts.

2002 — Establishes private music label ATAK.

2004 — Releases “ATAK000 Keiichiro Shibuya,” his first solo recording.

2006 — “Filmachine,” an audiovisual installation featuring multi-faceted stereo sound and LEDs, goes on display at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

2009 — Releases “ATAK015 for maria,” his first solo piano album.

2012 — Produces and performs “One(X) Cage → Today,” a concert commemorating the 100th birthday of the late U.S. composer John Cage.

2012 — “The End,” a show billed as an “opera” featuring synthesized voice and animation, debuts at YCAM.

2013 — French premiere of “The End” at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .