Music

Takashi Niigaki emerges from the ashes of a scandal with a symphony to call his own

by Chiho Iuchi

Special To The Japan Times

On Feb. 6, 2014, composer Takashi Niigaki faced a crowd of reporters at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo and took a deep and apologetic bow. He had just revealed that he was ghostwriter for Mamoru Samuragochi, who was celebrated as “Japan’s Beethoven” before being exposed as a fraud. Niigaki confessed to the room that, by remaining silent, he felt he was complicit in the deceit.

In Hiroshima on Aug. 15 of this year, Niigaki found himself again bowing before a crowd, but this time it was on a stage in acceptance of a warm shower of applause. His Symphony No. 2, “Litany,” had just made its debut under the baton of Ryohei Matsuo. It is the first symphony Niigaki has written since the Samuragochi affair. He also gave a solo performance of his own piano concerto, the aptly named “Shinsei” (“New Birth”).

“I am so happy to share this occasion with you all,” the composer told an audience in Tokyo on Aug. 23 after the second public performance of “Litany,” one that he conducted himself for the first time.

Niigaki’s Symphony No. 1 was composed 13 years ago at the behest of Samuragochi, who claimed he had a severe hearing impairment. The symphony was renamed “Hiroshima” and premiered in its namesake city in 2008. It became immensely popular and the CD sold around 180,000 copies. And Samuragochi got all the credit.

Music fans devoured the narrative of a deaf composer who was able to produce such beautiful scores, but Niigaki’s revelation that more than 20 of his compositions had been attributed to Samuragochi put a stop to the burgeoning legend.

“I was ready to face that my career was over,” Niigaki, 46, tells The Japan Times of the difficult decision to come forward.

The musician’s friends didn’t abandon him, however. A signature-collecting campaign was organized by composer Kenichi Nishizawa to ask Toho Gakuen School of Music to go easy on Niigaki, who, though grateful for the show of support, left his job there as a part-time lecturer anyway. Musicians then organized a concert on June 7, 2014, titled “Takashi Niigaki Collection with Friends,” and that encouraged him to start composing and performing again.

The concert also paved the way for Niigaki to appear on a variety of TV programs in which he cultivated a reputation as a comical character on top of being recognized for his musical talent. The good press also did wonders for the public’s perception of him, which until then had been dominated by the Samuragochi scandal.

In February 2015, Niigaki was commissioned to compose a new symphony by Higashihiroshima Symphony Orchestra (HSO), a group that in 2013 was the first amateur ensemble to perform “Hiroshima.”

“The scandal did not change the fact that we received a great response when we performed ‘Hiroshima,’ ” says HSO leader Shigeru Kudo. “And I wanted to perform a new symphony that had Niigaki’s name on it.”

Kudo convinced Niigaki to face the arduous challenge of writing a symphony again, and the composer looked to Hiroshima for inspiration.

“Why did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occur?” Niigaki wrote in the program notes for the August concerts. “This is an eternal and universal issue. In the postwar prosperity of Japan, we benefited from peaceful uses of atomic energy. Then disaster hit on March 11, 2011.”

The disaster he referenced is the Great East Japan Earthquake, which resulted in a devastating tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

When composing Symphony No. 2, Niigaki was inspired by a form of prayer in Christianity that consists of a back and forth between clergy and congregation, and for that reason he titled the symphony “Litany.”

For the keynote of the symphony, Niigaki uses a sorrowful melody that is performed by layers of strings. The horn section plays an impressive tone, “H-F-Es(S)-A,” which is a musical cryptogram that references the first letters of Hiroshima and Fukushima.

A chaotic segment comes in the middle of the symphony before giving way to the strings, which perform the melodic exchange that “Litany” gets its name from. Brass fanfare provides the climax and is followed by a quiet woodwind chorale. Meanwhile, the percussion depicts the anxiety felt by the rumbling, merciless earthquake.

After the Tokyo performance, Niigaki met longtime friend Nishizawa and told him he just “stuffed everything into the piece.”

Keenly familiar with Niigaki’s work, Nishizawa says “Litany” contains a variety of elements taken from various countries from the 19th century and onward.

“It’s not in the symphony’s chaotic segment, which shows the direct influence of contemporary music, but (elsewhere) Niigaki applies his ingenious orchestration to seemingly easy-to-understand and beautiful melodies done in a 19th-century style,” Nishizawa tells The Japan Times. “I find it fascinating.”

Niigaki’s composition is based on various historical elements from his deep knowledge of classical music, which are combined with his own ideas and executed with scholastic technique. He says he simply composed in the same way as he did for Samuragochi.

“When I had conversations with Samuragochi, he often asked why contemporary composers create such difficult pieces that could alienate the majority of the audience,” Niigaki says. “I understood what he meant, it’s a point that many people have made. However, in answering him I realized that I had divided myself in two — I was an artist trying to pursue new forms of expression, and I was an arranger of popular music who writes for a wider audience.

“Now I believe that a contemporary composer should integrate both of these sides. We shouldn’t just forsake the beautiful heritage of Western classical music, we can reinterpret those 19th-century styles in the context of the present day.”

In some ways he has Samuragochi to thank for this artistic outlook. His schooling was in the classics but as a ghostwriter he wrote orchestral pieces for video games, which needed to have broader appeal.

An interesting part of “Litany” comes at the end when a peaceful and hopeful melody is introduced, but it is accompanied by a long bass tone from the contrabass section that resonates ominously until fading out in a kind of prayerful silence.

“This bass tone appears at the beginning of the previous symphony, ‘Hiroshima.’ It takes us back to before that symphony,” Niigaki explains, is a kind of symphonic allusion to the question, “What if you could do it all again?”

Nishizawa points out that songs that were performed by street musicians in the Middle Ages are now considered high art. In the same way, he allows that some rock and pop tunes may stick around and in 200 years be treated in the same reverent way we see an artist like Ludwig van Beethoven today.

“We could conclude that history is what creates art,” Nishizawa says.

“Litany” already has a lot of history behind it, but whether that helps it stand the test of time is a different matter. For now, Niigaki is just proud that people will know it’s his.

Takashi Niigaki Collection 2016 will take place at Fukushima City Concert Hall on Sept. 15 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥5,000, ¥6,000; 022-217-7788). For more information, visit www.takashi-niigaki.com.